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Thanks to Virginia state legislators our personal, albeit public, documents which are recorded in Circuit Court Clerks' offices are being made available via the internet.   Many other states have already gone online with the records.


These documents include deeds, mortgage papers, final divorce decrees, judgments/liens, wills, financing statements, and powers of attorney to name a few and typically include Social Security numbers, dates of birth, minor children's names, signatures, and other personal information like financial account numbers.  Sometimes mother's maiden name is found on a record or two (like marriage licenses) and most people use that as the password to access an account of their own.


If any of those things are on any document, a clerk has no legal authority to remove them before they are made available on the internet, so the Social Security numbers and everything else will be seen by anyone who signs up...including identity thieves, pedophiles, stalkers, and kidnappers.  


These records are also commonly called "land records" since they relate to title of land and it is the intention of the General Assembly that all Clerks will have remote access by July 1, 2006.    However, since this internet scheme will put people at risk of identity theft and other crimes, it must be stopped and the only way it will get stopped is if the citizens get outraged enough to pressure their legislators to introduce a bill this coming January during the next session. 


How did this start?


On June 26, 1996, then Attorney General Jim Gilmore issued an official opinion stating that a Circuit Court Clerk had no legal authority to put those records on the internet.  So in 1997, our legislators unanimously passed HB 2762 giving the Clerks the power to make all non-confidential court records available via internet access. 


Until December of 2002, there were only about twenty Court Clerks online with these records, but public outcry after it was uncovered that so many of the records contained people's Social Security numbers forced several clerks to shut down their sites while other Clerks dug in their heels and stayed online.  Only fourteen localities have internet access today.


In the 2003 General Assembly session, HB 2426 was passed overwhelmingly in the House which could have stopped the whole internet access project, but when the bill passed to the Virginia Senate, the bill was gutted and made totally worthless.  The bill started out in the House by saying in Paragraph A that no Clerk could not put on the internet someone's Social Security number, date of birth, mother's maiden name, minor child's name (like in final divorce decrees), financial account numbers, or signatures which could be easily captured right off a computer screen and then misused.    The Senate then voted to amend the bill saying that if the Clerk had a "secure" site and got someone to sign up with a notarized signature and paid a fee, then that Paragraph A would not apply, and the subscriber could see everything - including any Social Security numbers, etc. on those records! 


But is there really any such thing as a "secure" website?  No, there is not.. 


“Anyone” can sign up to get into these records since the Freedom of Information Act and the presumption of openness under common law apply to the Clerk's records as well as COV 17.1-208 which states that those records shall be open for inspection by any person.  But there is a huge difference between sitting in the privacy of one's home and snooping and actually taking time off from work, driving to each courthouse, and then paying fifty cents a page for copies.  Of course, advocates for this online access scheme have many reasons (all self-serving, I might add) that they can give in an instant why remote access should be allowed.  


The Clerks say they don't have the room for all the books and that they need to go to a paperless office. The “press” wants access to the records so they can do their research without trucking down to the different courthouses.  The real estate attorneys say it would be cheaper for their clients if they could do their title searching on the internet.  The Virginia Coalition for Open Government whose membership is comprised of almost every newspaper in this state opposed the original HB 2426 in 2003 even though they knew that Social Security numbers were all over those records because they want them out of the "dusty files at the courthouse" and more easily accessible electronically since they say the records are “government records.”  (I have tapes of meetings where the Executive Director of VCOG spoke against the one bill that could have stopped all this.)


However, in Ohio where the records are available online, there have been crooks who openly admitted - after being caught - that they got the information to steal those identities off the Clerk's websites.  Even though the Judge convicted each person, the victims' credit records were in tatters.  They had to deal with trying to repair their credit after the Clerk spoon fed those identity thieves their Social Security numbers - the key the thief used to unlock their lives.


What can we do?


Before this next session of the Virginia General Assembly which starts January 11, 2006, people have to make sure their friends, family, and co-workers know that on or before July 1, 2006, all of the Clerks in Virginia will have our records available by remote access.   Each citizen has to contact their Senator and Delegate and tell them they are against online access of these records.  Remind them that they (or members of their family) have records with SSNs, etc. in them that will be online and available in "ANYONE'S" home.


Also make sure friends in other counties know this is going to happen - unless we can reverse/stop it in January.  If the General Assembly had to pass a special bill to allow the Clerks to put the records online, then we can pass a special bill and take that wording out of COV 17.1-225 – in other words, repeal 17.1-225 which allows internet access.


Also a "subscriber access only" law is no protection since one person could "front" for others who have criminal acts in mind.  They could all share in the fee charged and then use one computer to data mine for the numbers. 


It's up to the people, but when they realize that any Social Security numbers in those records WILL be seen by ANYONE who signs up, then maybe we will be able to stop it.  Isn't the privacy and security of those records more important than placating a few who want these records online?  The Clerks took an oath to protect those records and making them available online is putting them at risk - and the citizens at risk. 


 Think it's too late to stop it?  It isnt...  


Betty “BJ” Ostergren, Founder

The Virginia Watchdog


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