How to Remove Public Records in 4 Steps
Table of Contents
- By David Lukic
- Aug 14, 2020
Most people would be shocked at the amount of information that is easily attainable about them online. If you go to Google and enter your name, a lot of stuff will come up that you weren't aware of was out there. According to the Freedom of Information Act., public records are available to anyone who requests them.
Before the advent of the internet prompted government entities to post public records online, it was much harder for someone to steal your identity. To get a copy of your birth, death, or marriage certificate, someone would have to visit a courthouse or local county clerk's office and pay a fee. Now, public records are easily accessible within seconds and a few keystrokes.
Additionally, online companies have started collecting and warehousing public records along with social media feeds and other information making it easier to do a full background check on someone and put the pieces together easily. These services provide a one-stop-shopping mall for identity thieves.
What is FOIA and What are Considered Public Records?
Public records include any information that a public or governmental institution records. This level of record keeping is a guarantee by the American government to maintain a high standard of transparency.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was kickstarted by the dismissal of thousands of federal employees. A Californian Congressman, John Moss, demanded records of the firings, which the Eisenhower administration refused.
Moss fought against government secrecy and garnered the support of journalists, scientists, and various media organizations. Even with public backing, it took over a decade for Congress to pass FOIA.
FOIA and public record keeping have been amended seven times since it was first signed into law. Today, typical public records include, but are not limited to:
- Home addresses & phone numbers
- Land deeds and other asset ownership information
- Voter registration records
- Divorce records
- Court records
- Marriage licenses.
- Old wills
- Probate cases
- Mortgages and home sale data
- Government surveys
- Civil circuit files
- Birth certificates
- Death certificates
- Driver license information, accident history, and other DMV records
- Criminal records
Are Public Record Policies the Same in All States?
Although the Freedom of Information Act is a part of federal law, it’s managed differently across the country. Each State has specific regulations and restrictions on what information is available, and some even have different names for public records.
Missouri and Florida call them “Sunshine Requests,” while California implemented The California Public Records Act (CPRA) as a different interpretation of FOIA. Most of the differences between each State’s laws revolve around definitions of privacy and accessibility.
These differences became crystal clear during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Media outlets like the Associated Press (AP) requested public records regarding reopening budgets and hospital information from state governors.
Some states like Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, New York, and Texas took more than a year to respond to inquiries. Others, like Pennsylvania, saw lawmakers push for increased speed in responding to information requests.
All states have some level of responsibility to report public records, but each one handles the process vastly differently.
There also exist differences in the cost of accessing public records. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just walk into a records office and leave with a stack of photocopied documents. It’s common practice to charge a fee for locating and organizing a public record request.
Many states implement a standard fee that all record-reporting organizations must adhere to. Others leave any associated fees up to the discretion of individual entities and only require they stick to a “reasonable compensation” for the service.
This wording opens the conversation up to a lot of scrutiny. The fees could drastically change depending on the difficulty of finding and reviewing relevant documents. For example, the Texas Administrative Code sets the labor cost of processing a public information request at $15 an hour. Colorado’s rate is double that at $30 per hour.
How Would Someone Find My Public Records?
Aside from searching through a broker, it can take considerable effort to access public records on an individual. Anyone attempting it must know how to narrow down their search so that mountains of useless information do not bog them down.
The internet has streamlined the process, and many states allow citizens to submit digital requests through their websites. Response times differ between standard and legal records, with Oklahoma estimating fulfillment to take 7 and 30 business days, respectively.
Curious citizens can also visit records offices, email their State’s Attorney General, or send a paper letter. Of course, response times vary depending on how the request is made.
Lastly, some states will even publicly post people’s information requests on their websites. This is a time-saving effort, so their staff doesn’t have to hunt down the information a second time. The idea behind this practice is that if one person is curious about specific information, others may be too.
What’s Left Out of the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act doesn’t cover all the information each State collects. There are limits to the invasion of people’s privacy or otherwise confidential information.
Like everything else, the rules for what’s considered “Fair Game” change state-by-state. Generally, exceptions to FOIA are separated into categorical and conditional exclusions. These block out information regarding topics like:
- National defense or foreign policy
- Internal rules and practices of a private organization
- Trade secrets or confidential financial data
- Privileged agency communications for legal cases
- Medical files
- Ongoing law enforcement documents
- Information on oil well data
A lot of information gets submitted as a “public record” but is later deemed to hold information on private interests. There have been cases where these exclusions weren’t followed, and information was leaked. After all, the employees compiling public records are human, too.
