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Virginia Watchdog Takes a Bite Out of Ohio

 

Robert A. Franco- SOURCE OF TITLE

Reprinted with permission

 

For those of you who don't know Betty "BJ" Ostergren, she is the founder of The Virginia Watchdog. Her goal is to keep the public records, which sometimes contain sensitive personal information, off of the Internet. She began her battle in 2002 when her home county in Virginia began providing its records online. Her latest target seems to be Ohio.

 

Earlier this month Ostergren found Athens county residents' Social Security numbers online and she called many of them to let them know. In response, the Athens County Recorder, Julia Michael Scott, removed the records from the Internet. However, just a few days later she put them back online after removing her own SSN, and her husband's, from documents. In an article in The Athens Messenger, Scott said:

 

"If someone wants a Social Security number, there are different ways of finding it other than a public record," she said. "Our staff is making every effort to redact those numbers - we did it before anyone said anything to us."

...

 

"We have been deluged by phone calls," she said. "These are people who are wanting to buy or sell houses, refinance or do a number of different transactions. I f they can't check the information on the Internet, they will have to travel to Athens to get it, and that inflates the cost to the individual."

 

Undeterred, Ostergren next shifted her focus to Franklin County. She tipped off The Columbus Dispatch and the newspaper found hundreds of SSNs in a "quick search" of the county's Web site. The Franklin County Recorder, Robert G. Montgomery, soon thereafter pulled images of mortgages from the Internet. Most of the offending documents found by Ostergren seemed to be mortgages from the 1990's. Montgomery said that he had taken steps to protect the public. When the records first went online in 2000, they did not include records known to include SSNs, such as military discharge forms (DD214) and federal tax liens. Montgomery, like many other county records across the country are looking into redaction software that will remove SSNs from the records automatically.

 

According to her Web site, Ostergren is going after Cuyahoga County next. She is already making phone calls and claims "if you know where to look, you can find thousands of SSNs. [The Cuyahoga County Web site] should be shut down immediately since it's spoon feeding criminals and has been for years."

Proponents of online records claim that online records save taxpayers millions of dollars.

 

"The original reason we put them online wasn't just so people could access the information, but we wanted to save the taxpayers money," Montgomery said.

By his count, Franklin County residents have saved close to $1.6 million in copying fees alone since 2000.

 

However, the cost of putting these documents online is substantial to begin with... then factor in the cost of the redaction software. These costs are paid with tax dollars that aren't necessary if the records are not placed online. Besides that, Montgomery's cost analysis assumes that the savings of "free" copies is passed along to the consumers. That speculation is doubtful. The title companies may be saving money, but I haven't seen any evidence that the cost of a closing has decreased a single cent since many counties began placing their records online. More likely, any savings from obtaining online copies is strengthening the bottom lines of the title companies.

 

For a couple of hundred years title searches were conducted at the courthouses by knowledgeable professionals. Thanks to online records, title searches are now being conducted for pennies by off-shore companies in India, and elsewhere. This may be cheaper, but for whom? Certainly not the taxpayers. Meanwhile, the taxpayers pay a higher price in higher incidents of identity theft.

 

From an article on CIO.com, County Rife with Identity Theft Reconsiders Online Records:

 

In 1997, Arizona’s Maricopa County (which includes Phoenix) became the first government entity in the nation to post public records online. The decision to post a blizzard of records, including land purchases, election information, tax information, divorce cases and much more, garnered praise from the local press and won Maricopa a place in the Smithsonian’s prestigious National IT Innovation Collection. But it has come back to bite the county in a most unpleasant way: Maricopa now claims the highest rate of identity theft in the nation, and local IT officials say the two statistics are inextricably linked.

 

“People have gone online and been able to find information like names, addresses, social security numbers, financial data and [information about] divorce and civil suits,” said Richard Dymalski, principal IT consultant to Maricopa County in a recent interview. “And that’s a dangerous thing.”

 

 

 

The public records laws are woefully out of touch with modern technology and they are now serving a different purpose than that which they were created for. Public records laws were passed to ensure that the government entities were operating openly and in the best interest of the public. It allowed citizens to keep a watchful eye on their elected officials. Now, however, the public records laws are being bent and twisted like a pretzel to allow for big corporations to make a buck marketing the information. In reality, it is pressure from large corporations that prompt the local governments to "give away" the taxpayers assets - the public records created with tax dollars. Tax payers aren't demanding their public records to be placed online, but the special interest groups sure make it sound that way.

 

Government officials need to rethink their strategy. They need to do a little research and find out exactly who is benefiting... and who is really paying the price.

 

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About the author:

Robert A. Franco has been in the title industry for nearly 15 years in the state of Ohio. The owner of VersaTitle, a full service abstracting and title company, and the founder and president of Source of Title, a Web site devoted to providing media and marketing services to the title industry, Franco has dedicated much of his professional career to furthering the role and significance of title examiners in the title insurance industry... More about Robert Franco

Robert can be reached at  rfranco@sourceoftitle.com

 

 

  

 

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