ID Theft Concern Leads to Removal of Public Records

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A quick search of the public records on the website of the Ingham County Register of Deeds could net you some very personal information about many county residents.

"There are documents where people have handwritten their social security number right there on the document ... Some people said back then, (it) doesn't matter. Well now it does matter," Register of Deeds Paula Johnson said in an interview Saturday evening.

It matters because of the growing threat of identity theft. The threat may be small here: Only two percent of the documents might contain a social security number. But that's two percent of a list of very common documents.

"Certainly the deed to your house. And then there's the mortgage," Johnson said, explaining the documents kept by her office.

Add that to attorney's filings and tax liens from the government, and Johnson says there's good reason to take thousands of public records off of her office's website. But why not just black out the social security numbers?

"Our attorney has said we have no right to in any way tamper with these documents," Johnson said.

And so the information will come down, until there's a law that would allow Johnson's office to go through the documents and cut social security numbers out.

"Lots of time, lots of money to have it done. But that's what we'll do to cut that info out and then have it online again," Register of Deeds Chief Deputy Robert Holcomb said in an interview Saturday evening.

There's no reason to believe anyone's identity has been stolen. If it does happen, Johnson says would-be thieves could be caught because users have to buy the documents to see them.

"If the state police or FBI wanted to track that they could through the credit card," Johnson said.

The process of taking this information offline began because a state legislator who found out her information was available on the site.

Rep. Diane Byrum (D- Onondaga) is co-sponsoring a bill to allow registers of deeds to redact social security numbers from these public documents, but it could take until next year for the law to pass.