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County Websites across the country contain millions of searchable records brimming with all the ingredients identity thieves, stalkers, and terrorists need to steal your identity, stalk your children, or target American infrastructure.
Title Industry Expert Warns Against Using County Websites Lawsuit Debates Who Can Display Social Security Numbers Online Officials, Advocates Pull Plug on County Web Site County level security breaches aiding ID thieves, stalkers and terrorists Redaction Failed - Travis County Puts Sensitive Records Back Online County Clerk with Bogus Degree Clashes with Judge over Web Site Suits, Charges Plague State Technology Vendors Federal Judge Rules Against Bulk Sale of Public Records Illinois Lawsuit Debates County's Control of Public Record Access Online Records Linked to Identity Theft, and Worse
By David Bloys / News for Public Officials
Scammers, stalkers, terrorists and murderers have been feeding on information served to them by local, state, and federal Web sites for more than twenty seven years.
Links to Cyberstalking and Murder
For decades, criminal stalkers have used remote access to Public Records to facilitate crimes that lead to the violent death of their victims. Remote electronic access to the California Department of Motor vehicle database facilitated the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer 1987. Federal legislators recognized the link and passed the Driver Protection Act to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.
Ten years later, Liam Youens used information available from a so-called "Public Records" website to stalk and kill twenty-year-old college student Amy Boyer.
At 4:30 p.m. Oct. 15, 1999, Amy left her job at a dental office. As she was getting into her car, Youens pulled up, jumped from his vehicle and fired 15 shots into her. Her injuries included a fatal head wound. Youens used the 16th bullet to shoot himself in the head.
The reason we know so much about Youens is that he documented his plans to murder Amy on a web site he created to publish his sick desires. The last entry he posted on his website after finding the information he needed on a Public Records site was, "ďI found an internet site to do that, and to my surprize everything else under the Sun. Most importantly: her current employment. It's accually(sp) obsene (sp)what you can find out about a person on the internet.
Two days after Amy's death made the news, identity thieves again used the records to assume the murdered girl's identity and write $5,000 in checks in her name.
Although it is difficult to track, a report from the US Attorney General's Office noted that "there may be potentially tens or even hundreds of thousands of victims of recent cyberstalking incidents in the United States."
Links to Foreign Organizations and Terrorists
Federal intelligence agencies have long known that terrorists use government websites to gather information they need to fund and carry out attacks on US citizens.
In a briefing given in late September 2001, Ronald Dick, assistant director of the FBI and head of the United States National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC), told reporters that the hijackers of 9/11 had used the Internet, and "used it well." Only after the attacks did the US public begin to understand how.
The National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) issued an advisory on January 17, 2002, warning municipalities to review the content of their websites to protect against the inadvertent disclosure of critical infrastructure information. The NIPC has received reports that infrastructure-related data is being accessed through the Internet from sites around the world.
Every county has detailed records of the power grid, oil pipelines, nuclear facilities and other infrastructure properties in the real property records. Some county websites provide all of this to anyone with an Internet access. The service is supposed to save local homeowners and title professionals a trip across town but it saves foreign agents a trip across the world.
Bangolore-based ESS Solutions and Infinity Data International, Ltd are two examples of foreign organizations routinely mining county websites for data. Infinity, while claiming to be based in Maryland, in fact only maintains a local sales office in the US. The company operates one of the largest data mining operations in India. According to the company's website, Infinity routinely mines online property records from 400 US counties to produce 25,000 detailed reports on the lives of American citizens and their property every month. The company sells the reports to anonymous customers all over the world.
In 2006, Convergys, a Cincinnati-based government vendor, was caught exporting sensitive data belonging to 100,000 Florida state employees to a subcontractors in India, Barbados and China. The state responded with a lawsuit demanding 5 million dollars in damages. Previously Convergys had enjoyed a nine-year, $350 million contract for online automation of state personnel services. The contract specifically forbids exporting the data to overseas processors.
Curiously, Florida has its county employees and elected official's export the same sensitive data all over the world via websites mandated by the state. BJ Ostergren, a government watchdog based in Virginia found thousands of Social Security numbers belonging to Florida citizens including numbers belonging to then Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his wife.
Clearly the availability of easy online access to Public Records in the United States isn't something our enemies have missed in their intelligence gathering. In fact a terrorist training manual found on a laptop computer in Afghanistan instructs would be terrorists, "Using public sources openly and without resorting to illegal means, it is possible to gather at least 80 percent of all information required about the enemy."
US Troops operating in Iraq may have foiled one terrorist attack planned against America's school children when they discovered a computer disc containing information on U.S. schools. The disc contained information downloaded from public information sites detailing school bus routes, maps, security procedures and photos for school districts in Georgia, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon and California.
Links to Domestic Terror
While the murders of Amy Boyer and Rebecca Schaeffer can certainly be classed as domestic terrorism against citizens; law enforcement officials and judges have recognized that government websites pose a very real threat to their lives as well.
In June 2005, more than a hundred Judges in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania made the connection between online Public Records and the security of public officials when they demanded the county remove their home addresses from the county's real estate website.. The judges cited the murder of a Federal judge's family in her Chicago home as the cause for their concern according to a report by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
Last year the Charlotte Observer reported that local Police officers complained that the Mecklenburg County Website put them in danger. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Darrel Stephens said that at least one officer had been threatened by someone who found information he about the officer in the county's real estate records website.
Linked to Identity Fraud
The most common way government websites help criminals and the most likely way you are impacted is by serving your personal information to unknown criminals all over the world. According to government statistics, ten million people in America will become victims of identity theft this year but only one of 700 identity criminals will ever be caught. The Federal Bureau of Investigation calls identity theft the fastest growing crime in America.
