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Sniff out records, but not by name

Pinellas County tax records can no longer be searched by the property owner's name on the county Web site because of security concerns.

Tax Collector Diane Nelson stopped allowing those searches this month because she became concerned after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that criminals, terrorists or just plain nosy neighbors could find addresses of others online.

Property records still can be searched at the tax collector Web site, www.taxcollect.com, by address, tax parcel number or tax bill item number. But until a few weeks ago, online visitors could plug in a person's name and find his address and property tax information. Now, people must come to the tax collector's office to search that way.

"I don't think people should have to give up their personal privacy just because their taxes are public record," Nelson said Wednesday.

The information had been public for about a year when Nelson took office in January, she said. After Sept. 11, Nelson began reviewing security measures in her office and decided the name searches should be blocked.

"The 11th was a big factor in my mind," she said. "My first concern is for the safety and security for the taxpayers."

Nelson said she doesn't know of any crimes, security problems or other incidents that have occurred because someone found a person's address on the Web site. And she could recall only one complaint to her office.

But she said she made the decision after talking to Property Appraiser Jim Smith, who removed that search ability from his Web site some time ago after getting citizen complaints.

Across the bay, property tax records are more accessible online. Hillsborough's tax collector and property appraiser allow searches by name. Tax Collector Doug Belden said he has no plans to change a policy designed to help the public.

"There are just so many other avenues if you want to find where people live, whether it's a phone book or whatever," Belden said. "But this is a valuable tool for the public."

Belden said he has had no complaints in the 18 months that he has had that search feature. Many people find looking up names easier than addresses or parcel numbers, he said.

Belden and Phil Ashley, information services director, said anyone coming into the office could get the information anyway because it's public record.

But Nelson said making people look up the information in person deters wrongdoers.

"Usually when people are coming into the office looking for something, they have a reason," she said. "Looking in their home, they can look at anything they feel like. They don't have to be accountable."

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