Social Security numbers masked in online documents
Some documents may not appear online at all until the problem is solved.
By DEBORA SHAULIS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- State law doesn't require Mahoning County Recorder Ronald V. Gerberry to post documents on the Internet.
As the official keeper of records for all real estate in the county, Gerberry says he wanted to make it easier and cheaper for companies, lawyers and banks to verify routine information. He doesn't want to make it easier for thieves to commit identity fraud.
Like many other officeholders, Gerberry now finds himself torn between the public's right to information and an individual's right to privacy.
Gerberry's staff began this week to mask Social Security numbers that appear on documents that they scan and upload to the Internet. The staff also can mask Social Security numbers on documents that already are on the Web, if affected parties ask them to conceal those numbers.
Gerberry won't cover up Social Security numbers on original documents, which are on file at the court-house, "unless a court tells me that they should be masked," he said. "I don't think any court is going to authorize us to tamper with official records."
Gerberry's office recorded 48,741 documents in 2005. Ninety percent of those are property deeds and mortgages, which rarely include Social Security numbers these days, he said.
It's the other 10 percent of documents that possibly contain Social Security numbers, Gerberry said. They include oil and gas well leases, soldiers' discharge papers, federal tax liens and power of attorney records.
"It is not unusual for Social Security numbers to be required to be on certain legal documents," said Atty. Kathi McNabb Welsh, chief deputy in the Mahoning County clerk of courts office.
How to check
Citizens may check their files on the Mahoning County Recorder's Web site at www.landaccess.com. If Social Security numbers are on documents, Gerberry said people should write down the volume and page numbers as they appear in the top right corner, then call the recorder's office at (330) 740-2345. Requests to have Social Security numbers masked will be handled in chronological order.
"We know we're going to have a flood of calls for a while," Gerberry said.
Gerberry and other recorders have asked the company that provides their computer software to write a program that would automatically mask Social Security numbers before documents are posted on the Web. If that software isn't available by year's end, Gerberry said he may be forced to remove documents from the Web site.
Others share Gerberry's concern. Recorder Danny N. Crank of Butler County, in southwest Ohio, says his office will stop posting images of documents beginning April 1 and until the state Legislature votes on proposed law changes.
What court did
When Mahoning County common pleas court dockets went online last July, Clerk of Courts Anthony Vivo decided not to include Social Security numbers. "We're trying to balance the public's right to know with just a sensitivity to privacy issues," Welsh said.
Earlier this month, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell was criticized for posting people's Social Security numbers in financial records used by banks and creditors who issue loans. Blackwell said state law tells him to post those records but doesn't address what to do about Social Security numbers.
That may change, if state lawmakers adopt one of two bills under consideration.
House Bill 528 would exclude Social Security numbers as public records and require public offices to edit those numbers from their documents.
Senate Bill 283 also seeks editing of Social Security numbers from public records before they are copied or posted on the Internet.
Anyone who is victimized because Social Security numbers were not removed as described would be entitled to file a civil lawsuit and seek damages.