Tax & Accounting Blog

Land Record Officials: “Buyer” Beware

Aumentum April 19, 2012

By Kevin Williams, CDIA+

Product Manager, Conversion & Redaction Services

One Ohio county recently benefiting from the discovery of the Marcellus Shale , has been inundated with land records researchers from title and drilling companies as well as many other oil and gas related businesses. Much of the information necessary to accurately research the mineral rights and true ownership of land prior to oil and gas exploration is found in land records books at the local County Clerk’s office. Because there is usually only one or two copies of the information available for viewing at a single time, searching through these books can be very time consuming and frustrating for these researchers. A jurisdiction that scans or converts these volumes to digital copies allows many users to access the same books at the same time – saving time and money for all. Additionally, with the proper software, these jurisdictions can provide remote (Internet) access to the records.

Today, I read an interesting article – not the first such article I’ve read – about assistance that a title company is providing a local county by scanning land records books at no charge. This always raises my eyebrows. I’m skeptical…

Why should you be skeptical when an oil company or title company benevolently offers to scan your public records books for free? Seems innocent enough – they benefit from the output and you get your books scanned and digitized. Win, win – right?

Not so fast.

First off, the oil and/or title company will likely expect to keep a copy of the scanned records at no charge — essentially you are handing over your data and assets to this private entity. But wait, there’s more:

Lost Revenue

Usually a jurisdiction like yours collects legislative-required fees for these images when printed in the office – likewise when users access these images online. So, by allowing an outside company – who normally would need to access these records for a fee – to take possession of these records, you have given away a significant source of revenue and control. Some of these companies even send the images overseas to a processing center in order to have them indexed and placed online for sale to other prospective users. Essentially, making money off your property.

Additional Costs

Your county will still be required to either pay for, or process internally, the indexing required to make these records useful to researchers. Who will cover this cost? The oil and/or title company will have these records indexed and available long before you can complete this dubious task – simply because they have more resources. This will cost the county a great deal of money to either purchase the completed indexing and/or staff resources and time.

Quality Control

Most likely the county will be handed CDs or DVDs with hundreds of thousands or even millions of land records’ images. Who will take the time to confirm that all the pages for each book and each instrument are present and legible?

And what about image quality, processing Photostats, etc.? The county will still have an enormous amount of work (read: cost) remaining before these instruments will be ready for public consumption. Meanwhile, the oil and/or title companies are collecting revenues for YOUR records.

Security of Personal Identity Info

Many of these companies use off-shore businesses to process these records. Is the jurisdiction aware of this or approve the offshore processing? And what about the security of Social Security Numbers, DLs, Bank and Credit Card Numbers? Will these companies guarantee that these records will be redacted properly prior to selling to anyone who wants them? And were the records redacted prior to going over-seas? Who is responsible when someone’s identity is compromised? These are important questions that should be answered.

I realize jurisdictions all over the country are struggling with budgets and resources – trying to do more with less. You are aggressively seeking ways to curb spending and get the most from your budgets. But be careful. Clerks and Recorders are owners of and responsible for critical information and documents. Do your part to ensure those vendors you are partnering with have you and your jurisdiction’s best interests in mind. Proper evaluation and vetting will ultimately lead to more successful outcomes for the projects you take on.