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Your Information Online: The Good and the Bad

Take a step beyond Google and learn about all the other ways your private information is available online - legally. Plus, that might not always be a bad thing, particularly if you're the information seeker.

People find it surprising when they learn how much private information can be found by ordinary people, legally, on the Internet. At first blush, this seems bad because it can help someone steal your identity. But it isn’t all bad. Better information helps ordinary people make better decisions.    

With some exceptions, the following can be found online: birthdates, addresses, former addresses, vehicle registration information, speeding tickets, lawsuits, name changes, divorces, judgments, real property loans and random things on Google.

  1. Voter records. If you are registered to vote in Washington State, your birthdate is available online at www.soundpolitics.com/voterlookup.html. Not only is your birthdate there, but the date you first registered to vote, the last date you voted, and your address. You can also do a reverse search – by address – and view who is registered to vote here.  
  2. Department of Licensing records. If you own a car, your vehicle registration is available for almost-public view on the Washington State Department of Licensing’s website. This is how private parking lots find you if you park and do not pay. This is also how the parking lot’s attorney finds you. Wisely, the Department of Licensing has an approval process for anyone who wants regular access to the database. However, it is still public information, and is not secret from anyone who writes to the Department and asks for it. If the Department provides the information, it will notify the licensee that it did so and state to whom the information was given. The DOL also has information related to business licenses issued for various professions, like hair stylist, real estate agent, notary, etc. (Editor's Note: Brad Benfield, a spokesperson for the state Department of Licensing clarified a few points for us. The DOL does not release registered owner information from vehicle records to the general public. Access to this information is governed by the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) and a copy is provided as PDF to this article. Those who have access to the online lookup system qualify for it through the specific provisions of this law. They also are required to sign contracts with DOL that strictly control the use of this information. The DOL will not release this information to anyone unless it is established that the requested information conforms to the permissible use provisions of the DPPA. This is true of companies seeking access to the DOL online system or individuals who submit requests in writing.)
  3. Court records. If you have received a speeding ticket, been a party to a lawsuit, or been charged with a crime, you can find the date, court, and case number on the King County Superior Court Clerk’s website, www.kingcounty.gov/courts/clerk.aspx. This database is statewide (although linked at the King County Clerk’s website). Name changes and divorce records are also there (although to view specific divorce documents, one must travel to the courthouse – those are protected from online public view). This database came in handy for a friend who was selling his house. A buyer proposed to lease the home first, with an agreement to buy it later. A quick search showed the buyer had multiple lawsuits against him which all resulted in judgments, all for not paying rent. In ten minutes, my friend said no thanks to the offer.    
  4. Real property records. If you own real property and financed it, the deed and mortgage may be available for public view. Just go to your county’s Auditor/Recorder’s website.  Not every county offers online viewing of documents. To check your county, Google it, or go to www.netronline.com, which provides links to county auditor and assessor websites all over the country, and tells you whether the data is available online.  
  5. Google. Finally, (and this is no secret) there is Google. We may control what we put online, but we can’t control what others put online. Here’s a real life example. A client won a $1 million judgment against a fraudster (we’ll call him Mr. X) who was clever enough to not own anything. His son and various associates “owned” his house and business so there was nothing to seize in order to satisfy the multiple judgments against him. The fraudster was careful to keep things out of his name so creditors could not find them. The gig was up when he – and his $300,000 boat – joined a local yacht club. Unbeknownst to Mr. X., the club posted its newsletter online, welcoming Mr. X, his wife, and his new custom built yacht. With that information (and a few photos from the yacht club’s website) the client had the yacht’s name, approximate value, its location, and with a little extra work, easily proved in court that the yacht belonged to Mr. X, not the friend.  

These information sources, by themselves, probably are not enough for one to do too well in stealing someone’s identity, but they certainly can make it easier for the bad guys. Now more than ever vigilance is important in reviewing bank and credit card statements, watching the mail, and of course, always avoid Nigerian royalty soliciting you with a Yahoo!® email address.   

On the flip side, good information helps the ordinary person make more informed decisions. Does your nanny really have a clean driving record? Does your potential renter pay his bills? Is your realtor as honest as he says he is? These days, nothing is stopping you from finding out.      

Owen Gabrielson April 13, 2012 at 09:29 PM
Author Note: The DOL says it does not release registered owner information from vehicle records to the general public, but it actually does, so long as the use is permissible under the Act. Permissible uses include locating addresses for service of process, or creditor initiated asset searches. Estate attorneys use the database to confirm VIN numbers for cars owned by decedents, and to locate heirs. Moreover, there is no requirement under the Act that this information be kept confidential by the person who receives it from the DOL. In fact, often the information from the database is used to obtain information that makes its way into court affidavits regarding process service attempts.

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