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Disappearing Documents
by Robert Franco | 2008/08/01 |

Source of Title recently ran a feature on documents that were discovered missing from the online records in two counties (see Title Examiner Discovers Documents Missing from Online Database). These incidents appear to have been limited to the online databases, but it should give us all pause for concern.  If this can happen with the online records, how can we be sure that the records we access in the courthouse, maintained by the same companies, are not subject to the same inconsistencies?  Truth be told... documents have disappeared from the computers at the courthouse too.

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In both of the incidents covered in the article, the examiner had searched the records at the courthouse and attempted to access the online records just to print copies.  Upon bringing the missing records to the attention of the county recorders, they quickly called the company that maintains their indexing systems and the errors were corrected.  Nobody can say for sure how long these documents had been absent from the online records, but they had been filed 2 years before they were discovered to be missing.  It also begs the question, how many more records are missing?

Obviously, computer indexing is subject to many more hazards than traditional book indexes.  Once something was entered in a book index, it was there permanently.  If I check the index today, tomorrow, next month, or 10 years from now... the records I first found will be there without doubt.  Computers, however, are subject to "glitches," data-entry errors, hardware failures, etc.

In our home county, Richland County, Ohio, we have an ACS indexing system.  We have had problems in the past with missing documents. There were times that you could search the same name from three different terminals in the office and get three different results.  One would show no results, another would show some results, and the third would return even more (see Bring Back The Books!).  All of the examiners were concerned when the recorder decided to cease maintaining the books and switch to an all computer index and imaging system. 

Nobody could ever satisfactorily explain why we had a "now you see it, now you don't" indexing system - it was always assumed that the clerks were making "corrections" and not noting anything in the public system.  This too, is something that we didn't have to worry about with the book indexing systems.  If a change was made to a book index, you could easily see where there had been a modification.

This latest problem with missing documents was also on an ACS system, LandAccess.com.  In preparing the article, Source of Title contacted the county recorders in the affected counties and verified that the documents were available from the system maintained in the office; it was only in the online version that they were not available.  We also contacted ACS and asked what steps had been taken to address the issue and what they were doing to ensure that this wasn't happening in other counties they serve. 

ACS responded by saying that the company, in cooperation with local county recorders and clerks, provides access to property indices and information available as a convenience to the public. But, all information maintained at this portal (LandAccess.com) is maintained on a "best effort basis and is considered unofficial record copies."

"The LandAccess.com portal is successfully used thousands of times each day to view property records over the Internet," said Ken Ericson, the director of corporate communications for ACS. "Official records are kept and maintained in the county recorder's/clerk's office and are available during normal business hours."

Ericson added that ACS believes it is also important to note that each user who accesses the system agrees to a statement that reads "assessing accuracy and reliability of information is the responsibility of the user."

It has been pointed out before, by some who search online, that the records they access over the Internet are the exact same records that they use at the courthouse.  I received one call from an abstract company in New York that told me that even when searching at the courthouse, they use terminals that take them to LandAccess.com over the Internet.  There is a problem with this... if the LandAccess records are only maintained on a "best effort basis" and only considered "unofficial records," what are the official records in these counties?  The caller was obviously concerned.

It is clear that computerized records are here to stay.  As these indexing systems go, I would have to say the ACS system is among the best I have seen.  However, their response to the issue of documents missing from the online records bothers me.

As an abstractor, I need to know that I can rely on the records I search.  We search only at the courthouse and do not rely on online searching at all.  As ACS points out, the information that is available online does provide a convenience.  Occasionally, I just may need to check to see if something has been recorded or get some basic information before I send my examiner to the courthouse.  For that, it is a useful service.  However, my concern is that the system we use at the courthouse is also an ACS system.  If LandAccess is only maintained on a "best effort basis," how are they maintaining the records at the courthouse?  Is there something better than their "best effort" that I can rely on?

Furthermore, despite the claim from ACS that "each user who accesses the system agrees to a statement that reads 'assessing accuracy and reliability of information is the responsibility of the user,'" I can find no such disclaimer on the LandAccess Website. If it is there, they have hidden it well... I certainly didn't have to click on an "I agree to the terms and conditions" button to access our county records on LandAccess.com.  Shouldn't that important bit of information be prominently displayed?

I would have much rather ACS provided a more technical explanation that would ease my concerns about the possibility of this occurring with their systems we search at the courthouse.  Of course, that would still be inadequate for those who search the online records from within the recorders' offices, as they do in some New York counties.  It would have been nice to hear that these instances were due to an understandable "glitch" or human error, and there is some monitoring system in place to alert them to the fact that documents may be missing from their databases. 

I really have to wonder why there isn't some monitoring in place to prevent this already.  All of the documents that are recorded are assigned consecutive instrument numbers.  It does seem that it would be a relatively simple procedure to scan the records and look for missing documents. 

