Wilkes Association of Realtors’ efforts to have some Wilkes Register of Deeds records available on the Internet raise issues involving protection of personal identification information.
The register of deeds offices in Wilkes, Beaufort, Greene and Northampton counties are the only four out of North Carolina’s 100 counties without records online, according to Statewide Title Inc. of North Carolina, a title insurance company.
Many of the register of deeds websites in North Carolina only provide access to deeds and other land-related records. David Sawyers, president of the Wilkes Association of Realtors, said these are the records the association is most interested in having on the Internet.
The Wilkes Register of Deeds office has a website but Wilkes Register of Deeds Rick Woodruff said he hasn’t put any of his office’s records online because he’s concerned about the possibility of this leading to identity theft and other problems.
The N.C. General Assembly addressed the issue several times, including this year with consideration of a bill requiring that military records at register of deeds offices not be online unless they’re over 80 years old. Currently, they must be over 50 years old to be on a register of deeds website.
The N.C. Identity Theft Protection Act, enacted in 2005, says that if a person requests in writing, the person’s Social Security and certain other personal identification numbers must be removed from register of deeds, N.C. secretary of state or court documents available online.
The same is required for employer taxpayer identification, drivers license, state identification, passport, checking and other financial card numbers.
The legislation enacted in 2005 also prohibited including Social Security and the other personal identification numbers listed above on documents recorded at register of deeds offices, the secretary of state’s office or the courts.
Most register of deeds offices with records online have redaction request forms on their websites for requesting removal of these numbers from online documents.
Under state legislation enacted in 2009, a register of deeds or clerk of court may remove Social Security and driver’s license numbers from documents placed online without being requested to do so.
This legislation also authorized registers of deeds and clerk of court staff to use optical character recognition technology or other technology to redact Social Security and driver’s license numbers from records placed on websites available to the general public.
Some register of deeds offices use redaction software and some do it manually, while others use redaction software and then taking the additional step of proofreading documents before they’re put online.
Lee Warren, Cumberland County register of deeds and president of the N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds, said that when the association lobbied for this legislation, it tried unsuccessfully to have state funds included for the labor-intensive process of redacting Social Security and driver’s license numbers.
Warren said preventing register of deeds records from being used for identity theft is a significant concern for the association and the organization frequently has workshops and seminars to address this issue. He noted that it used to be common practice to include Social Security numbers on certain land records.
Warren said Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses have been redacted from documents back to 1935, when Social Security was started, in the Cumberland County Register of Deeds office.
Johnston County Register of Deeds Craig Olive said that since most people don’t know if their documents filed at his office have sensitive personal numbers, he’s been redacting Social Security and driver’s license numbers as documents are filed since 2009.
Olive said there still isn’t anything in place to prevent people from going to a register of deeds office in North Carolina and finding Social Security numbers or other personal information on public computer terminals and in paper documents if they know how to search the records.
Some legal professionals say redacting personal information from old documents at a register of deeds office isn’t a simple matter and shouldn’t be done without careful thought because it involves changing legal documents.
N.C. Land Records Manager Thomas Morgan said no county register of deeds office in the state has its vital records, including birth, death and marriage certificates, on the Internet. Morgan, who works in the secretary of state’s office, noted that some register of deeds offices provide an online search with limited information about vital records.
State law mandates that the only people authorized to obtain certified copies of vital records are individuals on the documents, immediate family members or their legal representatives. Proper identification must be shown when requesting these certified records.
Warren said uncertified copies of vital records are available to anyone, but he said uncertified copies can’t be used to obtain a driver’s license, passport and for similar purposes.
Morgan said many register of deeds websites have free access but fees must be paid to enter some. He said some require that users log in with passwords.
In a statement from the Wilkes County Association of Realtors read by Sawyers during the Wilkes County commissioners meeting Tuesday night, commissioners were asked to “publicly commit to financing the technology upgrades” needed to put Wilkes Register of Deeds records online and also to publicly endorse the organization’s initiative.
Commissioners took no formal action, but Commission Chairman Keith Elmore asked County Manager John Yates to meet and discuss the matter with Woodruff.
Elmore said necessary funds for putting Wilkes Register of Deeds records online are available. He was referring to money in a special fund for automation that comes from a certain percent of all document recording fees collected at the Wilkes Register of Deeds. It totaled $317,120 this past June 30 and currently has $295,000.
Woodruff’s office already budgets money from this fund annually for scanning documents to produce digital images, computer expenses and certain other costs.
County government also appropriates funds for Wilkes Register of Deeds operations every year, including $311,000 in this year’s budget. This pays for salaries and benefits, supplies and more.