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News for Public Officials

Oct-11-06

In a time of rampant identity theft, what candidates are telling voters about themselves may be less important to voters than what incumbents are telling the rest of the world about you.

Rowan County Republican candidate Sally Antosek doesn't dispute the County Website's popularity with people outside the jurisdiction, but she sees little benefit to the citizens of Rowan County.

Antosek, 47, carries a ream of documents downloaded from county Websites across the state, including Rowan. The documents are filled with personal information ready made for identity thieves, stalkers, even terrorists. At public meetings she shows voters what Earnhardt is telling the world about them.

County and state Websites have become key issues as political candidates vie for control over the documented lives of their constituents. Many incumbents are scrambling to explain why they published their constituents private information over the Internet.

In Rowan County, North Carolina, Democratic incumbent Bobbie Earnhardt, who is seeking her fourth term as  Registrar of Deeds, says her Website is very popular with lawyers, bankers and the public.

The  Registrar's Website may be just as popular with criminals worldwide. Earnhardt denies that criminals might use her Website to gather sensitive information about local residents, but criminals around the world tell a different story.

That's what Arizona's Maricopa County residents learned last year.While Maricopa County Officials were denying that criminals  were using the County Website, a 23-year-old methamphetamine user was showing Scottsdale officers how he used the site to steal identities.

Maricopa County was the first to publish real property records over the Internet. Today, Federal Trade Commission records show Maricopa county with the highest incidence of identity theft in the country.

In an article called How Criminals Use Online County Records, News for Public Officials documented cases in seven states where criminals have used state and county websites to gather the information they needed on their victims.

Antosek told reporters with the Salisbury Post, "This stuff doesn't need to be on the Internet. If elected, I'll pull the plug on the Web site, no ifs, ands, or buts about it."

North Carolina records researcher Jan Forster agrees. She has found Social Security numbers of leading citizens posted on county Websites throughout the country. Forster, a paralegal, offers free help to potential victims of County Websites.

Forster's research into the Rowan County Website revealed Social Security numbers for a list of residents that reads like a Who's Who of the County. The Website exposes the private information of prominent lawyers, doctors, school board members, and their families to identity thieves all over the world.

The list doesn't stop with just the prominent citizens. Anyone who has ever bought property in Rowan County is at risk.

"I just want to make a difference," says Forster, who had never before been involved in a grass-roots movement. "In good conscience, I can't watch this happen to people."

In neighboring Cabarrus County she discovered the Social Security numbers of every judge in the county except one visible on the County Website.

Police officers say Mecklenburg (NC) County's Website may put them in danger, and the department wants the county to remove their documents. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Darrel Stephens said that in one case, a police officer received a veiled threat. Police believe the person got information about the officer from county real estate records, Stephens said.

When Judges In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania found their home addresses and other sensitive information on the Alleghany Website they demanded the county remove their information immediately. Over 100 judges signed the petition citing the recent murder of a Federal Judge's family in their Chicago home.

Earnhardt, 58, told reporters she "would be hung" if she shut down the   Website." She didn't say who would do the hanging but certainly it wouldn't be the citizens whose sensitive information she puts at risk.

Earnhardt cites General Statutes that make it a violation of the law to alter documents, but their is no statute that mandates county government publish the document images over the Internet.

When Forster questioned Sherri Richard, Craven County Registrar (NC), about her policy of publishing sensitive information online, Richard said that it is a 'business tool and management decision'.

"I find her comments not only cavalier but in direct conflict with her vow to guard and protect Public Records when elected", Forster said.

"This opens the door to people who prey on the elderly. This opens the door to money laundering by terrorists," said Antosek, adding that Earnhardt's "lackadaisical attitude infuriates me."

Miraculous disappearing documents

Among the records Antosek has displayed at the county fair and other gatherings is a a document with her Social Security number.

Antosek said the document quickly disappeared from the Rowan Register of Deeds Web site. "It's a miracle, the entire deed disappeared, I didn't ask for it."

Similar reports of documents miraculously disappearing have turned up all across the country. Dianne Wilson is the County Clerk of Fort Bend County, Texas. Misdemeanor charges against Dianne Hall Wilson can be seen on the index but the documents cannot be viewed on Wilson's Website.

When reporters with the Fort Bend Herald questioned Wilson's staff about the missing document, they were told that the document isn't missing, but the record is only available on microfilm. Also missing from the Website are documents involving one of Wilson's partners in an investment club.

Earnhardt maintains that her  Website complies with state law and operates under an agreement with the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.

But according to an article from the Salisbury Post, dated October 19, "the Board voted to shut down the Rowan County Register of Deeds' Web site until further notice. Earnhardt stubbornly refused to comply with the boards decision.

"They are not taking them off," Earnhardt told the Post, vowing to take whatever action is necessary.

Antosek is raising several issues about the Register of Deeds office and how Earnhardt conducts business.

"Who does she answer to? She doesn't answer to anyone, she has a great deal of latitude," Antosek said. She also pledges to get other counties to pull the plug on their Web sites and protect information. "A lot of change needs to take place statewide," Antosek said.

The public is speaking, but are incumbents listening?

Earnhardt and hundreds of County  Registrars across the country will answer to the local voters in the coming election. The voters are never pleased with having their private documents served to the world through the County Website

Rowan County resident Daniel Patterson says Eernhardt has more to fear from the voters than from outside lawyers and bankers. He is calling for local voters to defeat Earnhardt at the polls. He didn't take this stand lightly. Patterson is asking local voters to examine Earnhart's record.

Patterson said, "The only stand we are taking is against Ms. Bobby Earnhardt for re-election as Register of Deeds".

Citizens across the country have consistently reacted with outrage when confronted with this breach of the public trust by elected officials. A recent Miami Herald Poll found 87% of respondents demanding the documents be immediately removed from the Internet. Increasingly citizens across the country are resorting to filing lawsuits to hold the County and their vendor partners responsible for what they tell the world on the County  Websites..

 

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