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Allegations of Official Misconduct

Data Goes Missing from County Websites

An Ohio title examiner recently made a startling discovery when she tried to download documents from LandAccess.com, a website maintained for Madison County. Many of the documents she knew to exist in the county's official database were missing from the online indices maintained by the subsidiary of Affiliated Computer Services (ACS). Another examiner has also found inconsistencies between the online records provided by LandAccess.com and the county’s courthouse records, according to a recent article in Source of Title.

Carol Bicking, of Velocity Title Research discovered documents were missing from the online index when she attempted to download a copy of a document she had seen earlier at the courthouse. Bicking, whose business relies on accurate records from the courthouse, became worried that even more records may be missing. She quickly found at least 25 documents were missing from the online database and contacted Chuck Reed, the recorder for Madison County. He, too, checked the records on LandAccess.com and compared them to those maintained in his office. After verifying that the documents were properly accessible in the official records, Reed contacted LandAccess' support team to alert them to the problem with the online records.

"After I was contacted, I looked into it," he said. "This is not an on-going problem and I told the examiner that if she had any problems with the online system, she should bring those problems to my office since it houses the official records for the county."

Reed’s statement that his office “houses the official records” seems inconsistent with claims made on the Web site LandAccess.com maintains for the Recorder’s office. According to the site, Official Records from 5-1-94 to present office are available online.  “You may search our records from your home or office just as you would in our courthouse office, “Reed says.

 

Reed said that the support staff at LandAccess quickly corrected the missing documents but added that the Recorder’s office had been working with ACS even prior to his election.

Despite Reed's support of the system, another examiner, who utilizes LandAccess' online system to search for documents in Pickaway, Fairfield and Delaware counties, has also found a document missing.

"I found a deed missing from LandAccess' site," said Kathy Burger, the owner of Capital Research. "I knew it was there because I'd seen it in the office... I figured I could print it from home and avoid the fee. But, when I got home, it wasn't there. The document was filed on August 8, 2006 and I discovered that it wasn't there on June 23, 2008. Prior to this, LandAccess wasn't aware that the document hadn't been there."

She said she spoke with Joyce Gifford, the recorder for Pickaway County, who confirmed that her office had been unaware of the omission on LandAccess.com. But, Gifford confirmed for Source of Title that, while the document may have been missing from the public site, it was accessible in her county's system and had not been lost. Oddly, ACS maintains both the county database and the online public database, but the information had not been transferred from Pickaway's in-house system to  LandAccess.com.

Gifford noted that she was worried when Burger informed her of the incident because she knows Burger to be an experienced title professional. Her alarm was not simply over not being able to find something; it was because what she knew to be in the official record was not available online.

"I thought the missing deed was an isolated incident," Burger added. "But, as a title examiner, you depend upon these companies for accuracy." She said that if this was happening in one Ohio county, it was likely happening in the other counties throughout the country where LandAccess maintains the public database systems. LandAccess maintains records for counties in Ohio, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio Pennsylvania and Oklahoma. Other subsidiaries of ACS provide the same service throughout the nation.

Source of Title contacted ACS and asked what measures had been taken to address this concern. Specifically, representatives were asked if any action had been taken to assure that this problem was not happening in other counties throughout the U.S. and what safety precautions were in place to alert the technical staff about possible missing records.

ACS responded by saying that the company, in cooperation with local county recorders and clerks, provides access to property indices and information available as a convenience to the public. But, all information maintained at this portal (LandAccess.com) is maintained on a "best effort basis and is considered unofficial record copies."

Robert Franco, the president and founder of Source of Title, noted that even ACS admits that the online systems do not contain the official records, thus underscoring the importance of local abstractors.

"These flaws in the online index were only discovered because these examiners did their searches at the courthouse, using the county's official records, and were merely using online access to print copies," Franco said. "Those who are relying on online searches would have no way to discover omissions like these."

The ACS admission seems inconsistent with other claims of accuracy, usefulness and the official nature of the records the company claims on websites the company maintains for county government.

The Wyoming County New York website acknowledges that the documents are “unofficial” but goes on to say, “…able to search and view any documents available through electronic search at the Clerk offices. Winnebago County Illinois also acknowledges the unofficial stature of the records but encourages users to accept them anyway as useful for “verification, personal or professional records, documentation backup or any other use” Visitors to the Cole County Illinois site are given a choice between unverified and verified records.

Some ACS controlled sites like Texas Land Records, Pennsylvania Land Records and Union County Penn drop all pretense of being unofficial in their main and landing pages claiming instead to be sites providing “Official Records Searches” You’ll have to find the small print in their  Terms of Services pages (TOS) and disclaimer pages to learn the vendors distance themselves from legal accountability for accuracy, timeliness, or official nature of the documents they provide online.

"The LandAccess.com portal is successfully used thousands of times each day to view property records over the Internet," said Ken Ericson, the director of corporate communications for ACS. "Official records are kept and maintained in the county recorder's/clerk's office and are available during normal business hours."

Ericson blames users for not reading the small print. He says he believes it is important to note that each user who accesses the system agrees to a statement that reads "assessing accuracy and reliability of information is the responsibility of the user."

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Any professional researcher who would trust information from a company that does not trust its own data is asking for trouble but elected officials should think twice before spending taxpayer money with vendors whose contracts disclaim away responsibility for providing real value to taxpayers.

July 29, 2008

 

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