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Government Agencies, Foreign Companies Collide Over Online Records Issue

David Bloys - News for Public Officials

July 7th, 2006

On one side, data brokers, foreign data miners, terrorists, stalkers, identity thieves, some journalists and some county officials claim they have a right to sell your information in bulk and broadcast to the world on the Internet . On the other side,  many law enforcement agencies, judges, security experts, legislators, journalists and crime victims are speaking up to warn citizens and government officials to keep it at  home.

In an effort to curb rampant identity theft, law enforcement agencies nationwide are warning citizens to carefully guard papers that contain sensitive information such as financial numbers, medical information, home addresses and signatures.

Other agencies, responsible for collecting and preserving our papers, are  distributing these documents over the Internet and selling them in bulk.

Meanwhile, foreign corporations are making millions in the international traffic of documents about private U.S. citizens.

The fourth amendment promises that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." In spite of warnings by law enforcement and the guarantees established by the constitution, entire collections of the papers we entrust to our government are being searched online and seized in bulk by foreign and domestic corporations.

Last April, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn filed a lawsuit against Attorney General Greg Abbott arguing that State employees' birth dates should not be accessible under the Texas Public Information Act. Strayhorn contends birth dates can be used in identity theft. She filed the lawsuit in response to Abbott's ruling that birth dates must be made public when requested.

This ruling seems to conflict with the advise General Abbott offers in Protect Yourself from Identity Theft,  "No matter what a caller or e-mailer tells you, do not give out your Social Security number, driver's license number or other personal information . . ."

A month  before the Texas suit, a class action lawsuit was filed against Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell for publishing Social Security numbers and other sensitive information on the states website. Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro said he thinks Blackwell has a legal duty to notify anyone whose number was on the site, and to remove any constitutionally protected information. The documents were pulled from the website two weeks later.

Some states are now worrying about information that has been collected in County Clerks and Register of Deeds offices for decades. The offices keep records related to real estate and property transfers, which frequently include Social Security numbers and  financial information, such as bank account numbers, addresses, and authorized signatures.

Much more than Social Security numbers at risk.Federal tax liens filed before January 2006 include Social Security numbers as identifiers, and state tax liens still do. Divorce decrees, which are sometimes used to convey property, can include a wide range of information including sensitive information concerning minor children. The land records are strewn with maiden names, driver's license numbers, dates of birth and signatures. In electronic form, the records are ready-made for legal and illegal exploitation.

In spite of demands from citizens wanting to prevent this online intrusion into their security, and efforts of some elected officials to protect their citizens, the records continue to turn up on websites all over the world.

For example, after Hamilton County Ohio and the Ohio Secretary of State faced lawsuits from angry citizens who found their information on the official websites, the agencies removed all internet access to the documents from the official sites.

The Ingham County Register of Deeds Office in Michigan stopped making millions of documents available on the County Website amid cries for protection by local citizens, but companies worldwide continue to publish the records online.

Travis County (TX) Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, reacted to concerns from citizens by pulling all documents from the County Website but promised outside buyers that she would again publish the documents online as soon as she could find a way to remove some of the sensitive information the documents contain.

County Clerk Dianne Wilson reacted to award winning investigative reports from the Fort Bend Herald, a HIPPA audit and the release of her own family's medical information in the probate records by removing probate records. She has obstinately refused the requests of citizens that she also remove millions of sensitive documents contained in the county's online collection of Fort Bend County land records.

Last summer Wilson sold twenty two million records to Florida based RedVision for the unprecedented low rate of just two thousand dollars..  Local taxpayers pay a dollar a page for copies of their own records at the courthouse

Today, the RedVison website offers the records they bought from Fort Bend County and eleven additional counties in Texas stating,  "whether you need one or one hundred images to complete your search, all are viewable instantaneously and are included in the price of the report". 

The Florida based company shows Travis, Nueces and Harris County records are scheduled to be sold on their website. Records from counties in thirty three states are under development.

RedVision isn't alone in this grab for for county land records. A Google search for LAND RECORDS ONLINE will show over forty million listings and ads. Some examples of companies across the world who actively trade in the records of U.S. citizens and property are:

  • DocEdge.com, which is part of the First American Corp. family of companies that includes First Indian Corporation , provides the service to subscribers "seeking immediate, cost-effective access to local or nationwide land record documents."
  • ESS Solutions LLC which bills itself as "America's First Offshore Title Plant" uses their Bangalore India based plant to sell  records from counties in  twenty one states.
  • Infinity International uses a local office in Maryland and offshore hubs in India, Philippines and China to produce 60,000 reports a month on American citizens and their property.
"This is like an onion. You figure out what the problem is, and as you start peeling back the layers, it just gets stronger and stronger," said Michigan House Minority Leader Dianne Byrum, who is working on legislation to protect documents filed with the Register of Deeds in that state.According to Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center." A lot of the state courts and state legislatures are becoming increasingly nervous about the public availability of personal information," he said. "Our hope is that states will not make it so readily available."In a free society, the primary function of government is to protect the citizens within its borders, not to exploit them for the convenience and profit of outsiders.

 

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National Title Association Issues Statement Against Online Public Records
Government Working Furiously to Take Personal  Documents Offline

Meet  responsible public officials  across the country who are taking the documents offline . Read

Indiana Recorder's Association Faces Claims of Illegal Activity

Charges allege there is no state law to support a $1-per-page fee for printouts of digital records

Courthouse for Sale – Cheap!

A remarkable look at how a zealous county clerk has been selling Public Records and putting people's lives on the Internet . . . Read

More of your information than you think might be online

(CNN) -- If you are worried about a thief stealing your identity, it's not your wallet that needs guarding -- it's your state and local governments. . . Read

Fort Bend County for Sale

The Role U.S. Counties May Be Playing in International Deed Fraud

James Cook's job had taken  him to Florida and his wife Paula was in  Oklahoma to care for her sick mother when someone used  Mrs. Cook's signature and driver's license number to steal their home in Frisco, Texas . . Read

Lawsuit Debates County's Control of Public Record Access
Jarrod A. Clabaugh , Source of Title
1/10/2006

Lawsuits have recently been brought against county recorders by large title companies and title plants in an effort to gain access to counties’ public record databases without having to pay a fee for access and for free copies of documents contained within the digital record . . . 
Lawsuit Debates Public Records Access

 

Online Records: Goldmine for Thieves, Stalkers, Terrorists

CNS.com
Many state and local governments are undermining Federal  efforts to prevent identity theft by posting confidential personal information online and making it available at little or no cost to anyone who asks, including potential identity thieves, stalkers and even terrorists

. . . Read

NY County Publishes Sensitive Information Online

 www.sourceoftitle.com.

"Identity theft is a big problem for my office," said Robert Clifford, speaking on behalf of the county's district attorney's office. "I am surprised the numbers are available on a county Website. It's not only disheartening, it's crazy." Get the article

County Website Contains Personal Information
6/27/2006 Source of Title

According to Reagan Dunn, a councilman for the county.

"Clearly this is an avenue that people have been using to perpetrate  identity theft," Dunn said. "It's not thousands of records; it's actually millions of records, millions of pages of records that we have online here in our index.

Read the Full Article

County Recorder Charged with 19 Felony Counts

Frances Deane, the county recorder for Clark County, Nevada was charged with 19 felony counts, including theft and unlawful commissions, misconduct of a public officer, fraudulent appropriation of property, personal profit and compensation of public officers, for allegedly selling 32 years worth of real estate documents.
Read the full Article

  

 

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