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Analysis/Opinion

County Website Worries Officials

David Bloys - News for Public Officials

 

In Online records raise identity theft concerns, Ed Housewright of the Dallas Morning News quoted Denton County Clerk Cynthia Mitchell as saying, "I'm highly sensitive to the issue of personal information being in the public record."

 

Counties across the country are becoming increasingly concerned about what their websites reveal about their citizens. Denton County may have more reason for concern than others.  Information provided by the county website could have been used by criminals to steal a $300,000 home in Frisco, Texas.

 

The issue isn’t whether or not personal information should be in the public record. The reality is that the “public record” already contains all the information identity thieves need.  The issue is whether any government agency that is sensitive to the security of its citizens should be in the business of providing everyone else in the world with remote access to personal information about their citizens.

 

In August, 2005 Steve Stoler with WFFA TV reported in Thief Steals Home, on what Frisco police were calling a new twist on identity theft where criminals used a a signature and driver’s license number to file a fraudulent deed with the Denton County Clerk's office. Former Denton County residents, James and Paula Cook left their home due to work and family emergencies and returned to find someone else claiming to be the rightful owner of the property.

 

News for Public Officials has learned that Mrs. Cook’s driver's license number and multiple copies of her signature are easily accessible on the Denton County Clerk’s subscription website. News for Public Officials reported on this case and the role county websites may be playing in international deed fraud in Clip-Clip, Paste-Paste and Their Home Was His.

 

This type of fraud is rampant throughout the United States but particularly in counties that offer the deed records online where criminals can access them from anywhere in the world. In 2005, Mike Hoyem of News-Press.com wrote a series of articles illustrating how foreign criminals access county websites to steal identities and homes in Florida. Investigators there acknowledged that notary seals shown on the county websites may have been clipped and pasted beneath the signatures of long dead property owners to forge fraudulent deeds and mortgages. The states county websites offered everything the criminals needed. Ms. Mitchell may feel her subscription website offers adequate protection to county residents but the Denton County Sheriff knows from personal experience how easy it is for criminals to scam a password from legitimate subscribers.

According to a complaint filed by the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of Florida in Miami, the Denton County Sheriff's Department was conned into providing passwords to the department's Accurint account by  a nineteen-year from New Bedford, Massachusetts. See Deputies in Texas, Police in Florida Scammed.We may never know if the Denton County Website facilitated the thieves who stole the Cook's home, but it seems clear the Clerk’s website offers everything any criminal, anywhere in the world would need.

"There's a delicate balance," said Denton County Clerk Cynthia Mitchell. "I'm highly sensitive to the issue of personal information being in the public record." 

 

The Public Records should be kept at the courthouse where they were filed. The Denton County Website tips the balance in favor of criminals worldwide. To learn how much personal information your county may be publishing about you, read The Lives of Three Citizens.

 

 

Contact information for concerned citizens

Denton County Clerk Cynthia Mitchell

Denton County Judge Mary Horn

 

Learn more about your rights as a citizen

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