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Protecting public data County Web sites targeted as avenues for release of personal information

About 30 million documents are filed publicly in the Erie County clerk's office, and some include Social Security numbers, dates of birth and bank account information.

That worries Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who plans to introduce federal legislation that would allow county clerks to remove some personal data from public documents.

"At a time when identity theft is running rampant, we should do everything we can to guard against releasing information that will help criminals," Eric Schultz, a spokesman for Schumer, said Monday.

County Clerk David J. Swarts said he is glad that Schumer is taking up the issue. The public display of personal information has become a bigger concern than ever over the last decade, because more and more documents are available on the Internet, Swarts said.

Schumer and Swarts will be in the county clerk's office this afternoon for a news conference and a live demonstration of how easy it can be for criminals to obtain personal data over the Internet.

Criminals now have easy access to public documents through a growing number of Internet sites run by county clerks throughout the state, according to Schumer.

In Erie County, a document -- such as a mortgage, a property deed or a tax lien -- can be viewed over the Internet for $5. For a monthly fee of $500, Swarts said, a company or individual can obtain an unlimited number of documents.

Meanwhile, any citizen can look at hard copies of documents for free at the clerk's office.

"About 500,000 documents are filed each year at our office. We have about 30 million documents in storage," Swarts said. "The overwhelming majority of the documents -- I'd say at least 95 percent -- have no personal identification information in them. The dilemma for county clerks is that we have an official responsibility to make public documents available, but we worry about the flurry of ID theft."

Schumer plans to propose a federal law that would allow county clerks to redact some information, such as Social Security numbers, from public documents. Currently, the clerks are not allowed to do so.

"We already try to make attorneys and others aware that when they file a document, they should redact that information themselves," Swarts said. "I would advise the public that they should ask their attorneys to make sure that information is redacted."

Crime experts define identity theft as the illegal use of someone's personal identification to open illegal bank accounts and credit card accounts or to obtain other services.

The Federal Trade Commission estimated last year that 10 million Americans are victimized annually by ID theft scams, costing individuals and businesses about $50 billion.

The commission estimated that 32,080 Western New Yorkers were victimized in 2004.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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