Glitch puts Social Security numbers online

February 15, 2006

By Chau Lam, Staff Writer,0,7781591.story?

The Suffolk county clerk's office has exposed the Social Security numbers of thousands of homeowners on its Web site, and officials said they don't have a way to remove them. And soon, a new plan will make it easier to retrieve them.

Mortgages and deeds that contain Social Security numbers for an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 individuals have been "scanned" and posted on the county clerk's Web site.

They can be accessed with a tax map identification number, which is also public record. In the next few weeks, users who pay a $30 daily subscription fee will be able to search the documents dating as far back as 2001 from any computer with just a name or address, county officials said.

Robert Clifford, a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney's office, said identity theft is a big problem for his office and he was surprised the numbers are available on a county Web site.

"It's not only disheartening, it's crazy," he said.

The county clerk's office began posting the documents online in 2003, intending to make them more accessible and make the process more efficient, as well as make money from the publication of millions of land records.

County officials, including Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches), who until December was the county clerk, said these documents are a matter of public record - whether someone shows up at the county offices in Riverhead to view them or whether they do so online.

"We're a recording office. We cannot alter the documents offered to us," said Romaine, who'd overseen the project.

The problem, he said, occurs when mortgage companies and others who fill out these documents put client's Social Security numbers on them before delivering them to the clerk.

Although there is no way to hide the nine-digit numbers from documents already scanned, the county plans to implement a new program in the next few weeks to block the numbers from newly recorded documents.

Tomorrow, local lawmakers are expected to call for state legislation to let the county automatically refuse to process documents that include the numbers.

With tax map identification numbers provided by a title examiner, a search of the county clerk's Web site in recent weeks found Social Security numbers belonging to one Suffolk legislator, a TV weather forecaster, a registered nurse, a retired Wall Street executive, a retired senior partner of an international law firm and others.

"I don't like having my Social Security number hanging out there. People are prone to take advantage of any identification," said the retired Wall Street executive, who spoke on condition that his name not be published. "If something untoward happens and if there are damages, they [the county] are financially responsible."

The same dilemma has cropped up with other counties across the nation, such as in Texas and Virginia.

Nassau County has not yet begun to put its land records online. But according to Christopher Como, a title examiner in the Suffolk clerk's office, 15 of the state's 61 counties do post such documents on public Web sites.

Como insists that thieves looking for personal identification information will have better luck searching garbage bins, because he estimates that only 7,000 to 8,000 of the nearly 2 million documents on Suffolk's Web site contain the Social Security numbers.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack in a hay field," Como said.

However, searches may also be conducted at the clerk's office in Riverhead based solely on a person's name and address.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said government officials should make use of technology that blocks private information from outside inspection.

"The county has, at least, an ethical responsibility to minimize the risk," Lieberman said.

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