My next contention with the reply from ACS is one of practicality... how can a user assess the "accuracy and reliability of the information?"  A user has no way to know when something is missing when searching a computer database.  Unless you already know that there is supposed to be something there, how could you tell if your search didn't return a properly filed document? That is why we do the search - to find out what is, or is not, of record. 

And, why should the responsibility for verifying the accuracy of a company hired by our government fall on the user?  In my opinion, that is what the counties contract ACS to do - provide a reliable platform for the imaging and indexing of the county records.  There should be no disclaimers, and no "best effort" defenses for their negligence - in the courthouse, or on the Internet.  The counties owe the public a duty to maintain accurate and reliable records - that duty should fully extend to those they contract with to provide such services.  The public records should not be subject to a "use at your own risk" disclaimer.

It seems odd to me that there have been proven problems with indexing records as important as these on the computers, yet nobody really seem to be concerned.  Imaging systems, along with electronic indices, are continuing to grow and, in many cases, they are the only records that exist.  It is one thing to have unknown problems with online records, many of us know better than to trust them for our work anyway, but it is scary to know that the same problem can plague our official records at the courthouse.

Robert A. Franco


Categories: Abstractors, Public Records, Technology

2003 words | 5501 views | 22 comments | log in or register to post a comment



by charles jetter | 2008/08/03 | log in or register to post a reply


There are several counties in SC that have only computer indexing.  SC Code Section states that there shall be a hard copy index available for public use. If the computers crash, we can go home and waste time and money.   I have pointed this fact out to several clerk's and even given them a copy of the statute.  They look at me with like a "deer in the headlights".  They have no intention of complying with this.  Lazy for the most part, but also, no one in any county seems to realized that the clerk's office grows by leaps and bounds as far a paper work.  They are simply running out of room to put books.  No one worth their salt would ever search a title online although I know pleny who do. 

by Janis Talbot | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

Saving space

The simplest solution to the space problem for the clerks is one that few seem to ever recognize. They could digitize the older books that are in the greatest danger of deteriating. Putting records that are older than 100 years old online would serve their constituents best without exposing living people's private information to the net. It would also clear the shelves of the oldest and least used books. The oldest books have extreme historical value in their original form and could be donated to historical and genalogical associations if the county doesn't want to be bothered with preserving them.

The fact is, county officials have little to no control over the repository once elected officials abdicate their responsibility to faceless companies outside county jurisdiction. 

by David Bloys | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

Disappearing Documents

Good analysis of the problem as far as in-house indexing is concerned, Robert.  However, now I'm even more worried than I was before!    Thanks for bringing these comments to light.  Carol Bicking

by Carol Bicking | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

No one worth their salt would ever search a title online although I know plenty who do.

Janis : I am assuming you are referring only to on-line searches being conducted in South Carolina- unless you have experience in other states that you feel  the clerks have done a less than adequate job of posting "all" of the information online. It is a shame that the clerks have only done a partial job of posting the information on-line- it does no good to have part of the records, all of them are needed and the cost of doing the whole job is very little more.
I do on-line searches for the counties I work in- ( Northern Virginia)but these counties have "everything" available- nothing is left out. So there is no difference in the search I could do at the court house and the one I do from my desk- except that I get the copies right way at home. Some have disputed that- but I have compared and there is no difference.
Steve Meinecke


by STEVE MEINECKE | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

No Difference?

So there is no difference in the search I could do at the court house and the one I do from my desk- except that I get the copies right way at home. Some have disputed that- but I have compared and there is no difference.



I'm sure researchers who trusted the Ohio  online records also made this comaprison. It took researchers who actually go to the courthouse to actually SEE the difference.

by David Bloys | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

what may work for you doesn't work for everyone


you may be able to rely on your online records, but  most everyone else can not and should not.  Trying to rely on online records here in Iowa would be foolish as only a few years of records are available online to begin with and no court records are available online at all and, yes, I have seen mistakes in the indexing both online and at the courthouses.


by Ron McPherson | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

Comparisons to recorded docs and online docs

David: That is exactly what I have done- no difference.


by STEVE MEINECKE | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

A General statement about on-line systems

It is not the on line systems that are at fault with regard to gaps or missing entries or info not being complete- that is the fault of the clerk's not buying what is needed to post everything on-line- what good does it do to have 1993-2008 on line- if you need the docs for the last 100 years-it is a waste of money and effort to just post "part" of the records like that- and just frustrating also-if they would research the available programs, contact other clerk's offices and compare the different methods of doing it the correct way - then they would probably save money.

