Sunday, March 11, 2007


Not too long ago in the mail, we received a letter from one of those mortgage companies that wanted to save us money. They said that they could lower our monthly mortgage payments because they specialize in loans and are a leader in this area. This was not our first such mailing and I suspect that others have received similar ones.

The recent letter that we received stated that “public records indicated” the amount of our initial mortgage. I hadn’t given much thought to my mortgage being a public record until that letter arrived. Next came all of the media coverage on the home that the Edwards family built near Chapel Hill. Not only did reports indicate how much the Edwards’ home cost, but also there was information on the amount of their tax bill.

It is amazing what information is available to anyone who wants to spend the time to gather it. In days past, one had to go to some government office building to retrieve public documents. Today, the computer revolution and the digitization of public documents have made the task pretty easy. With a little finger work, you can not only obtain home sale and tax bills, but you can also determine voting records and other bits of data about your friends and neighbors without leaving your home.

Having such information available in the public domain means just about anyone can access the information, and some companies are cashing in by harvesting the information and selling it online to whoever is willing to pay for it. Nothing new about those with the entrepreneurial spirit finding a way to make money, but if you search the Internet, you might be surprised at how many firms out there are willing to sell whatever they can find in public documents about you to anyone interested.

To be honest about this, we must acknowledge that certain records are deemed public to ensure fair access to information. But with more and more identity theft in our nation, maybe it’s time for a change. What is essential for anyone to have access to? What information on each of us should be, in fact, confidential?

If this was easy to answer, I’m sure that the smart people who deal with this issue on a day-to-day basis would have solved it by now. A personal experience showed me how difficult the answers are. When I retired from the U.S. Army, it was recommended that I take my DD Form 214 (the release or discharge from active duty form) to my county clerk and get it certified and filed so I could get certified copies later. Then, as identify theft got more popular, the DD Form 214 became an easy target because it had all of the information on it that info thieves would ever want. In 2003, North Carolina changed its law to treat the DD Form 214 as confidential.

Another related problem is the fact that the military switched from the service number system that it had used previously to making the social security number the service number. A few years ago some enterprising thieves went to the library and used the Congressional Record to get the social security numbers of some newly promoted generals right off the document that showed that the Senate had confirmed them for their new rank. Armed with this information, they obtained credit cards and quickly ran up astronomical bills in the names of the unsuspecting victims. When the scheme was discovered, new rules required that only the last four digits of the service number/social security number be used.

Those who were caught in this scam were furious because not only their good name was compromised, but also their credit scores took a hit. After a good deal of time and more than a few dollars, things were sorted out. Sadly, those generals were not alone in having to deal with this crime. Our Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. These skilled thieves have all sorts of ways to take advantage of an unsuspecting public, but I think that readily available “public” information can only makes their job easier.

We can shred documents, protect critical data, not give out personal information indiscriminately, be extra careful on the Internet, and a host of other sound steps to protect ourselves, but how can we ensure that our information in the public domain is not used illegally? Fortunately, states like ours are aware of this problem and they are working to help our laws catch up with all of this technology. Let’s hope that our representatives do what’s necessary to ensure that we don’t become victims of technology or the valid need for public documents. Being a victim is not a good thing.

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