Local News

Online records could contain personal info

Posted October 20, 2008 6:31 p.m. EDT
Updated October 22, 2008 8:31 p.m. EDT

— The surprise that Donna Eason says she found online was not a good one.

While doing research on the Johnston County Register of Deeds' Web site over the weekend, Eason saw her and her husband's Social Security number on housing documents posted to the site.

"I was furious," she said. "Because everything is on the Web now."

The office removed the information almost immediately at Eason's request, but the problem is statewide and leaves registrars of deeds, like Craig Olive, frustrated.

As many as 22,000 online records in the office contain that same information. And many people have no idea.

"The law is not tough enough to help protect the citizens I serve," said Olive, who heads the Register of Deeds office in Johnston County.

The state's Identity Theft Protection Act, passed in 2005, only allows a register of deeds to remove a Social Security or bank account number at a citizen's request. It also prevents new documents from being filed with personal numbers.

But that means little for people with old documents that date back decades. Anyone can still go to the register of deeds office and find that personal information on public computer terminals and the paper copies.

"Anybody can come in," Oliver said. "It's open public records law, and they can get them a Social Security Number."

Each year, Olive says, he sends a letter to Johnston County's state lawmakers saying consumers are at risk and that software can remove all personal information at once.

And Donna Eason says she would like to see it happen.

"They're just making it easier for thieves," Eason said.

But the issue of redacting personal information from old documents is complicated, says Jeff Gray, a legislative lobbyist on law enforcement issues who also served as an assistant attorney general when Gov. Mike Easley was attorney general.

"Essentially, you're changing a legal document," Gray said. And that's not something that should be done without careful thought."

Under law, citizens have the right to ask the Register of Deeds or Clerk of Courts for their Social Security Number be removed from online postings, Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Attorney General's Office, said.

The Registers of Deeds pushed for the provision because, at the time, Talley said, because they did not have the resources to remove the information from older documents.

"We're glad to hear that (Olive) would now support a law that would require Social Security numbers to be removed," Talley said.

In the meantime, Olive says he plans to notify residents who have personal information online.

Anyone can look up their records by going to the Register of Deeds Web site in their county. Olive says that on the Johnston County Register of Deeds site, navigating takes some "know-how" so it might be difficult for a thief to find, but still, it's a concern.