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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

The ubiquitous SSN
Sometimes, however, online public records do expose the gateway to someone's identity -- the Social Security number. "What you will find is that, in many jurisdictions, a public records search of an individual can give rise to finding out what that person's Social Security number is. Social Security numbers potentially can be included in real estate property records, they can be included in certain court records ... in some situations, DMV or voter registration records could have Social Security numbers on them," says Stephens.

All they gotta do is get into these Web sites and they'll have everything they need. They don't even have to break a law doing it.

Activist Betty "BJ" Ostergren, founder and editor/publisher of The Virginia Watchdog, says she has seen "millions" of online public records with SSNs on them since she started her campaign in August 2002 to get public records taken offline."Talk about people who get so upset when these Web sites are hacked into or scam e-mails sent. You know, I'm going, 'People don't have to do that. All they gotta do is get into these Web sites and they'll have everything they need. They don't even have to break a law doing it," she says.

Privacy advocates and their counterparts -- access activists -- advise consumers to find out what information is available about themselves on the Web and to take steps if they find their SSNs posted online.

Types of records that are public
The types of records considered public will vary state by state, as will access restrictions and associated fees. Typically, however, court records and real estate records are public nationwide, says Stephens.

"You're going to find a great variation from state to state with respect to things like voter registration and driver records," he adds, explaining that some parts of the records may be public, while others not. Access to birth, marriage and death certificates will vary widely from state to state. Uniform Commercial Code filings also are typically public, he says. The Uniform Commercial Code allows a creditor to notify other creditors about a debtor's assets used as collateral for a secured transaction by filing a public notice.

Licensing information on professionals, such as beauticians and lawyers, also is typically public record, notes Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal. Data on these folks can include their education, training, age, marital status and residential address.

Types of personal information available
Criminals can find a mother lode of information on consumers by trolling records online.

"Many counties in America are now taking documents that come into the recorder's office and they're scanning these documents and putting high resolution images of them on the county's Web site, searchable, free of charge by anyone with Internet access," says Jack Vonder Heide, president and CEO of Technology Briefing Centers. The availability of signatures alarms him because they can be used to forge documents in a victim's name.

-- Posted: April 21, 2008
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