(Editor's Note: This is the last of a four-part series on the availability of personal information over the Internet, particularly in Fort Bend County.)
A retired investigator who spent nine years as a "private eye" specializing in frauds, stalking cases and political investigations has focused his attention on Fort Bend County Clerk Dianne Wilson and her bulk sale of what most people would assume is private information, contained in public records that are now available at the click of a button via the Internet.
David Bloys, who publishes the newsletter "News for Public Officials," said he was led to Fort Bend County when he first began looking into the issue of the bulk electronic sale of public records "and was told that Dianne Wilson was openly exposing her citizens, and was also encouraging other counties to follow what she called her 'actively progressive' lead."
"One problem is the bulk transfer issue, and she knows that those county assets could be seized by anyone outside the county," Bloys said. "And that's what's happening now. I think she jumped off in this and was in too deep to admit there was a problem."
Bloys said Wilson is active "across the country" in "pushing" the imaging of documents and the posting of them on the Internet, like she did Fort Bend County's. In fact, said Bloys, Wilson is so well-known for her sale of what most people assume is private information that Smart Money magazine referred to her as a "stalker."
Earlier this year, Web site www.SmartMoney.com published an article entitled "Your Social Security Number is Just a Click Away," identifying companies and government agencies that make social security numbers and other sensitive information available over the Internet. Wilson topped the list under the heading, "Meet the Stalkers."
"I have little doubt many of (Fort Bend County's) records have already been transferred to foreign countries in bulk," Bloys said, mentioning Wilson sold in bulk to at least one company, Red Vision, for $2,000. "One thing is certain: The Fort Bend County Clerk has made every record available to every country advanced enough to have even one computer with Internet access."
Bloys said the bulk records have both white- and black-market values over the Internet. For example, he said, "Legitimate national title companies seize from the local county what it has taken local title companies generations to build. A local title company can see what their grandfather's grandfather started reduced to nothing overnight."
With 26,000 identity theft complaints filed with the FTC last year ‹ double the amount in 2003 ‹ Texas ranks second in the nation.
Red Vision specializes in real property records, and announces on its Web site its intention to change the way its customers do business.
"Before the records were sold in bulk, these were the county's customers," said Bloys.
As the most recent bulk purchaser of the Fort Bend County records, Red Vision announced its intent to resell the images online ‹ at a great deal more than the $2,000 paid for the millions of records imaged by Wilson's office.
Bloys said Wilson justified the imaging of every recorded public document since the county was founded by saying it would save the taxpayers money. But Bloys said the $1 a page cost for in-person document requests in comparison to $2,000 for nearly 15 million documents doesn't add up.
"If you walk in the front door of the county courthouse and want copies, you'll pay $1 a page. These people pay $1 for 10,000 pages," Bloys said. "Before Dr. Wilson acted so 'aggressively progressive' to digitize the records, the collection had a value of $15 to $20 million, and it was not possible to sell the entire collection for less. Those records are the single largest asset the county owns. Red Vision and companies like it never paid a dime of taxes in Fort Bend County."
Bloys said that's exactly the type of information he believes has no place on the Internet, but more and more people are obtaining sensitive information about Fort Bend County residents every day through the county clerk's Web site.
Red Vision, he said, is only one of thousands of companies that monitor Fort Bend and other counties across the nation for electronic export of records.
"Virtually anything in the documents that identifies people, places and things can and is being used by the bad guys," he said. "For example, a stolen signature and notary seal can be clipped and pasted onto a bogus deed or mortgage."
Bloys said terrorists use information from Web sites to determine "soft targets" such as high-pressure gas lines, chemical plants and families of community leaders.
"The 9/11 terrorists possessed 50 driver's licenses from five states. The licenses were not bogus, they were authentic," he said. "Something as seemingly innocent as an address is exactly the information a terrorist or stalker needs. Last June, the names of over 100 state judges were removed from the Alhgheny, Pa. county real estate Web site. Security was the issue. The judges became concerned after a federal judge's family was murdered in their home in Chicago."
Bloys said the Web sites for his own publications have regular visitors from numerous countries, including China, Korea, Slovenia, Rumania, Iran, Pakistan, India and Nigeria.
"They don¹t stay long. Our site has little to offer anyone from these identity theft and terrorist enclaves," Bloys said.
Wilson is quoted in an e-mail to Bloys as saying, ³No one can access or obtain copies of my records without coming through my office, and they pay the appropriate fee. The images are stored on a server at our IT division which is owned and maintained by the county (the images are under my authority and control).²
But control really ends when a record is posted on the Internet.
"The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team warns Web site owners to realize that you can't take it back," he warned. "Once you publish something online, it is available to other people and to search engines."
For example, Bloys said, the data aggregator Intelius promises that for just $49.95, it will search billions of public records to produce an eight-page dossier on anyone in the U.S.
"These people are stalking our counties. They watch and wait," Bloys said. "They put in their own Freedom of Information requests for all the files they have."
Bloys cautions individuals to remember that before filing documents that contain sensitive information.
"Once something is out there, you can't guarantee that you can completely remove it," he said.
"People do not realize what's being published. It strips people of all dignity and all privacy. I think Texans deserve better than being strip-searched by strangers on the Internet," Bloys said. "The thing is, those records don't belong to Dianne Wilson and they don't belong to Red Vision. That same information has been (in the Fort Bend County Clerk's Office) forever. It was back there in the 'vault.' Anyone with a need large enough could get in there and get it, but not someone in India."
Bloys said the bulk sale of public records can only be stopped by legislation, and there is a class action lawsuit to do just that against the entire state of Alaska as well as a county in Ohio and another county in New Jersey.
Bloys worked on a bill in October prohibiting county officials from publishing the document images over the Internet, stopping vendors from marketing the information and claiming it's theirs, and preventing the bulk sale of public records. However, due to a scheduling error, the bill didn't get submitted to the House for a vote, and will now have to wait for the next legislative session.
Meanwhile, said Bloys, "Fort Bend County is imaging your information right now," and and the documents already sold cannot be redacted.
"Some of the damage is already done," he said. "You can never get it back, but it's not too late to stop the imaging now. If you're a surgeon, you want to stop the bleeding. And Fort Bend County is hemorrhaging right now."