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The threat of online public records
Your personal information may appear in online public records -- yet another avenue for identity theft.
Protecting your identity

Risks of online public records

You hear about identity thieves pilfering personal information from trash bins, through data breaches and online threats such as phishing.

The lowdown on online public records
Convenience -- at a price.
The ubiquitous SSN.
Types of records available online.
Types of personal information available.
How to find your own records.
What to do if you find your SSN online.
Protective actions you can take.

Sometimes, though, ID thieves can find treasure troves of information on consumers by perusing information available to anyone with an Internet connection. The anonymous way in which this information can be filched holds great appeal to crooks.

"Typically, public records would be filed in the courthouse or whoever does the record keeping -- in some situations it may be at the state level, and others in the county and others in the city -- and they would suffer typically from what's called 'practical obscurity' because nobody would actually see them," says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

By practical obscurity, Stephens means that previously a consumer in search of particular information would have to physically search out a file in the venue at which it was stored.

"They'd be there in a filing cabinet or a microfilm or microfiche and not available except to someone who came and went to the trouble of looking for them," he says.

Convenience -- at a price
But now, public records are more accessible than ever before. Using governmental Web sites and information brokers, people no longer need to go to the courthouse to look up public records.

Obviously there is a potential for that information to be abused when it becomes readily accessible.

The Internet enables consumers to perform all sorts of benign data digs -- from checking out a babysitter to searching for neighborhood property tax assessments. Packaged with the low costs and convenience of accessing electronic records, however, is the potential exposure of personal information to virtually anyone who wants to see it.

"Obviously there is a potential for that information to be abused when it becomes readily accessible," says Stephens.

Online public records do not comprise the top cause of ID theft. The biggest avenue for ID theft comes from lost or stolen wallets, checkbooks or credit cards, followed by in-person transactions with a merchant, and then "friends, acquaintances or people moving through the home of the victim," says James Van Dyke, president of research firm Javelin Strategy & Research.

-- Posted: April 21, 2008
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