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Screw it! It's Just Too Hard!  
by Robert A Franco  | 2008/08/06

There is an interesting article in the Detroit Free Press about a man who found his Social Security number in the county's online records and how Wayne County handles these situations.  It is estimated that the number of documents in Wayne County that contain Social Security numbers is in the hundreds of thousands.  With the Federal Trade Commission estimating that identity theft costs approximately nine million Americans $50 billion per year, surely Wayne County has a comprehensive plan to redact vulnerable information from their records.... ummm... nope.

The county's records have been online for about 8 years and they still haven't figured out what to do about the older documents that still contain Social Security numbers.

Wayne County officials said they have not developed a comprehensive plan to redact vulnerable information from older records. They say, however, they are weighing the costs of a computer program, like that used in Macomb County, that scrubs Social Security numbers from online documents.

So what has been done to better protect the citizens of Detroit and the rest of the County...  Well, about a year ago, the state of Michigan passed a law prohibiting the county clerks from accepting records with Social Security Numbers, but that doesn't effect the images from 1960 to 2007. 

Michigan also permits residents to file an affidavit to have their Social Security number redacted from the earlier documents.  But, did they really expect hundreds of thousands of affiants, most of whom have no idea their Social Security numbers are available online, to take advantage of that procedure?  I don't think so.  It seems rather disingenuous to address such an important issue by placing the onus back on those who are oblivious to the existence of the hazard the county created.

Besides that, it appears that the county employees aren't really all that helpful.

The resident who saw his Social Security number online, said he had not been able to get past answering machines at the Wayne County Clerk's Office.

But he said a friend who called received another version: It was impossible for the numbers to be online because they had already been redacted.

[Another] Wayne County resident ... said she had no idea her private information was online, let alone that she had to file an affidavit to have it removed. [She] found out her Social Security number was online when a Free Press reporter called.

"I know nothing about computers," [she] said... "How could I know that this stuff is on there?"

Why not just redact all of the Social Security numbers, like Macomb county did?  Macomb county paid ACS about $485,000 to check more than 4.8 million documents - or just over ten cents per document.  That doesn't seem so bad.  But, what a racket ACS has going.  ACS sells imaging and indexing systems to the counties and encourages them to publish the records online.  Then, they sell them another service, redaction, if the county wants to make it safe for the citizens to have their records hosted on the Internet. 

But, redaction poses another problem in Oakland County. 

Oakland County's clerk, said she had also considered electronic redaction for Oakland records, but that the numbers used to identify land parcels in Oakland are too similar to Social Security numbers for the system to be effective.

And, let's not forget the real problem... we aren't just dealing with a database anymore... we are dealing with publication on the Internet.  There is no telling how many people may have printed the image before someone requested redaction of their Social Security number. Of course, counties also routinely sell the documents to third parties and the counties no longer have any control over redaction of those records.

For years, companies have been culling private information from Public Records and selling it.

"These documents probably have been sold to a variety of different title companies across the country, to be resold and sold and sold again," [the Wayne County clerk] said.

Apparently, Michigan considered requiring redaction of all records to protect its citizens.

Last year, Michigan lawmakers considered requiring Social Security numbers to be redacted from all records, said Phil Browne, chief of staff for Rep. Brian Palmer, R-Romeo. But officials concluded that would be logistically difficult because of the volume of records and changes in filing practices. No such bills are being considered. That leaves the onus on individual counties.

That sounds like our government hard at work. They could have taken steps to ensure that Social Security numbers were not available online... but they said, "Screw it!  Its too difficult."  I wonder if they considered the obvious alternative - if the records cannot be published safely on the Internet, don't do it! There have been several counties that have realized the potential dangers of recklessly subjecting citizens to identity theft and have pulled their images from Internet access.  That is the responsible thing to do. 

Though it is often difficult to cite to specific examples that link Public Records on the Internet to identity theft, it has been done.  See Online Records Linked To Identity Theft And Worse, in the News For County Officials newsletter.  I'm sure it happens much more than we are aware.

Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Greg Hartmann understood the link when he told the Cincinnati Post he was removing more than 320,000 public documents from his Web site in an attempt to combat the growing crime of identity theft. "I have seen increasing numbers of identity theft," Hartmann said. "We have had a number of cases where police have told me the bad guys got the information used to steal identities from my Web site." Citizens there have filed a lawsuit against the county for the breach of their security.

(read the full article for more examples)

The media is becoming increasingly aware of these dangers and as they report on them, more criminals will be, too.  Unless, of course, you don't think these sophisticated criminals read the newspaper. How many thieves now know that they could potentially find hundreds of thousands of new victims by simply searching the Wayne County Public Records from the convenience of their local coffee shop with Wi-Fi access? 

If you think it's difficult to require redaction, try catching the thieves who operate behind the anonymity of the Internet.  Then again, maybe we shouldn't bother.  Screw it! It's too difficult.

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About the Author

Robert A. Franco has been in the title industry for nearly 20 years in the state of Ohio. The owner of VersaTitle, a full service abstracting and title company, and the founder and president of Source of Title, Franco has dedicated much of his professional career to the land records industry.

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