Business, bureaucrats hope lawmakers trump Abbott's SSN rule

Rob Luke Mar. 28, 2007, 9:55am

Attorney General Greg Abbott

AUSTIN -- Texas's public-record keepers might soon be off the hook from a controversial identity-theft ruling issued last month by Attorney General Greg Abbott.

But those most affected by Abbott's ruling, which has greatly increased their workload, don't seem to be taking any chances.

Abbott's ruling last month reinterpreted an existing law governing displaying personal information on public documents. Social security numbers (SSNs), Abbott stated, must now be completely removed from all public documents.

The attorney general's 60-day grace period triggered a burst of activity amongst public clerks and title companies struggling to comply with the new ruling. Many added workers for the extra labor needed to redact social security numbers from requested documents.

Landmen, who broker deals between oil drillers and mineral-rights holders in Texas, were especially hard hit since much of their work involves title searches. One told the Waco Tribune-Herald the ruling would "cost the industry an ungodly fortune."

But the Texas House rode to the rescue last week by passing House Bill 2061, which removed liability from local clerks for SSNs disclosed on documents filed in their offices.

Under HB2061, Texas citizens can request that most digits on their SSNs on official documents be redacted. It also directs real estate professionals to no longer use SSNs on official documents.

The bill was introduced shortly after Abbott allowed officials on Feb. 28 an extra 60 days to comply with his ruling. The attorney general admitted the ruling had halted "a tremendous amount of business and commerce in Texas."

But HB2061 has only passed the Texas House and must still get through the Senate and be signed by the governor. So many public clerks are staying cautious and continuing to abide by Abbott's original ruling, according to a recent report by the STPNS news service.

Hays County, between Austin and San Antonio, is one such jurisdiction. County Clerk Linda Fritsche told STPNS that the county, which processes around 40,000 documents annually, will keep removing SSNs from those documents until told otherwise.

This in turns further holds up the work of title companies, which have fallen behind in their paperwork due to Abbott's ruling. These mostly small businesses now risk violating regulations governing how up-to-date their records must be.

If Abbott's ruling survives the legislature's onslaught, violators could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

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