Free Web sites offer up Social Security numbers, divorce agreements, mortgage papers and more to anyone seeking a peek.
It's a good thing that B.J. Ostergren isn't in the business of identity theft. Stacked in boxes in her home in Richmond, Va., are papers with about 12,000 Social Security numbers, along with corresponding names, home addresses and signatures of their owners. And the 55-year-old former insurance claims supervisor could pull thousands more off the Internet in a matter of minutes.
To get that information, Ostergren needs only to go to the Web sites of various county clerks that publish their residents' personal documents online. There, she can download mortgage papers, divorce decrees, tax liens, deeds and power-of-attorney documents. These papers, typically filed with the county clerk as part of the public records archive, have in recent years found their way online, where anyone can access them for free or a nominal fee of $25 or $50 for a month's unlimited access.
Ostergren has made it her full-time job as the founder of Virginia Watchdog to alert legislators and the general public about what's out there. "It's dangerous, and it's just reckless of those clerks to have these records online," she says. According to a November 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office, as many as 28% of U.S. counties post their records — including people's Social Security numbers — on the Internet.
Your Private Life, Going Public
Many folks don't realize that as soon as they file a document with their county, it becomes part of the public record. Birth certificates, driver's license information, marriage and mortgage papers and, ultimately, death certificates are all fair game.
Of course, anyone can go down to their county clerk's office and request hard copies of such papers, explains David Bloys, a title examiner in Shallowater, Texas. But this requires a fair amount of effort — far more than what your typical nosy neighbor is willing to expend. The people who go through these records on site are usually professionals, like title company workers, attorneys or licensed private investigators who are held accountable if the sensitive information included in these documents is used illegally.
Things are changing, however, now that county clerks have started digitizing and indexing their records into searchable databases. Many counties, like Fort Bend County in Texas, Volusia County in Florida and the counties in New York City have made these databases available online, free of charge. In Fort Bend's database, we quickly found a federal tax lien for Congressman Tom DeLay that listed his Social Security number. In New York County, which covers Manhattan, we easily uncovered the mortgage papers for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Upper East Side apartment. Other counties, like Arlington, Va., charge a fee for access, in this case $50 for a month or $500 for a year.
Making county records available online exposes millions of documents to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. Now there's a different type of crowd — one that includes identity thieves and stalkers — quickly and easily trolling through public records, says Bloys, who is working with Texas representative Carl Isett to introduce a state bill that would prevent counties from putting public records online.
To see if your county's records are online, go to the Web site of a company called Nationwide Environmental Title Research and click on Public Records. Then click on any state for a list of its counties and links to the clerk or recorder's offices. Or simply call your county clerk's office and ask how to access its records.
Outsourcing to India
Once a county's records are digitized, it's very easy — and incredibly cheap — for data compilers like Axciom and DataTrade to purchase the files and sell them to information brokers like Choicepoint, says Bloys. That's because under most states' Open Records laws, counties cannot charge more than the cost of copying the documents — which means a computer disk containing 10,000 records can be had for as little as a few dollars. What's more, Bloys explains, the companies that actually scan the documents for the county — the so-called wholesalers — often ship the images to foreign countries, like India or China, where outsourcers index the records much more cheaply than could be done in the United States. "(Our public information) is being distributed instantly all over the world," says Bloys.
To see for yourself, take a look at the Web site of String Information Services, an outsourcing data digitalization and processing company in India, which boasts of its ability to provide you or your business with "online access to (lien and judgment) records of more than 200 counties." The Public Information Menu
Some information brokers target professionals, while others go for the consumer market. One of the largest information brokers, Choicepoint, currently holds more than 19 billion records, including individuals' Social Security numbers and dates of birth. It offers this information to business clients, such as job recruiters or landlords interested in doing background checks on potential employees or tenants. To help prevent identity theft, Choicepoint doesn't provide any information to consumers, and requests that customers present official business papers in order to register for its services. Of course, these measures haven't proven terribly effective: Just a few weeks ago a criminal ring submitted fraudulent business papers and gained access to the records of nearly 145,000 people. Choicepoint says it has bought a credit-monitoring service for all potential victims.
Meanwhile, consumer-targeted information brokers like US Search don't screen their clientele at all. Anyone with a credit card can obtain information on anybody else — although the sites don't provide Social Security numbers and dates of birth. They claim to provide only information that is on the public record — and they gather this information using a wide range of sources, including phone books, voter registration cards and change-of-address records.
The same goes for the Web site Fundrace.org, where, for free, you can plug in your address or zip code and see how much your neighbors donated to presidential campaigns in the last election cycle. (Campaign contributions are on the public record.) At Fundrace, we found Candice Bergen's Central Park South address in New York, and learned that she donated $25,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
And then there are companies that operate like search engines. Some, such as WhitePages.com, publish all telephone numbers and addresses that are listed in the phone book. (But unlike a traditional phone book, this site also offers quick reverse lookups.) Others, like Search Systems and Nationwide Environmental Title Research (NETR), provide free access to some pubic documents, but charge a fee if you want to download images of individual public records like tax liens or mortgage papers.
It's easy for your information to end up on the Internet — and difficult to have it removed. While many online information brokers offer the option to remove information, documents of public record will likely crawl their way back into databases sooner or later, says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer information organization in San Diego. The PRC keeps a list of links to opt-out programs on its Web site, including those for US Search and the White Pages. However, the PRC warns consumers that delistings might not last indefinitely.
As for county databases, only Florida residents have the option of requesting that Social Security numbers be removed from documents, says Ostergren. Her goal is to convince all Virginia counties pull public records off the Internet. To woo decision-makers to her side, she pulls up senators' mortgage papers, deeds or liens — anything that contains their Social Security numbers — and hands them over to them. She also writes letters and calls citizens whose papers she finds online, encouraging them to call their county clerk and demand that the records be taken off the Internet. Thanks largely to her efforts, only 12 of Virginia's 122 counties currently post records on the Internet, all on a subscription basis.
Legislative Changes Ahead
The recent Choicepoint fiasco has brought the information-broker industry into the limelight. "It has been a catalyst for both state legislators and Congressional interest in the fact that the industry is so lightly regulated," says the PRC's Givens.
But while legislators are proposing bills to regulate data compilers like Choicepoint, Bloys thinks this isn't addressing the source of the problem. "They seem to be missing that when they're dealing with Choicepoint, they're dealing with retailers," he says. "They're not the wholesalers." The wholesalers are the counties that are putting this information online, and the companies are stockpiling it.
But even if this industry is regulated one day, little can be done about the companies that already own your private information or those that will continue to track it in the near future. So as you close on a new home or file for divorce, remember: Big Brother is watching.