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Privacy Rights, Identity Theft Spark Increase in County Web Shutdowns

Jarrod A. Clabaugh, Source of Title

Recently, more counties have restricted online access to the real estate documents they maintain. The decision to block images from remote access sparked controversy in the title insurance community. Not surprisingly, the protective measures were prompted by complaints from local citizens who realized that their sensitive information was available on the Internet as a result of the counties’ online Public Records initiatives. County officials struggle to balance the need for open Public Records with the privacy concerns of their constituents. Source of Title spoke with county officials, constituents, and title professionals to learn more about the changes and plans for the future.

Just this week, shut down access to images on its site after receiving complaints from Governor Chet Culver. The governor contacted the site after he learned that sensitive information belonging to him and other state lawmakers was published online. The indexing information is still available and can be accessed, according to Phil Dunshee, a project manager for the site.

Dunshee said that the governing board chose to restrict access to the images after receiving a fairly emotional response from the public at large. He indicated that current concerns about the economy have a lot of people worried that the inclusion of their sensitive information in online records could expose them to identity theft.

Since the site blocked access to the images, the public has been fairly supportive. He admitted that some concerns have been raised, though, by people upset that the information was ever placed online.

“A lot of people did not understand prior to this that these were Public Records,” Dunshee said. “As such, they didn’t know that Public Records can contain sensitive information that is available to those interested in viewing it.” He added that the majority of records imaged since 2002 do not contain Social Security numbers, due to a state law, but said that records older than this often contain them.

Prior to blocking access to the images, the site implemented some security precautions, such as requiring user registration. But, he noted that during the governing board's recent investigation, it was determined that an external party had hacked into the system and changed some of the information contained in the database. He failed to elaborate on what information was altered.

Dunshee acknowledged that title companies and mortgage lenders are not pleased that access to images has been restricted. They had grown accustomed to accessing the information online and are now being forced to change how they get the data.

“People are now heading back to the courthouses and away from the Internet,” Dunshee said.

Jill Kissell, a title examiner who operates A-1 Abstracting and Research in Norwalk, Iowa, said that she has received more orders from title companies since the images were removed. One client placed eight orders with her in 48 hours, the same amount the client ordered during the entire month of August.

“The single biggest thing that I think restricting access will do for title examiners is require our clients to direct work back to the local abstractors because the companies they have been outsourcing work to can no longer access counties' records. This will invigorate local businesses."

However, she noted that the restrictions will likely drive up abstractors’ mileage expenses, which they will be forced to factor into the fees they charge clients. While some county officials may fax information to abstractors, Kissell doubted that they could maintain such a policy for an extended period.

Dunshee said once the sensitive information is redacted from the county records, the site will once again offer the images. He also said that a subscription service is one of the methods being examined for future use, but stressed that the 10 million records maintained on the site will still need to be cleansed prior to their restoration.

In Arkansas, Pulaski County also recently restricted online access to its real estate records. Scott Price, the chief deputy for the county clerk’s office, told Source of Title that his county intends on restoring access to its online records once sensitive information is redacted. The county had offered access to all of its land records dating back to 1999.

Price said the county removed the records at the request of the state attorney general. The site has been down for approximately two months, but Price expected it to be back online within the next several weeks, once its 975,000 records had been cleansed.

“This has been an inconvenience to title companies because they cannot access the information they need,” Price said. “But, they realize that it is only a temporary inconvenience and that access to the records will be restored soon."

He indicated concerns had been raised over the records because this type of technology is new and some people fear change. He likened the availability of online records to the fear people probably felt when automobiles replaced buggies.

“This is a new step for a lot of counties,” Price said. “People are afraid of it. But, we try to be as transparent and accessible as possible. All of these records (that were) available online are available in the courthouse. We just have some roadblocks to work around and, at this point, we are doing that.”

But, for some people, it isn’t the fear of change; it is the threat to their privacy that drives their opposition. Bill Phillips, a flight instructor in North Little Rock, Arkansas, was one of the people who contacted the Pulaski County Clerk's Office. He learned that records containing sensitive information were housed on the site and contacted Pat O’Brien, the county clerk, and demanded they be removed

“I asked them about this and they said, ‘tough, it’s public record',” Phillips said.

Not satisfied with that answer, Phillips appeared before the county quorum court and told them what he had found in the county clerk’s online records. When they failed to take action, he contacted the state attorney general's office.

“Many documents remain online with sensitive data,” Phillips said. “I have also found over 650 expunged records online and other cases with types of information that should never be public.” He said these cases include hospital records and child welfare cases.

Working in concert with B.J. Ostergren, a Virginia-based privacy rights activist, Phillips decided to dig up some information on the people working in the county office. He posted “Public Records” belonging to the clerk office's personnel on his Website – He is hoping that by exposing the county workers to the threat of identity theft, they will realize the threat to which they are exposing others.

Phillips also contacted county officials in the Colorado and told them what types of information their records contained. Specifically, he contacted individuals in both Montrose and Jefferson County. The clerk for Montrose County, Francise Tipton-Long, removed some of the documents that contained sensitive information from her county’s site, but Phillips said not all of them have been pulled. Source of Title contacted Tipton-Long’s office, but no one responded prior to publication date.

Ann Eddins, the county recorder for Delta County, Colorado, said that many of the records on her county's site include sensitive information. She said in an interview with The Delta County Independent, that she sent a letter to the county clerk’s association seeking guidance on what actions she should take.

“Our policy has always been to make Public Records available to the public,” she said. “Even individuals searching Public Records want to see the whole document and not just a brief reference to it.” She noted that her office owns software that could redact sensitive information, but she is afraid to use it without legislative guidance.

Despite county clerks' assertions that online records be open to the public, trends seem to indicate that more officials need to examine what information the records contain prior to their online publication. With the F.B.I. and other agencies citing the rising incidence of identity theft, improved control of citizens' information is a growing concern among Americans.

“The more people who are provided with access to these records, the higher the threat of wrongdoing becomes,” Kissell added. “While restricting access may affect companies’ bottom lines, it also protects more people from identity theft, mortgage fraud and the fear of unwanted solicitation. This stops criminals from operating anonymously and taking the images offline puts the information back in the hands of experienced individuals."

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