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Courthouse for Sale - Cheap

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In what could be the largest single transfer of a county asset to a private company in the history of Texas, Fort Bend County Clerk Dianne Wilson recently sold every document ever filed with the county clerk's office to a Florida-based company.

Red Vision paid the county approximately $2,000 to transfer twenty million records by USB cable. This could be the cheapest price ever paid by a private company for the bulk purchase of documents held by a government agency.

According to Wilson, this was just business as usual. In an interview with B.J. Pollack of the Fort Bend Herald she said she sells the records "every day" in bulk to companies like Red Vision and has since 1995.

An asset that took Fort Bend County taxpayers 167 years to create and ten years to digitize was transferred to Florida in approximately 150 hours. Local taxpayers pay $1 a page for copies of their documents. Red Vision bought every document at the liquidation price of 10,000 pages for a dollar. With a mission to "revolutionize" the way banks, attorneys and title companies do business with local government, the company has more U.S. courthouses on its shopping list.

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Red Vision's Website sells documents they have already purchased from Bexar, Dallas, Galveston, Montgomery, Tarrant and Travis counties. The site shows an additional ten counties in Texas that are likely on the company's shopping lists. The counties all have one thing in common: the clerks in these counties make bulk purchases and Internet access possible by packaging bulky paper records into digitized electronic images ready-made for worldwide export.

Red Vision is only one of thousands of companies from around the world that monitor American counties for digitized documents to offer an eager worldwide market. A Google search for "public records" returns over eighteen million listings from companies claiming their right to emulate government repositories. These companies download the records directly from county Websites or seize the entire collection of images by Freedom of Information requests.
Among the eighteen million listings, you will find foreign companies like Infinity International Processing Services, Inc. This India-based data-mining company boasts the ease with which they and their allies in China and The Philippines access 400 Counties in the U.S. to process 35,000 detailed reports on American citizens and their property every month.

Also advertising they are cheaper, faster and more discreet than their county sources are the data miners, aggregators and courthouse clones like, Intelius, (WA), CourtRecords.org (Sweden), IdentityCrawler.net (NY), CourtsOnline.org, (OH) and ZabaSearch, Nebraska, WebDetective, (Canada), and Public-Record-Searches.Com (India) .

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Intelius, for example, promises to search billions of public records to produce an eight- page dossier on anyone in America. The Intelius Website reassures customers, "No one is notified that you are using the Intelius services, including the person you are searching for." Only American people and information are searched. Foreign customers are invited to pay in advance by check or international money order for profiles on U.S. citizens. While Public-Record-Searches.Com invites visitors to "Access the most complete of its type available anywhere on the net".

CourtsOnline.org promises, "from the comfort of your own home, you can obtain information on job applicants, neighbors, friends, family, even potential dates. In fact, you can investigate anyone living in the United States. You can find out who filed bankruptcy, have judgments or liens on their property, marital and divorce information or arrest records. You can even find out their home and auto loans, credit card debt and itemized cell phone bills while using our legal and completely organized database links."

IdentityCrawler.net brags "One of the largest public records search sites on the web. We link to tens of thousands of public records from the U.S.A. You can get anything on anybody, and you don't even have to hire a private investigator. You can do it all yourself online"!

Publishing the records over the Internet and selling them in bulk may save some local businesses, attorneys and midnight snoopers a trip across town. It saves foreign agents a trip across the world.

When KHOU TV news reporter Shern-Min Chow asked Dr. Wilson why the documents were on the Internet Wilson replied, "Because they are scanned and cannot be altered, I could be charged with tampering with a government record."

Possibly, but the question is not why the records are not altered before putting them on the Internet. The question is why put the documents online at all. Texas law does not require County Clerks to digitize the records or publish them over the Internet. Apparently the Fort Bend County Clerk feels no obligation when the record may reflect badly on her.

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Wilson claims to have imaged and placed online all public records available at the courthouse but the image of her 1985 traffic arrest (case # 27245) is mysteriously missing. Also missing from the County's online records is Wilson's grand jury indictment for misuse of public funds (expunged). The county has steadfastly refused to publish online or even allow anyone to make copies of the audit that may implicate her in federal privacy violations.

Last year, SmartMoney.com published Your Social Security Number Is Just A Click Away . The article identified companies and government agencies that make social security numbers and other sensitive information available over the Internet. Fort Bend County Clerk Dianne Wilson topped the list under the heading, Meet the Stalkers.

The Texas Constitution promises, "The people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers and possessions, from all unreasonable seizures or searches." County government's worldwide distribution and bulk sale of our documents over the Internet strips whole communities of dignity, privacy and security. We are being strip-searched by strangers in cyberspace. American citizens deserve better from our local government.

Find out more about this and other issues that face our elected officials. . . Register for the News for Public Officials Newsletter. It's FREE!

 

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Called a "Patriot" by some and "One Angry Texan" by others, Mr. Bloys publishes News for Public Officials (and the people they serve).

A leading public records security expert, his research and comments have appeared in The New York (more...)
 

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