FAQ: Is your county posting your Social Security number online?

Government Web sites may harbor SSNs and other personal data in public records

Since early 2005, land records containing the Social Security numbers of thousands of Iowans have been posted and made publicly accessible on a Web site maintained by the Iowa County Recorders Association. That practice, which came to light this week, is similar to what has been done on many other county government Web sites that provide online access to public records such as property, tax and court documents.

The online records, which often are easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, may also contain other types of personal data, including birth dates and bank account, credit card and driver's license numbers. Privacy advocates have warned that the presence of such information on government Web sites has made them an online treasure trove for identity thieves and other fraudsters.

What do you need to know about all this? Read on for more information about what's being posted online and what you might be able to do about it.

What kind of public records are showing up on government Web sites? The list of documents you can find online includes property and tax records — for example, filings related to mortgages and liens. Also on that list are motor vehicle documents; divorce, family and juvenile court records, as well as filings about consent decrees; wills and probate records; and documents relating to military discharges. Typically, such documents are maintained by county clerks or recorders.

And do all of those documents contain Social Security numbers? No. Only a small fraction of the millions of public records maintained by county and state governments are believed to include SSNs. And most public records filed over the past few years don't list them, thanks to state laws prohibiting the practice. But many older records do, especially documents that were filed prior to the mid-1990s. As a result, an individual Web site still might harbor tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of documents containing personal data.

What other personal info can someone find online? Depending on the type of document it is, it can also include birth dates, addresses, bank account data, information about debts, driver's license and vehicle registration numbers, the height and race of individuals, the names and birth dates of minor children, child custody details and even medical records.

So who can see these records? By definition, public records are open to anybody. In the pre-Internet past, people typically had to county offices to view them. Now, though, county and state governments are posting documents online in order to broaden access and make it easier to retrieve the information. In doing so, they have removed much of the "practical obscurity" that previously shrouded public records. Some governments charge for online access to documents, and others require users to register — but many simply allow unfettered access to everything on their sites.

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