NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. - Penny Wilson says she's extremely protective of her personal information. The New Port Richey woman shreds her documents and even Googles herself from time to time, just to see what pops up.
That's why Wilson was surprised to find her Social Security number online after she typed her name into a local government website.
The ABC Action News I-Team has uncovered dozens of cases in which government websites post Social Security numbers online, on websites that are easily accessible and open to the public.
Losing control of your Social Security number could ruin your financial life. An identity thief could open a bank account or get a loan in your name.
That was on Wilson's mind when she looked herself up on the Pasco County property appraiser's website.
"I couldn't believe it. Right there, on the computer, is my Social Security number for anyone to see," Wilson said.
After typing her name into a records search, some mortgage documents came up, with her and her husband's Social Security numbers clearly shown.
"That's my information," Wilson said. "That's tied to my credit. That's everything in my life, you know?"
The I-Team looked up other Pasco County residents on both the Pasco County clerk's and property appraiser's websites. After a few hours of searching, we had the Social Security numbers of more than 50 of Wilson's neighbors. We found dozens of examples of the personal information being included in deed transfers on both sites.
Wilson said most people are probably unaware of the situation.
"I think they have no clue," she said. "They have no clue and it takes literally five minutes to find."
In our initial search, we didn't find social security numbers being posted online on other Tampa Bay counties' websites. However, Pasco County officials told the I-Team that they found cases of this happening in Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Hernando counties.
"It is possible that things could have been missed," said Pasco County Clerk Paula O'Neil.
The clerk's office is responsible for posting public records online. Florida law requires that the clerks remove sensitive personal information, as of Jan. 1, 2011. O'Neil says they have posted more than 14 million documents online going back more than 30 years.
Since it's difficult for employees to go through and check each individual document, Florida law allows clerk's offices to use automated computer programs to scan the documents and remove Social Security numbers. The program is effective in blacking out or removing most personal information, but it does occasionally miss some items, especially older documents that predate the Florida law.
"If it's handwritten, it's hard to find," O'Neil said. "It could've been the spacing. A lot of the images are not clear."
Most of the Social Security numbers we found were on deed transfers from the 1990s, though we did find some left on newer documents.
O'Neil says the property appraiser's office has posted some documents that were never run through the automated program. As a result of our investigation, the property appraiser's office plans on switching to using the clerk's redacted documents, a process they say will take six weeks.
We provided the agencies with all of the Social Security numbers we found so they can be removed.
The good news is, it's easy to look yourself up and request your Social Security number be removed. O'Neil says if the program makes a mistake, they want to hear about it.
"We would love to know about those cases. We would love to redact that information," she said.
Here are the steps to take:
Step 1: Look yourself up on your county's clerk's and property appraiser's websites. In Pasco county, the links for the public records searches are http://www.pascoclerk.com/public-online-services-forms-or-search.asp and http://appraiser.pascogov.com /.
Type in your name or address and see what comes up. You will need to click on the document number highlighted in blue to see the actual documents (on the property appraiser's website, click on the "Book/Page" number).
2. If you see personal information that should be removed (Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, or credit card numbers), write down the book number and page number of the document.
3. Contact the agency and notify them that you would like the personal information removed. Pasco County allows residents to request a redaction online.
You can also call the Pasco County clerk's office at 352-521-4408.
If the information is on the Pasco County property appraiser's website, you can call them at 352-521-4433 for Dade City, 727-847-8151 for New Port Richey, and 813-929-2780 for Land 'O Lakes.
If you have a tip you would like the I-Team to investigate, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org .