US county web sites a boon for identity thieves

Broward County, Fla. Maricopa County, Ariz. and Fort BendCounty, Tex. Three counties, separated by hundreds of miles, withsomething in common.

They’re among potentially hundreds of counties in several statesthat in recent years have made Social Security numbers, driver’slicence information, bank account numbers and other personallysensitive data belonging to residents available to anyone in theworld with Internet access.

The exposure follows a failure to redact sensitive informationfrom land records and other public documents posted on the Internetand makes county Web sites a veritable treasure trove ofinformation for identity thieves and other criminals, according toa number of privacy advocates.

“These sites are just spoon feeding criminals the informationthey need,” said B.J. Ostergren, a privacy advocate based inRichmond, Va. “But no one appears to be seeing it and nobody’schanging the laws.”

Among the pieces of personally identifiable information madeavailable from county web sites by Ostergren and other privacyadvocates were: Congressman Tom Delay’s Social Security number on atax lien document; the Social Security numbers for Florida GovernorJeb Bush and his wife on a quit claim deed from 1999; drivers’licence numbers, addresses, vehicle registration information,height, weight and eye colour of individuals arrested for trafficviolations; names and dates of birth of minors from final divorcedecrees and family court documents; and even complete copies ofdeath certificates with Social Security numbers, dates of birth andcause of death. (The Social Security numbers for Bush and his wifehave been redacted and are no longer available online.)

“All of this information is available to anyone sitting in acafe anywhere in the world,” said David Bloys, a retired privateinvestigator who publishes a newsletter called News for PublicOfficials in Shallowater, Tex. “It’s a real security threat.”

Those concerns follow news that personally identifiableinformation belonging to an unknown number of current and formerresidents of Florida is available online because sensitiveinformation has not been removed from public records posted oncounty web sites in that state.

It’s unclear exactly how many of the 3,600 county governments inthe United States do the same thing, said Mark Monacelli, presidentof the Property Records Industry Association, a Durham, N.C.-basedindustry group set up to facilitate the recording of, and accessto, public property information.

But it’s safe to assume that many of them are posting sensitivedata online, based on the trend by local governments to provideweb-based access to public records, said Darity Wesley, CEO ofPrivacy Solutions, a privacy consultancy for the real estateindustry based in San Diego. “I think a lot of [county] recordershave been putting [images of] public land records on the Internetwithout any concern about who has access to it.”

But while the public access efforts raise privacy concerns,those worries need to be tempered with an understanding of thebenefits from easier access to public land records, according toboth Wesley and Monacelli.

“This whole topic of access to information is an issue that weas a nation are facing,” Monacelli said. “We have real estateprofessionals, title companies, attorneys and lenders who need thisinformation for commerce purposes.” He argued that easierinformation-sharing enables more efficient mortgage and loanprocesses, for example.

“There’s a real need to keep the information flowing,” Wesleysaid, adding that while there’s also a need to protect data “at allcosts,” there’s little evidence so far that the public availabilityof personal information on government sites has contributed toidentity theft. For most identity thieves, the effort involved insifting through millions of public records for sensitiveinformation is simply not worth it, she said.

“There’s a lot of value in public records, and shutting downaccess to them” over privacy concerns would be a step backwards,she said. “Rather than wrap a lot of fear and sensationalism”around the issue, what is needed is an informed discussion of theissue by legislators and privacy advocates.

Sue Baldwin, director of the Broward County Records Division.,said that “professional list-making companies have always purchasedcopies of records and data from recorders to use in the creation ofspecialized marketing lists, which they sell.” she said. So, too,have title insurance underwriters and credit-reporting agencies.”Land records are public all over the country. This is not a newsituation.”