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