Information like your Social Security number, Driver's license number, signature or mother's maiden name is all a criminal needs to assume your identity and take everything you own. Some government agencies seem all too eager to provide your private information to anyone with an Internet connection. Increasingly, authorities are realizing that providing private information about taxpayers over the web is a dangerous mistake.
Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Greg Hartmann understood the link when he told the Cincinnati Post he was removing more than 320,000 public documents from his Web site in an attempt to combat the growing crime of identity theft. "I have seen increasing numbers of identity theft," Hartmann said. "We have had a number of cases where police have told me the bad guys got the information used to steal identities from my Web site. Citizens there have filed a lawsuit against the county for the breach of their security.
In a press release dated July, 2005 titled ID Theft Isn't Just For Grownups, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, announced the arrest of several thieves using the identities of children as young as five years old. The investigation uncovered an alarming new crime spree involving illegal aliens and identities stolen from victims under the age of 12. Investigators checked Utah state records and found that approximately 1,800 social security numbers, belonging to children under the age of 13, may have been compromised.
In Florida, where state and local officials were quick to publish online, the result has been Rampant Deed Fraud where signatures of the dead and notary seals from foreign countries are turning up on bogus deeds. It is a simple clip, paste and file operation for the thieves when the documents are provided in electronic form over the Web.
Texas homeowners James and Paula Cook learned the hard way just how easily a criminal could take their home using online county records in 2006. When the couple returned from a trip they found their locks had been changed by a "new owner" who bought their home from a criminal. Police reports indicate the scammer may have used the same method used in Florida to clip Ms. Cook's maiden signature and a notary seal Denton County's subscription Web site. The site also displays Paula's driver's license number so the criminal could have produced a forged license to dupe an unwary Notary into notarizing the bogus deed.
In December 2007 police in Worthington Ohio asked the U.S. Secret Service to investigate the link between the county Web site and identity theft they say involved hundreds of victims in five states. According to local police the thefts were the result of county officials publishing "Public Records" about the victims over the Internet.
Copying legitimate signatures from the government websites and pasting them to forged documents may now be the preferred method forgers use to create and file phony mortgage releases. In June 2008 Robert Franco with Source of Title reported on a new scam hitting Ohio. Franco's report came only a few days after an mass email was sent to all of the county recorders in Ohio alerting them to a click and paste scam where fraudsters copied signatures of MERS officers [Mortgage Electronic Registration System] and pasted them on forged documents to be filed with the counties.
Smart Money Magazine made the connection between online counties and criminal activity clear in a March 2005 report titled Your SS Number Is Just a Click Away. The magazine highlighted the problem and provided a Meet the Stalkers list that named their choice for the most dangerous websites for providing access to personal information. Four of the six worst offenders shown were websites provided by government as a public service. The Texas Fort Bend County Clerk's website was named top 'stalker' followed closely by the NYC Office of the City Register and Florida's Volusia and Escambia County websites.
In May 2008 the legality of the Fort Bend County Clerk posting personal information like social security numbers, driver license numbers, bank account numbers and signatures is again being questioned - this time by a judge. Wilson has exposed tens of thousands of local citizens to identity theft while obscuring her own true identity behind a bogus degree. Other judges have asked Wilson to remove both the bogus title and the website but this time. She removed the bogus title from her official site after KHOU TV confronted her, remove sturbornly refuses to remove constituents sensitive information. Now, County Court-at-Law Judge Bud Childers plans to take the case to the State Judicial Commission.
Unfortunately, many officials, like Wilson, choose to deny that their own websites are a problem until they are faced with outraged citizens threatening lawsuits. Others attempt to "fix" the problem by doling out taxpayer dollars to outside vendors to redact part of the information criminals need. Even the best and most expensive redaction software will commonly leave untouched a wealth of financial, medical, and personal records needed by criminals. Taxpayers are left with an expensive bill and a false sense of security.
Links to Cyber Stalkers, Bullies and Criminal Cartels
Private data mined from public and private websites often ends up on underground sites operated by criminal cartels to serve as online marketplaces with millions of records with personal information is regularly bought and sold.
Just this month, the country's leading provider of identity theft protection announced it is adding an additional layer of protection that will routinely search over 10,000 websites where private information is being illegally sold and traded. LifeLock's latest tool, called eReconTM, searches illegal websites for the Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, driverís license numbers and email addresses of the company's one million members.
Cyber stalkers and bullies can also use information found on government websites as was seen in extreme cases of Amy Boyer and Rebecca Schaeffer. Most cyber stalkers or cyber bullies use Public Records and the Internet to wreck their victim's reputations and dash hopes for the future - even political careers have been threatened.
In May 2006 a former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee researcher pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining a credit score belonging to Marylandís Lt. Governor Michael S. Steele by using Steele's Social Security number which she found while conducting online Public Records searches for the DSCC as a research associate.
ReputationDefender.com, a leading site for managing online identities has recently been featured in the national media for taking a new approach to ridding the web of harmful information. The company searches for all information about you and/or your child on the Internet, wherever it may be, and produces a report for members clearly illustrating what information about you is currently online.
Once all inaccurate, inappropriate, hurtful, private or slanderous information about subscribers or their children is identified, the company provides help at removing the information using its proprietary in-house methodology. Subscribers from 30 countries have signed up for the anti-stalking service.
Clearly we are all being stalked through records the government provides online. This link, if left unbroken, could cost you much more than time or money -- It Could Cost You Your Reputation or even YOUR LIFE!