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Do as I say, not as I do - said the State of Arizona

  Let me get this straight! Arizona has a law that makes it illegal for a private person to put another persons social security number on the web, but the state of Arizona is posting millions of social security numbers on the web pages of Arizona county recorders.

Source

Social Security numbers online spark concerns about ID theft

by Steven Bohner

published on Monday, June 26, 2006

Some Arizonans' Social Security numbers are available to anyone on the Maricopa County Recorders Office Web site, fueling growing concerns about identify theft.

Maricopa County has had some records online since 1996, and documents - covering everything from mortgages and bankruptcies to tax liens and divorces - have always been available to the public at the recorder's office in downtown Phoenix.

But in recent years, concerns about identify theft have mounted, and the county has been getting an average of two to three calls a week from people worried about their private information being online, said Barbara Erichs, a project manager at the Maricopa County Recorders Office.

The official response to those complaints has been: Sorry, but we have no choice, Erichs said.

In the text of an e-mail that the office sent to one complainant, officials cited Arizona state law, which does not provide authority for the county recorder to redact Social Security numbers from public documents.

However, that will change this January, when a new state law goes into effect that eliminates Social Security numbers from documents submitted to the recorders office and gives the recorders office the right to redact the numbers in documents already in the system.

Under the law, documents can contain only the last five digits of Social Security numbers and cannot give full bank account numbers, credit card numbers, debit card and retirement account numbers.

Tanner Hiland, 27, of Chandler was surprised to find such information online at all.

He said he was conducting a periodic search recently to see what information was available about him. He had heard that counties were starting to post their records online.

"I didn't do an extensive search to map it all out," he said. "I just did some general queries and found out that yeah, this stuff is out there.

"The state and the county need to understand the ramifications of posting these documents online," Hiland said. "If they are going to post them online, they need to black out or have whatever process they are going to do to censor that private data."

Erichs said that so many businesses and entities utilize the information, that "just to remove it from [the Maricopa Recorders Office] website and make you come into our office isn't the answer."

However, the office will be cleaning up the web site with a new software program that will search all documents and identify Social Security numbers, she said. The process will be time consuming because after the initial search, a staff member must verify the results, looking at each document before numbers are blacked out.

The office has 2 million records, amounting to approximately 10 million pages, dating back to 1983. The site contains actual images of documents filed after September 1991 and provides a way to purchase documents filed before that.

Some of those records, most notably those related to federal and state tax liens, contain Social Security numbers. The records are searchable by name of person or business, date and type of record, although simply typing in a last name suffices to pull up a database of documents for all people with that last name.

The records are all public under law. The recorders office could make everyone come look up records in person, but Erichs said that online access to records is necessary to serve Maricopa's expanding population, especially property owners who live outside of the county.

"If you've ever come down to our office, our public area is no larger than 10 by 20, and we have well over three and a half million people in Maricopa County," she said. "I don't think I could service their needs in any sort of timely manner."

Erichs said Maricopa County is not alone in providing what is considered private information online. She said a number of other recorders offices in Arizona and across the country provide similar documents online.

Concerns about access to private information have been mounting in recent years due to a growing number of cases of identify theft.

With access to a Social Security number, thieves can pillage bank accounts and apply for credit cards, insurance or a mortgage all in someone else's name. They can also impersonate an individual to commit crimes such as drug trafficking, alien smuggling or money laundering.

Last year marked the third straight year that Arizona had the highest rate of identity theft per capita in the nation, according to the 2005 Federal Trade Commission report. Maricopa County had the highest rate of any major metropolitan area in the U.S. The majority of cases were reported in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Mesa

Social Security numbers were originally designed so that the federal government could collect taxes from workers and distribute the money to retirees, the disabled, dependent children and others. Everyone legally living in the United States is assigned a number.

But over the years, businesses, schools, hospitals, banks and credit card companies all began using Social Security numbers to identify their constituents.

At ASU, the option to use a Social Security number as a student or faculty identification number is no longer available. President Michael Crow approved the policy change in September of 2004 to fight identity theft.

ASU uses system-generated ID numbers that all begin with nine to avoid accidentally issuing any number that is also someone's Social Security number.

Reach the reporter at steven.bohner@asu.edu.