News for Public Officials and the People They Serve

A Common Misconception?

by Scott Perry - Reprinted with permission


"It is a common misconception that easy access to Public Records has facilitated other types of fraud, identity theft, or land fraud."

That's the assertion set forth in a white paper authored by members of the Property Records Industry Association entitled, "Privacy and Public Land Records: Making Practical Policy".  PRIA, a self-described membership-driven organization composed of business and government members of the property records industry, released the white paper in January 2006, which goes on to say that,

"[w]hile posting documents that contain certain key information on the Internet, such as credit card numbers, social security numbers, and signatures, can provide a criminal with some of the information needed to commit identity fraud or theft, there is no evidence to support any claim that this is systematically being done to perpetuate identity theft crimes. There are many easier, and far more efficient, ways for identity thieves to obtain this information in today's world, as opposed to combing through Public Records and hoping to find something - a ‘needle in the haystack' approach."

I have to wonder just how much research PRIA did before reaching that conclusion, because it didn't take very much effort for me, a dumb ol' abstractor, to find numerous such instances doing a simple Google search.  The rampant deed fraud in Florida and Texas that I blogged about recently must have escaped PRIA's notice.  I wonder if they knew of the incident in December 2005 in Scottsdale, Arizona, in which a 23-year-old methamphetamine user showed police the method he used to steal identities.  He logged onto a local county website and pulled up a divorce document which listed not only names, but addresses of the parties, bank account numbers and even scans of signatures.  According to one report, the website contained thousands of such documents.

The Federal Trade Commission lists the top five states for identity theft as Arizona, Nevada, California, Texas and Colorado.  The numbers from Arizona are double the national average, due in large measure to the decision of county officials to post Public Records on the Internet, according to a 2006 study by Javelin Strategy and Research, which states that one in six adults in that state has had their identity stolen within the past five years.

PRIA's white paper also argues that free access to sensitive information contained in Public Records is "actually a very effective weapon in combating identity fraud and theft", although it cites no direct evidence to support that claim.

"Commercial databases compiled using Public Records for identity authentication are routinely used to detect fraud, including credit card application fraud, insurance application fraud, and other types of fraud. Thus, efforts to restrict the collection and use of personal information contained in Public Records, though well intended, actually may hinder efforts to prevent identity theft by depriving businesses, government and law enforcement officials of valuable data that is used to authenticate identities and protect the public."

That's small consolation, I'm sure, to the family of Amy Lynn Boyer, a New Hampshire college senior who was stalked and murdered in 1999 by an obsessed former classmate who purchased her Social Security Number and other personal information from an online data broker.  Or the 145,000 Americans whose personal information was stolen from data giant ChoicePoint by criminals who set up fake company accounts and downloaded sensitive information compiled from public and private records.

So, as the Internet increasingly becomes a haven for fraudsters, cyberstalkers and identity thieves, organizations like PRIA continue to assure us that that's "just a common misconception" and that free access to online Public Records actually helps to fight cybercrimes.

Gee, I feel safer already.

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