There’s no question that having transparency in government is a good thing. Access to public records for the purpose of assuring that government is not engaged in immoral, unethical, and illegal activities is a given in this country. What is not a given, however, is the use of public records for purposes other than the watchdog function. For an in-depth look into the privacy side of this issue, visit: https://www.privacyrights.org/ar/onlinepubrecs.htm.
When individuals or companies use access to public records for their own gain, particularly when the goal is to profit from personal identification information (PII), it is a moral, ethical, and legal quagmire. If such information ultimately leads to stalking, it is blatantly illegal. For purely research? Perfectly fine. But what about greed? A short cut for profits? This is a shaky ground for legality. On the one hand, the spirit of the law indicates that court record availability is a matter of government transparency. This transparency is considered desirable in government to make sure it is not violating anyone’s rights. On the other hand, transparency is not meant to permit or enable otherwise illicit activities, such as identify theft, or harassment per stipulations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). But does it permit PII to be used for sales purposes? This is a gray area.
One could argue that any research of court records that includes PII naturally leads to the potential of sales; it’s hard to argue the potentiality of this argument. The primary issue, though, is not whether such information could be used, as it’s quite obvious that it could, but whether it will be used. This is determined by motive. In other words, what motivations would a person or company have to obtain records containing the PII? Given the natural profit motive of free enterprise, the most logical and common response would be because it’ll ultimately result in the company making money. But is the company making money because it’s using the PII explicitly? Or is it merely selling or trading this information? Which is okay? Are either of those options okay?
If sales are going to be conducted by phone, and a reasonable person could conclude that the person on the receiving end of the phone call does not want to be bothered, then the call itself is a violation of the aforementioned TCPA. This is not okay, simply on the basis of legality. Beyond legality, there’s a sniff test akin to the golden rule. Suppose you were on the receiving end of a solicitation that directly resulted from someone getting your PII from a court record. How do you react to the solicitation? Are you hostile? Are you okay with the idea that you will likely receive countless more phone calls as a new norm, even after demanding to be left alone? If your answer is “No!” then consider the effects of court scraping beyond legality and ethics.
Is contact as a result of court scraping a nuisance? Yes. Even salesmen engaged in the practice must acknowledge this. Does it always work? Of course not. Salesmen using information gathered by scraping know that it comes down to a numbers game: out of a large number of calls, only a small minority of them may be productive. That’s just the reality of sales. The difference between this and more traditional methods, however, is that no one signed up to be on a court scraper list. Receiving solicitations by this method purely results from creative greed; the Information Age has made acquiring PII quick and cost effective. For pure cost-benefit it is a natural boon for any company. The downside is that engaging in such activities makes you loathed.
Recall that using PII for stalking is illegal because stalking itself is a criminal activity. Would one classify relentless solicitations directly resulting from looking up PII from court records as a form of stalking? Do these solicitors not obtain information and seek contact without invitation? E-stalking, or stalking using the Internet, is criminal, much as one would stalk someone physically down the street.
Isn’t court scraping merely a more sophisticated method of e-stalking?
Here’s the only, barely valid excuse heard to date to that question: “Well no, because a person isn’t being solicited to do them harm… just to make money off of them!” Taking harm as the undesirable result of stalking, we arrive at the final point… Does the potential financial ruin of annuitants that are coerced into factoring a portion or more of their payment streams constitute harm? Or must harm be physically inflicted? One might turn this argument around and say, “But no one is forcing the annuitant into factoring his or her structure!” That’s certainly true, but there is the matter of how the annuitant is approached. Did the annuitant, in sound mind and of his or her own volition, seek to do so as a result of unique and pressing circumstances that necessitate factoring a transaction? Or, did a salesman contact the annuitant and use a sales pitch to make such a transaction, regardless of the annuitant’s circumstances? The first scenario is perfectly fine; the second is not. Context in this industry matters a great deal, and as has been said now many times before, ‘selling’ factoring isn’t like selling waffle makers. This is a life changing financial decision that cannot be taken lightly. As many annuitants have indicated during the harassment investigation, no one should have their PII when it comes to their financial situation unless they reach out first. We agree.
Not all those who sleuth court records or retrieve legal documents should fall under scrutiny. We do not advocate for an end to anyone’s ability to search court records; there are many arenas where this is perfectly appropriate and should be left alone. We do advocate the censorship of PII for recipients of structured settlement annuities. In short: leave them alone.
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