Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Abuse of Public Information

We recently purchased a new home. It is busy, exciting, fun, and wonderful! When you purchase a home, there are stacks of papers to sign and many documents that must be processed and filed. One of those is the deed or title to the home, which in most cases is a public record filed with the county. I was curious and wanted to find out how easy I could obtain this information. I googled around, found my county's records web site, and within about three minutes I was looking at scanned copies of the actual deed and other documents relating to the sale. These documents show names, addresses, signatures, and other information that could be abused.

And abused this information has been! Within a week of moving in, we started receiving a lot of junk mail from all sorts of advertisers: home mortgage insurance companies, life insurance companies, satellite TV offers, as well as local shops selling window coverings, fence staining services, etc. I respond to each of these unsolicited marketing offers and politely request that I be removed from their records and ask them not to share my information with any affiliated or third party. But unfortunately, the deluge of junk hasn't stopped. Junk mail isn't the only concern with the public, open availability of one's personal information. Identity theft is the other worry. By obtaining someone's full name, address, and signature an identity thief would have half the information they need in order to steal your identity (only lacking a birthday or SSN)--and may have enough already to cause a lot of trouble. David Lish, a good friend of mine, wrote a great article about identity theft that offers some great insights and tips--I highly recommend it.

Also, whenever you purchase a car or change the adress on your vehicle registration, that is also public information which gets harvested by advertisers. Most notably are the infamous auto warranty companies that trick you into purchasing unnecessary auto warranties using questionable tactics.

I registered with the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service to be removed from their mailing lists. I permanently opted out with all the credit bureaus which you can do by calling 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688), and then signing and mailing back the form they send you. We have also been getting a few telemarketing phone calls since the move-in, so I have registered my phone number with the National Do Not Call Registry. The FTC also has some great information regarding the sharing of personal information.

Unlike my home county who publishes public records freely on the internet, some counties require you to go through a formal ordering process and pay a small fee for the documents. This would probably discourage the common advertiser. It would be nice if counties and other companies who hold personal information would take more strict measures to safeguard your sensitive data. There doesn't seem to be any easy fix for protecting your personal information. It requires diligence on your part. Even after exhausting all your efforts, you may find that it is still not enough. If you have any suggestions, post a comment below.

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