How Wisconsin Courthouses Pose Identity Theft Threat

If you were divorced in Wisconsin before July 1, 2016, or were involved in virtually any civil litigation before that date, your social security number, driver’s license number, bank account numbers and other information could be in court records that are open to the public in courthouses around Wisconsin. But there are steps you can take to get the information removed. Media Trackers became aware this week of social security numbers and bank account numbers included in a divorce file that recently had been transferred from paper record to an e-file at a Wisconsin county courthouse. We discovered several locations where the social security numbers of the divorcing couple and their two now-adult children were listed.

We brought this finding to the attention of the Director of State Courts, Judge Randy Koschnick. The conversation initially focused on whether an error had been made in scanning the print documents into an e-file. In fact, a mistake was made. But Koschnick points out that the error is largely irrelevant because print or digital, thousands and thousands of divorce and other civil matter case records around the state could reveal the same sensitive information.

Koschnick says that’s because until July 1, 2016, lawyers who made such filings were not required to redact the sensitive data. That changed with statute 801.19. “Identity theft wasn’t much of a concern when many of these older filings were made,” Koschnick told Media Trackers. Under the statute, anyone filing a document with a circuit court must ensure the following personal information is redacted, or shielded from public view:

1. A social security number.
2. An employer or taxpayer identification number.
3. A financial account number.
4. A driver license number.
5. A passport number.

Such information was already protected when included in a confidential financial disclosure. But Koschnick says it wasn’t uncommon for attorneys to include such information in parts of records that are open to the public, as with the case Media Trackers reviewed. That means hundreds of thousands of the numbers listed above could be sitting in records in courthouses around Wisconsin, ready to be harvested by identity thieves.

Koschnick advises that if you were involved in such a case that you check the file yourself to see if any sensitive information is exposed. The state provides a form to have such information redacted, which you can find here.

As part of the transition from paper to e-files, county courts are also scanning older files into digital form, as was the case with the file we reviewed.  This makes searching for this data more convenient for those who want to use it for illegal purposes, but they can still also get it in print files at courthouses as well.

Bottom line: Koschnick recommends that if you think there’s a chance a file exists with your sensitive personal information exposed, you should examine the file for yourself and request a redaction if needed.

Sensitive information is not available to the public on the statewide CCAP circuit court access system, only at courthouses. Koschnick says judges and attorneys may access the information remotely.