Many states, including California, have ruled that if an excluded document is released, then it must be returned or destroyed.
Reasons to Want to Remove Your Public Records
Most people’s records aren’t excluded from FOIA, and the above list is primarily for protecting national and business interests. For some people, it’s well worth taking the time to reduce the amount of available information on them.
The need only increases when you consider the number of data brokerage firms that compile and sell people’s public records. These firms create personal profiles through information on social media, biographies, and professional sites. They then sell these detailed profiles to anyone who asks whether that be big businesses or even criminals.
Some reasons you might want to remove your public records are:
Many profiles created through public records include personal identifying information (PII). They have details like physical address, full name, birthday, and more. These few facts are all a criminal needs to steal your identity.
You may be pegged as an individual with a greater chance of being scammed. Your public record can indicate things like age, education level, and socioeconomic class. These risk indicators may put you on an unscrupulous business’s radar. Even if you don’t fall for their schemes, it’s a major annoyance, at the very least.
Stalking someone starts with knowing where the target lives and works. However, information about the target’s car and hobbies makes a stalker even more dangerous. Having these details available through public record puts a person in increased danger.
Pretexting is a form of cyberattack that approaches the target under the guise of an acquaintance or authoritative organization. It’s common for scammers to copy the messaging patterns of banks, credit companies, or trusted medical offices.
If cybercriminals know who or what you’re associated with, they can use that information to trick you into giving up your financial information.
How to Remove Public Records from Internet
Some states provide laws that protect individuals who have been the victims of stalking or domestic violence. Additionally, if you have a juvenile criminal record or your information may affect public safety, in any of these cases, your entire public records file may be sealed. If none of those apply to you, you can still contact government sources to have some information redacted or removed.
1. How to Remove Your Name from Google
The first place to start is to find out what is out there about you. Google your first and last name to see what comes up. Also, try combinations with your name + employer or + city where you live. Try as many combinations as you can think of until you exhaust every corner of the internet.
Make a list of where your information comes up and identify the sources. These may include private websites, news sites, video hosting services, social media, government websites, or data warehouse portals. Contact each of the sources and request that your information, pictures, etc. be removed.
2. Get P.O. Box & New Phone Number
Go to the post office and rent a P.O. Box. You can use this in place of your home address on most official forms. Except for a few, like a voter registration form, you can use your new P.O. Box as your home address. That will help keep some fraudsters at bay.
At the same time, you might also consider taking out a new phone line to use the number just for filling out forms. You can keep your old one for real phone calls with employers, family, and friends but use the new one for public records documentation.
3. Visit Your County Clerk's Office
Your next step is to visit your local county clerk's office. Bring your ID to verify your identity. Once you are there, ask if you can review all the public records that pertain to you.
Also, ask what information on each record can be removed, redacted, or hidden. Ask which of the documents you can change your address on and use the new P.O. Box you set up. At the very least, have them remove your social security number, phone number, and email address from any forms where it is allowable. If you can, use your initials instead of your name. Little changes like that could thwart criminals and prevent identity theft.
While you are there, be sure to ask about the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) database and how to remove/change your information on there as well. It contains information on property ownership and financing, so you will definitely want to alter those records if you can. You may have to contact your state .gov website for that.
4. Call or Visit Your DMV
Don't forget about the division of motor vehicles! They have a ton of information on you in their public records. Ask if you can use your new P.O. Box for your address and see what other details can be removed.
Along with the DMV, visit other local county registries where your information may be publicly accessible. Some examples are the public library, unemployment office, parks, and recreation office, the public pool, etc. Anywhere that you can, change or remove your information.
How To Remove Personal Information from Internet
Along with attacking your public records, you will also want to tighten up your privacy and security settings on all your devices so that no new information leaks out. Some additional tips are:
Delete all your online/internet accounts, and this includes social media, shopping logins, subscriptions, other website accounts (possibly email as well).
Contact data brokers and ask that your information be removed. You can usually fill out an opt-out form to get that job done.
Contact Google to request the removal of anything that exposes your sensitive data (social security number, home address, kids' names, etc.) to the world.
Be patient and keep in mind, none of this will take place overnight and it could take a matter of weeks or months to contact every source.
If you are trying to "bury" information posted online about you, wage a content campaign and post a ton of new information about you along with pictures that will push the old, undesirable information down low on Google search pages where no one will ever see it.