WRAL Investigates

Official: Argument against redacting Social Security numbers 'hogwash'

Posted February 25, 2010 3:31 p.m. EST
Updated February 25, 2010 6:39 p.m. EST

WRAL Investigates

— Federal officials contend that removing Social Security numbers from old bankruptcy filings would be too difficult to undertake, but a Johnston County official said he doesn't buy that argument.

Federal bankruptcies filed before December 2007 include personal information that can be accessed online, making the people in those cases vulnerable to identity theft.

“It’s scary that the federal government allows this to stay on record," said Nan Flake, who filed for bankruptcy 10 years ago after Hurricane Floyd destroyed her Pitt County business.

“They should take (the Social Security numbers) off, do away with them. They're smart enough to have a program to wipe it right out,” Flake said.

Republican 6th District Congressman Howard Coble said there are logistical challenges to opening up thousands of old files to redact Social Security numbers and other personal information.

"I can see how people would be very uneasy if their Social Security numbers were made public," Coble said. "In order to make it retroactive, it's going to have to be examined, because it will be very costly, very time-consuming, but it would be offering protection."

Raleigh bankruptcy attorney David Warren agrees that going through years of court filings would pose a challenge.

"I think it's a significant burden to have to be done," Warren said. "It is not in the ordinary course of business for the court, which is already overburdened, to undertake (this)."

Johnston County Register of Deeds Craig Olive vehemently disagrees, saying Social Security numbers can be removed from the online records of old bankruptcy filings.

"They spend millions of dollars for pork barrel, and they can't spend any money on any type of technology to cover up Social Security numbers? That's hogwash," Olive said.

Johnston County spent $36,000 on software that scanned 6 million public documents, and Olive's staff redacted personal information on 29,000 pages within a month.

Coble said he would contact people with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to determine an appropriate course of action.

Meanwhile, Warren said, people can write a letter to the court to petition that their files be individually sealed or redacted. Filers need to include their full name, date of birth, bankruptcy case number and date it was filed, he said, and they also should include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply from the court.

"The courts are open to the public, and these people who are in there have a right to have their information protected," he said.

The bankruptcy courts in the Triangle area can be reached at the following addresses:

Raleigh Division: 300 Fayetteville St., 2nd Floor, Raleigh, NC 27601-1799

Wilson Division: 1760-A Parkwood Blvd., Wilson, NC 27893-3564