by STEVE MEINECKE | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

You really can't know Steve


Unless you go to the courthouse to verify each of your online searches, you really have no way of knowing what may be missing from the Internet records that exists in the Official Records. This is why the county's vendor disclaims away responsibilty for maintaining accurate records that truly mirror the official records. The disclaimers clearly state the online version is NOT the same. You can trust them if you want, but you do so "At Your Own Risk" .



by David Bloys | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

Thanks- That is what I have done

And they are the same- regardless of the disclaimer- all the sites have the disclaimer- even you have a discalimer on your site-


by STEVE MEINECKE | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

Not quite right, Steve

If you noticed, the missing records that were the topic of the article were, indeed, supposed to be in the online index and they are the same records available at the courthouse.  These documents, however, were only missing from the online records.  As ACS stated, they are only maintained on a "best effort" basis and not the "official records."  Clearly there is a difference between the reliability of online records vs. the records available from within the courthouse.

Had these examiners who discovered the error not searched the records at the courthouse, they would have missed important documents and had no idea they existed.  As David pointed out, if there are documents missing from your online access site, you would know it until someone files a claim because you missed something. 

This was not a case of the recorder "not buying what is needed to post everything on-line," it was a case of documents that were supposed to be there not showing up; even though they are a part of the official records available from within the courthouse.

This story should definitely be of particular concern to you.  Perhaps the company that maintains your online records is more reliable and hasn't had this happen - on the other hand, maybe you just don't know that it has. 

by Robert Franco | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

Your comments and Blog refer to the Ohio records that were missing- I agree- useless-as is

My comments and the ones that David is attempting to support are with regards to the counties I subscribe to in Northern Virginia- and I do make random comparisons to the official documents and the on-line ones also- just because I use the on line systems doesn't mean I don't have access to the courthouse documents also- way to much assuming going on here. If other states have such sub-standard systems, why keep them up and running- shut them down until such a time as they can be utilized with confidence.Encourage the clerks to fix their systems and make them safe at the same time.Only you can make them see what is truly wrong with their programs- since you are the ones "using it" and depending on it to be a good system to rely on- they just might be ignorant to what the real users have to deal with !
I do have to agree- none of us really know if what we are looking at is the "complete" document or information-I once discovered seven years of indexing missing from a rural courthouse-took them 4 months to re-create the index-page by page-I was not a welcome patron there after that.
It takes experience to see or notice the potential errors and or glitches that occur in any system, and as you say-I might be missing them also-the ones I never would expect.
Keeping my eyes open - Steve

by STEVE MEINECKE | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

Random checks aren't enough

Checking a few records chosen at random  isn't enough to say all the records are the same. This is like saying that a property has no liens against it because two of liens you checked at random were released. You have no way of knowing the status of the liens that were not subject to your random check.

just because I use the on line systems doesn't mean I don't have access to the courthouse documents also - way to much assuming going on here.


Steve, no one assumed you don't have access to the courthouse documents Steve. You have indicated you could go to the courthouse but choose not to as a matter of convenience. But unless you go to the courthouse for every search, you have no way of knowing what is in the official records that isn't reported in the online records.

If other states have such sub-standard systems

Calling online records systems in other states "substandard" is a bit state-centric, don't you think? Especially when Virginia's own sites tell you that searches done online ARE NOT  the equivalent of searches done at the courthouse.

by David Bloys | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

Disregarding Disclaimers

You can choose to disregard the disclaimers if you want Steve but as the disclaimers say, you do so at your own risk!

I agree with you that most sites have a disclaimer. I won't say that all of them do because I haven't checked all of them.  I"ve never seen a disclaimer similar to the ones on websites posted at the courthouse, have you? I don't think most states allow elected officials to disclaim away their accountability  to the public.

Yes, I do have a general disclaimer on my website. I will also post disclaimers to specific articles and press releases when I cannot verify the facts or simply do not trust the source as was the case in: Mysterious Website Granting Wishes to Homeowners Facing Foreclosure

This "press release" was so suspicious to me that I posted the disclaimer at the top of the article.

For articles such as  4 numbers that stand between you and your criminal clone where I know the source is reliable and has no disclaimer to the contrary I do not post an individual disclaimer but will often site source.

I also include a disclameir in my title reports when I find an error in the courthouse records . If I ever see a disclaimer at the courthouse that even resembles the ones I see online I will include this in every  report for that county. No abstractor is better than his source and our customers should be informed when the source is flawed.

by David Bloys | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

Contacting the Clerk for clarification

David: I will contact the Clerk of Fairfax County and get the details on just what they say is the difference between what is available in the courthouse and what I access on-line from their official web site for land records and the circuit court and provide that information for all to see and read.


by STEVE MEINECKE | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

Good Idea Steve

Good idea Steve, but I would get it in writing on the county letterhead and certified by the Clerk's stamp for your own protection. You will likely need hard evidence to pierce the vendor's disclaimer - if one of your online searches is disputed. If you don't ask for documentation you'll likely get the same canned answer the vendor's sales person has given the clerk. That answer probably varies widely from the county's contract just as it does from the Vendor's home page to the disclaimer.

by David Bloys | 2008/08/04 | log in or register to post a reply

What "Vendor" ?

