Forget lost or stolen laptops - government websites are the real treasure troves for identity thieves, containing millions of searchable records brimming with Social Security numbers, dates of birth and all the ingredients criminals need to plunder bank accounts, ruin credit and wreck lives.
Recognizing the threat posed to citizens, the Florida Legislature passed a law four years ago requiring court clerks and county recorders to strike out personal information posted on the Web.
But the uncensored documents remain online, exposing hundreds of thousands of residents to identity theft, from schoolteachers and retirees to power brokers such as State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and business mogul H. Wayne Huizenga.
The reason: Under pressure from the state's record keepers for more time, the Legislature has extended the deadline twice for completing the redaction, which was supposed to have been finished on Jan. 1. At the same time, the state set the same Jan. 1 deadline for photographic images of official records, including deeds, mortgages, liens, judgments and other public documents, to be available online.
The deadline to censor the online records is now Jan. 1, 2008.
A quick search of the Miami-Dade County Clerk's website, for instance, yielded the Social Security numbers of Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning and Miami Herald publisher Jesús Díaz Jr., among other community notables. The same is true on Broward County's website, where Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor's Social Security number is displayed.
''It's crazy that a person's personal information can just be out there on the Internet for anyone to view,'' Mourning said when he was told his Social Security number, written in his own hand, was on a 1996 mortgage viewable on the Miami-Dade clerk's website. ``I had no idea.''
(Individuals mentioned in this report were notified before publication so they could request a redaction from the Clerk of Courts.)
ACCESS VS. PRIVACY
The debate spotlights the clash between open access to public records and protecting personal privacy in the digital age, especially in Florida, home of some of the most liberal public records laws.
''The government down there is spoon-feeding criminals all over this world,'' said Betty Ostergren, a Virginia-based privacy advocate who has brought national attention to the security threat posed by online records. ''What they should have done was make the clerks and recorders close down the websites until they finished redaction.''
In Austin, Texas, public outcry recently forced the Travis County clerk to remove the records from county websites until they were redacted. For now, an index of the documents remains online.
Tom Julin, a Miami-based First Amendment lawyer, said the potential for harm is exaggerated. ``They shouldn't be taken offline because the value that they have for people is so great that it outweighs any potential harm that might come to someone by having the information available online,'' Julin said.
Indeed, some county clerks have questioned whether taking down the images at this point, or even redacting them, would make any difference.
''I don't know what that would accomplish since it's already in the public domain,'' Ruvin said.
Counties regularly sell the information to data brokers, direct-marketing, title-search and mortgage companies.
''If somebody bought those records from us, we can't do anything about it, and the Legislature hasn't done anything about it,'' said Karl Youngs, general counsel for the Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court. ''It's kind of like a genie's-out-of-the-bottle type of deal.''
Millions of older documents containing sensitive information were recorded before the public's sensibilities were heightened to the growing danger of identity fraud.
In the not-so-distant past, however, the records could be viewed or copied only by visiting the courthouse, creating an obstacle to opportunists.
''Some might argue that the whole redaction mandate is a very expensive overreaction that's going to be very beneficial to a few software companies,'' Ruvin said.
Other government websites, such as the Florida Department of State's Secured Transaction Registry, contain hundreds of thousands of additional Social Security numbers that the Legislature has not asked to be censored.
In 2002, the Florida Supreme Court placed a moratorium on electronic access while it worked to determine what information should be withheld from public view.
Last month, the court modified the moratorium to allow certain documents to be posted, but only after being scrubbed of sensitive information.
Online records also save taxpayers money, Julin noted. ''You eliminate the need for county employees to sift through paper records and respond to demands for them. It's much easier if people can open their laptops and search for documents themselves instead of lining up at a counter,'' Julin said.
Record keepers across the state have described the task of censoring entire file systems of documents as ''monumental'' and costly but blame the slow development of technology for the continued delays.
''The technology has been available for the last year or so, but it is still in new phases or beginning phases,'' said Beth Allman, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers. ''It works very, very well for certain configurations of numbers, but it doesn't always pick up handwriting or embedded numbers. Any document where these are in question will have to be scrutinized by a human, and it will take longer.''
Broward County is currently testing the $180,000 redaction software it purchased in April, according to Baldwin, who said the editing process should be finished by next year.
Miami-Dade County had postponed its program until last month when it signed a $1.6 million contract with Stamford, Conn.-based NewVision Systems, which is coordinating the redaction program. It was concerned the Legislature might decide to do away with the requirement.
''We didn't want to be obligated to spend $1.6 million we might not have to spend,'' said Tom James, who manages the computer systems for Ruvin's office.
The Miami-Dade clerk's office will have to vet some 65 million images dating back to 1973. Of those, roughly 10 percent will need to be examined manually. The redaction should get underway early next month and be complete by July, James said.
Until then, anyone can go to the website, type in a name and rummage through scanned images of deeds, mortgages, liens, judgments and other records containing signatures, Social Security numbers, credit card, charge card and bank account numbers and notary stamps, among other choice information.
In 2002, it became illegal in Florida to include Social Security numbers (when not required by law) on documents that will be filed in the official record, but the burden falls on the individuals filing the documents, not the recorders.
While the original documents will be kept, only censored hard copies will be available to the public.
Since 2002, the clerk's offices began redacting personal information in the documents when the affected individual submits a written request.
How many people know about the option is unknown.
In Broward, for instance, only 1,600 people of possibly hundreds of thousands have requested redaction in the past two years. In Miami-Dade, 437 have requested redaction since 2004. In both counties, some individuals may have to search through decades worth of documents and individuals with similar names to find the page and book number required to submit a redaction request.
That's not good enough, according to Bruce Hogman, a Broward County computer systems worker who is aghast at the lack of concern among public officials about the problem.
''If all the documents now in public view that contain identity data were on a stolen laptop, that would make front-page news,'' Hogman said.
''That the information is even more readily available to identity thieves and is paid for by our tax dollars is more incredible.''
HOW TO REDACT YOUR RECORDSIN MIAMI-DADE COUNTY* Go to miami-dadeclerk.com. On the left side of the page, click ''Search Recorded Documents.'' Then, enter your name. Browse through each document and note the book and page number where the sensitive information appears. You will need these numbers to request a redaction.
Return to the home page, where you will see information on the new redaction request form. Fill out the form and click send.
IN BROWARD COUNTY* Go to broward.fl.us/records. On the left side of the page, click ``Search and Copy,'' then click ''Public Search.'' Search by your name. Note the book and page number where the sensitive information appears. Return to home page and click on ``Confidentiality, Social Security Number, and Veterans Issues'' to access redaction form, which can be mailed, faxed or sent by e-mail.