News for Public Officials

The GAO Recognizes The ID Theft Problem

by Robert Franco

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report this month entitled "SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBERS: Federal Actions County Further Decrease Availability in Public Records, though Other Vulnerabilities Remain." It looks as thought they have finally realized just how serious a problem SSNs in the Public Records can be, and that the government has been the biggest contributor to the epidemic.

"Various Public Records in the United States, including some generated by the federal government, contain Social Security numbers (SSN) and other personal identifying information that could be used to commit fraud and identity theft".

They have also recognized that the Internet has magnified the problem. As many of us in the industry have been saying for years, most notably David Bloys, the producer of the News For County Officials e-newsletter, the Public Records were once protected by the practical obscurity of only being available in the county courthouse. Today, the records in many counties in the country are available to the entire world, very often for free.

"Although Public Records were traditionally accessed locally in county courthouses and government record centers, in recent years, some state and local public record keepers have begun to make these records available to the public through the Internet. While it is important for the public to have access to these records, concerns about the use of information in these records for criminal purposes have been raised".

"In 2006, these concerns were heightened when an Ohio woman pled guilty to conspiracy, bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft as the leader of a group that stole citizens’ personal identifying information from a local public record keeper’s Web site and other sources, resulting in over $450,000 in losses to individuals, financial institutions, and other businesses".

The GAO has even realized that because of inconsistent standards in the truncation of SSNs, and the common practice of selling the Public Records in bulk to private companies, the effort to remove SSNs going forward still leaves vulnerabilities. ...

"While IRS and DOJ have recently taken actions to limit disclosure of full SSNs in records they generate going forward, full SSNs remain in the millions of lien records provided to public record keepers before the agencies implemented these changes. Increased access to these records through bulk sales to private companies and Internet access also creates the potential for identity theft.

For example, public record keepers in some states have been selling complete copies of their records to private companies, such as title companies and information resellers, for many years. Because of this practice, current efforts to remove SSNs in records maintained by public record keepers do not apply to all copies of the record already made available. "

...Federal agencies have taken actions to mitigate the availability of SSNs in Public Records by implementing the use of truncation for documents provided to state and local record keepers. While these actions provide some additional protection against using these records to perpetrate identity theft, our review demonstrates that identity thieves may still be able to reconstruct full SSNs by combining different truncated versions of the SSN available from public and private sources. Thus, truncation does not provide complete protection against identity theft.

I think it is clear that SSNs in the Public Records are a larger problem than anyone anticipated. Nobody was too concerned before the records starting going up on the Internet. But, now they are starting to realize that its pretty darn tough to stuff the genie back in the bottle. They aren't going to be able to be 100% effective without passing legislation that can effectively regulate the private use of the Public Records that have already been sold to companies such as Intellius.

A comprehensive solution is going to be difficult and there is no doubt that our legislatures will be bogged down for a long time on this problem... and, in the meantime, criminals will find on-line treasure-troves of information to assist them in committing identity theft. Not surprisingly, the report states that nearly 5% of Americans have been victimized by identity theft.

It will be interesting to watch the debates over the appropriate measures that should be taken and how they can effectively protect citizens from a problem mainly created by the government - state, federal, and local. As is often said, "To err is human, to really screw things up it takes a  [government]."

About the author:

Robert A. Franco has been in the title industry for nearly 15 years in the state of Ohio. The owner of VersaTitle, a full service abstracting and title company, and the founder and president of Source of Title, a Web site devoted to providing media and marketing services to the title industry, Franco has dedicated much of his professional career to furthering the role and significance of title examiners in the title insurance industry... Robert Franco

Robert can be reached at

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