Social Security numbers found on state Web site

Published 7:03 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Mississippi secretary of state’s office has disabled Internet links from its Web site that contained more than 2 million documents containing personal information like Social Security numbers.

The documents known as Uniform Commercial Code filings had been available for public perusal, and could have been a gold mine for identity thieves.

UCC filings are necessary when a person puts up collateral to secure a loan, and the information had been put online to make it easier for lenders to access the information.

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“All these documents are public documents. Businesses, banks, law firms rely on this every single day,” said David Blount, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office. “It’s also vitally important we protect people’s privacy.”

The problem is not limited to the Mississippi secretary of state’s office. As more government agencies across the country get on the Internet and begin posting public records, they must walk a tightrope between keeping records open and protecting citizens’ privacy.

Last year, more than 9.9 million Americans were victims of identity theft at a cost of roughly $5 billion, according to the U.S. Postal Service. There were more than 1,458 reported claims in 2005, up from 1,084 in 2003, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

B.J. Ostergren, a privacy activist who founded The Virginia Watchdog, has been pushing local and state governments from Virginia to Oregon to take such records off the Internet.

Ostergren alerted the secretary of state’s office to the problem last week, and the links were removed on Friday.

“I am for open records at the courthouse,” Ostergren said. “I’m just not for spoon-feeding criminals on the World Wide Web.”

Steve Holland, a Brandon insurance salesman, agreed. He didn’t know his Social Security number was so readily available.

The filing that contained his Social Security number was taken down Friday.

Holland says all the filings need to be taken down and people need to know that such personal information is available online.

“If some of them see your Social Security number, they can really do some damage,” Holland said.

Bill Thompson, assistant secretary of state for business services, said the office has been aware of the problem since 2002.

Thompson said the agency honors requests from people who wanted their Social Security numbers taken off.

Trying to remove or alter all of the documents with Social Security numbers, Thompson said, would be cumbersome because each of the 2 million documents would have to be examined individually.

Thompson said the agency is exploring software that could take out the information automatically while preserving an original copy.

State Sen. Lynn Posey, D-Union Church, was surprised to learn his Social Security number was online.

Posey said he would push for Legislation that would require any public documents posted online to be free of Social Security numbers.

“I don’t think the Legislature would approve of having people’s Social Security numbers posted on anybody’s Web site,” Posey said.

Attorney General Jim Hood estimates his office’s consumer protection division investigates about 120 cases of identity theft per year. At least one case has occurred from a public document posted online.