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This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
You can remove or greatly reduce access to your online public records, and the personal information that they contain, by following the five-step process below.
Public records, many of them now available online, are government documents that anyone can legally view. You may wonder why so much personally identifiable information about you is accessible in these online public records. It’s because the law requires that certain types of records be made available for the greater public good.
These public records are not a new phenomenon, but the ease of accessing them on the internet is. With digitization, a host of privacy and security problems have arisen around public records. In this article, we’ll clarify the main types of public records, spell out some of the threats they cause, and provide you with a five-step process to protect yourself.
What are the main types of public records?
While the types of records that are considered public can vary due to state laws, they usually include:
- Arrest records
- Government contracts with businesses
- Driver’s license information
- Birth, marriage, and death records
- Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings
- Court files
- Voter registration
- Property ownership/tax information
- Occupational licenses
These records often contain a great deal of personal information. However, once a record is public, there are few rules about what individuals or organizations can do with this data.
What threats do online public records create?
Before states started putting public records online in the mid-1990s, accessing these records meant either mailing out written requests or going to government offices in person. This was a daunting and time-consuming task; therefore, not many people viewed public records, and the information on any single record was generally not sufficient to cause an individual any harm.
However, over the past few years, numerous data brokerage firms have used online public records to compile detailed personal profiles about you. They then flesh out these profiles with data gathered from social media, news stories, and elsewhere, and sell them to anyone who wants access. Consequently, anyone can quickly and easily find personal information about you online, and this information is very comprehensive, covering many areas of your life.
These online profiles leave you exposed to numerous risks. The following are only a few examples—with links describing real-world cases—of people being harmed:
- Identity theft: Many public records contain all the information a person would need to steal your identity.
- Targeting by predatory businesses: Unscrupulous businesses sometimes use the information in public records to identify individuals with bankruptcy or credit problems.
- Identity confusion: Private organizations compile information about you, retool it into a detailed dossier, and then sell it back to government law enforcement agencies. These files can contain mistakes that cause the government to falsely identify you as a criminal.
- Stalking: If someone wants to harass you, all they need to do is look up your address and telephone number in public records.
- Doxxing: This cybercrime (which is short for “dropping docs”) involves publishing someone’s personal information on the internet in hopes of intimidating or shaming that individual, or inciting others to harass him or her.
- Swatting: Intentionally sending the police (or a SWAT team) to an individual’s home because he or she supposedly committed a heinous crime is called swatting. Occasionally, swatting results in police shooting the innocent victim.
- Pretexting: This is when someone uses the personally identifiable information they find in your public records to pretend to be you to get access to secure information like your financial data. Hewlett Packard (HP) got in trouble for doing this in 2006.
- Increased marketing spam: Data brokers sell your information to advertisers for customized marketing and advertising based on the profile they build from your public records.
Five steps to protect yourself from online public records
Depending on which state you live in, the government can completely seal your public records under certain specific circumstances, such as when:
- You are a victim of domestic violence or stalking
- You have a juvenile arrest record for a minor crime
- Your data contains information that might put public safety at risk
However, even if your situation doesn’t fall into the above categories, you still have options. In most states, you can change certain types of personal data in your public records. You can also have other types of information redacted from the electronic versions of those records, and you can ask data brokers to remove your personal information from their indexes.
To get started, follow these five steps:
1. Google yourself
Search for different combinations of your name, name + city, name + employer, and any other combinations you can think of that are likely to pull up information about you. You want to find out what kind of information is being associated with your name, and hopefully also where that information comes from.
Search at least the first few pages, and don’t forget to look in the video and image tabs as well. Make a list of the personal information that you find. Then, deal with each type of information as follows:
- “Friendly” sites: These include charities, organizations you work with, or other websites that don’t really need to post your personal information. Contact them and ask to have it removed.
- “Hostile” sites: If someone has written a blog “doxxing” you, then they are unlikely to respond to requests to stop. You’ll need to follow an online reputation management plan to resolve the issue.
- Social media posts: Posts that reveal personally identifiable information are usually a Terms of Service violation. You should submit a removal request with the social media site.
- Images or videos: Similarly, any images or videos of your personal information can often be removed by issuing a removal request.
- Government websites and people-search sites: These are the trickiest, and unfortunately the most common. The remaining steps will help you get your information removed from these sources.
2. Get a P.O. Box
Not all public records require a physical street address. For some records, you can use a post office box instead. However, certain types of records, such as voter registration forms, do unfortunately need a physical street address.
Similarly, you can hide your real phone number by creating a dedicated phone number you use just for government forms.
3. Go to the county clerk’s office
Once you have a new P.O. box and phone number set up, your county clerk’s office can help you get your public records updated. These government offices house many of your public records, including:
- Court records
- Marriage licenses
- Old wills
- Probate cases
- Deeds and mortgages
- Government surveys
- Civil circuit files
- Birth certificates
Call before you go, both to check when they are open and to be sure you bring the correct types of ID. You should also check to see if there are any forms you need to fill out on their website in advance.
Ask the person at the county clerk the following questions:
- What information can be removed
- What can be redacted (at a minimum, you’ll usually be able to have your telephone number and a portion of your Social Security Number redacted)
- What can be changed (for example, initials instead of full names)
- Which documents can contain your P.O. Box instead of your street address
Next, ask to see the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) database. The UCC database at the county clerk’s office lists information on property ownership and liens and may contain your Social Security Number. The clerk may not automatically show you this database when you ask to see your records, but the information is still accessible to the public.
4. Visit the DMV
This DMV is another treasure trove of public records, including driver and vehicle records, as well as owner histories. Depending on which state you live in, your local DMV office may be able to replace your home address with your new P.O. Box on any driving-related records. Check on their website or give them a call, and then go into the DMV to update the records that are eligible in your state.
5. Opt out of people-search sites
Once you have erased as much personal data as you can from your original records, you need to delete any instance of that information appearing on people-search sites like Radaris, Intelius, WhitePages, and MyLife.
These sites crawl public records and the wider internet, including social media, to find your personal information. They then compile this data into a digital profile, which they sell to individuals who want to learn more about you. You may have seen some of these sites in your search results back in Step 1, as they often rank highly for a person’s name.
To remove your personal data from people-search sites, you’ll need to go to each company’s website and follow their procedures to opt yourself out. We recommend using our detailed instructions on how to remove yourself from some of the biggest sites.
Be sure to also opt yourself out of legal aggregator sites, like CourtRecordFinder.com. Just like regular people-search sites, these sites let users search by name to learn more about someone. However, these sites focus on state, county, and federal legal proceedings, including marriages and divorces, arrests and warrants, civil and criminal trials, and bankruptcies and tax liens.
Unfortunately, opting out of people-search sites can be tedious, and it requires recurring maintenance to ensure that your data doesn’t reappear. That’s why it’s useful to use automated tools to help you with the process.
At a minimum, consider setting up a Google Alert for your name, so that you’ll see when new information is published about you online.
Alternatively, you might want to consider a paid privacy service, such as our ExecutivePrivacy or Privacy Pro solutions, which opt you out of dozens of people-search sites and monitor the web regularly to make sure your information stays private. This is the most effective way to keep personally identifiable information from your public records off the internet.