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Social Security Numbers Are Widely Available in Bulk and Online Records, but Changes to Enhance Security Are Occurring

GAO-08-1009R Published: Sep 19, 2008. Publicly Released: Oct 20, 2008.
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Various public records in the United States contain Social Security numbers (SSN) and other personal identifying information that could be used to commit fraud and identity theft. For the purposes of this report, public records are generally defined as government agency-held records made available to the public in their entirety for inspection, such as property and court records. Although public records were traditionally accessed locally in county courthouses and government records centers, public record keepers in some states and localities have more recently been maintaining electronic images of their records. In electronic format, records can be made available through the Internet or easily transferred to other parties in bulk quantities. Although we previously reported on the types of public records that contain SSNs and access to those records, less is known about the extent to which public records containing personal identifying information such as SSNs are made available to private third parties through bulk sales. In light of these developments, you asked us to examine (1) to what extent, for what reasons, and to whom are public records that may contain SSNs available for bulk purchase and online, and (2) what measures have been taken to protect SSNs that may be contained in these records. To answer these questions, we collected and analyzed information from a variety of sources. Specifically, we conducted a survey of county record keepers on the extent and reasons for which they make records available in bulk or online, the types of records that they make available, and the types of entities (e.g., private businesses or individuals) that obtain their records. We focused on county record keepers because, in scoping our review, we determined that records with SSNs are most likely to be made available in bulk or online at the county level. We surveyed a sample of 247 counties--including the 97 largest counties by population and a random sample of 150 of the remaining counties, received responses from 89 percent, and used this information to generate national estimates to the extent possible. Our survey covered 45 states and the District of Columbia, excluding five states where recording of documents is not performed at the county level (Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont). We used the information gathered in this survey to calculate estimates about the entire population of county record keepers.

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