The Land records in Fairfax does all of it's own filming , indexing and making available for use in the courthouse and the official web site all of the digital images it creates from the recorded documents- there is no middle man for these records- none of the counties I work in have outsiders doing anything with the recorded documents , everything is done "in house" in all of these counties, just as before on-line systems were implemented and we only had micro-film or deed books-they filmed every document right there in rooms adjacent to the record room. These counties are not like Ohio( as I am sure there are others also) where it appears there is another non-county entity that controls and provides access and use of the images "it" produces from the recorded land records.I don't understand how the Clerks have relinquished control of their records if that is the case.


by STEVE MEINECKE | 2008/08/05 | log in or register to post a reply

Then ask the clerk...

Then ask the clerk why they have a disclaimer on the site at all. If the records are controlled by the clerk, both online and at the Clerk's office, why not remove the disclaimer from the website or post an identical disclaimer at the Courthouse?

by David Bloys | 2008/08/05 | log in or register to post a reply

I Asked the Question last night- awaiting the answer-

That is exactly what I asked in an e-mail to the people in charge - I am awaiting their reply. It is interesting that the information page on the general page indicates that all of the books and micro film has been digitized and are available for viewing "either " in the record room or the county web site through subscription- they do not ever indicate that there is a difference in what that digital image is and or how they might ever be two different images- one for "in house" and another , as you purport, for the internet version.
Here is the notation:
The Land Records' documents have all been converted from microfilm and books into digital images. These images may be retrieved and researched at public computer terminals in the Research Room or via the web by subscription to the Court's Public Access Network (CPAN) (see below for subscription information). The Research Room is open to the public from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Documents from 1742 to the present are available for retrieval and deed books prior to 1945 are maintained in Historical Records located in Room 315 of the Judicial Center.
This kind of leads one to think that the images available on both places are exactly the same, unless there are words in there that I am missing.

by STEVE MEINECKE | 2008/08/05 | log in or register to post a reply

The problem isn't with the images...

The problem is with the "system."  Without being familiar with the counties you work in, I really can't say one way or the other whether you may be susceptible to the same problems we had in Ohio.  However, generally, the system used to serve those images in-house is a "desktop" application pulling from an internal database on an intranet.  The system used to serve the images over the Internet is a "Web-based" application.  Theoretically, the should provide the same results.  However, as we have seen in Ohio, the Web-based application was prone to errors that did not affect the in-house system.

For security reasons, I would be surprised if any county would allow direct access to their database containing their official records from a remote location. I would assume that they would use a different copy of the database for Web-users.  This adds another layer of uncertainty.

Of course, any computer system is prone to many more errors than the old book indices were. 

Obviously, computer searching is an integral part of your business and I don't expect you give that convenience up.  However, we should all be concerned about the integrity of the records we use, whether online or in-house, the fact that these types of errors can occur is something we should all be aware of.

by Robert Franco | 2008/08/05 | log in or register to post a reply

I received some answers this AM from Fairfax

I have a much better understanding now between "The official Records" and just what I am able to view and print at home from the subscription I have. When presenting a document for recordation, just before you hand it to the recorder- it is the original document- once it has been imaged and handed back to you, the image they have is "the official document" and the one you have in your hand is "not", since you can modify it, it no longer has the distinction of being "official", and that is the difference. The disclaimers that most sites have are from an era of when this was first started and they were not sure how to address this aspect- and the county agreed that they need to update that part of their site- 
Fairfax runs a dual system - it images the documents as they are recorded and provides them(all in house) to both the internal courthouse system and the on-line system to those that subscribe to the service- they are identical and exactly the same images and indexing process also. This is what I have been saying for so long now- there is no difference in either system since they are both the same.If I find a mistake on-line, it will be the same in the court house-and I report any mistakes I find to the "help-desk" so they can address that problem and fix it.
They have asked that I provide the links to their "discalimer" and any other helpful information I can provide so that they can update their statements also- It was a very helpful and informative chat I had with them today- 

by STEVE MEINECKE | 2008/08/05 | log in or register to post a reply
Source of Title Blog

Robert A. FrancoThe focus of this blog will be on sharing my thoughts and concerns related to the small title agents and abstractors. The industry has changed dramatically over the past ten years and I believe that we are just seeing the beginning. As the evolution continues, what will become of the many small independent title professionals who have long been the cornerstone of the industry?

Robert A. Franco



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