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The Liberty Lamp: Libertarian News & Editorials

A blog dedicated to the advancement of libertarian principles, and to the protection of activist groups' privacy and Constitutional rights. Topics include discussions on privacy tips, current events, political topics, and bulletins on how to get involved in various pro-liberty activities.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Private Threats From Public Records

Privacy is important. Everyone wants it, and we can find strong evidence in the Bill of Rights supporting its legally protected status. For many generations (at least in theory), one's own personal papers and effects were considered to be something quasi-sacred; something not to be violated except in extreme cases, such as investigating a real crime, where an actual victim exists. Over the course of time, however, the situation has deteriorated somewhat. Government statute and public attitudes have led us to a social milieu in which privacy is no longer considered a right, but merely a "privilege".

Informed and thoughtful readers such as yourselves will doubtlessly understand that we need to get back the privacy. You want to better comprehend what the real threats to your personal information are. You want to find the best solutions for protecting that information and for maintaining personal control over it.
We will discuss all of this very soon. First, we must understand what, exactly, the difference is between a "right" and a "privilege". Some may find this to be a useless academic splitting of hairs. I intend to demonstrate that it, is, in fact, critical to the discussion that follows.

What is a right? Put simply, a right is an inherent power you, the individual, have to do something without having to ask for permission. On the other hand, a privilege is something that you do have to ask someone for permission to do. If you don't, negative consequences may befall you.

For clarity, let me give an example. I will refrain from the tired and worn politically popular First Amendment clauses, and will go for something more shocking (but hopefully equally demonstrative) – Gun rights and the Second Amendment.

You have an inherent right to self-defense, whether you believe it comes from God, Natural Law, the best structure for society, etc. Gun permits, on the other hand, make firearm ownership a privilege and not a right because you then have to ask mommy government if it is OK to “play with guns”, ie, keep and bear arms for the purpose of self defense, sport, or any other reason that does not initiate force on someone else. The same conceptual framework also applies to your privacy. You have an inherent right to maintain control of your personal information- your property, as long as you act in a peaceful, honest manner that doesn't threaten or damage the goods or person of someone else.

Excuses from men (or women) with guns claiming to be "government" are irrelevant if you know yourself to be innocent. This should not be taken to mean that nothing will happen to you. It might. But there are ways to minimize this chance, as we will see. The important thing to realize is that privacy is not "just for criminals with something to hide" but for the innocent as well. Why would you want your ID stolen? Would you want to safeguard yourself against a false or inaccurate accusation? Of course you would!

What are the stakes? The short answer is that it depends on who you are and what you do. The longer answer is that business owners, professionals like doctors and contractors, and political activists are at the highest risk. In fact, if you're a career professional such as a physician, you have a one in three (33%) chance of being named in a lawsuit in any given year (data from KeepYourAssets.net)! With statistics like these, no wonder malpractice insurance is so high these days. A more graphic and extreme example of professional danger comes to us from a recent report by Strategic Forecasting, Inc. (www.stratfor.com), a leading risk analysis company.

It seems that a certain mentally unstable individual in the Midwestern US, calling himself "The Bishop", has been sending threatening letters, and, most recently, nearly complete mail-bombs to executives at several mid-sized financial firms. What is his goal? Apparently to threaten these firms into changing the prices of certain stocks, often to $6.66. The threat letters also included vows to kidnap and hold hostage the managers' spouses and children. As of yet, no one is known to have been harmed. This is very fortunate, but the sad part of this tale is that the entire thing could have been avoided by the victims. How? By keeping out of the public record by "controlling" rather than "owning" their property.

We will not know for certain how The Bishop got his information until he is apprehended and tried, but the most likely way he finds the addresses of his victims is through public records, including those of the state DMV and county assessor's office. Vehicle registration and property tax records are the most reliable and easily obtained pieces of personal information useful to a potential assailant. One can easily visit a county administrative building for home ownership and property tax records. The DMV keeps very little control over its own records, and in many states, your personal information may be sold to third parties for marketing reasons! If you are a high profile businessperson (or even if you aren't), there is a low, but very real chance that a criminal or greedy lawyer may try to find out where you live in order to take your money or harass you.

Fortunately, there is something you can do to ward off such life altering attacks. The secret is the concept and practice of "controlling", rather than "owning" your high value, publicly recorded assets. To achieve safe, reliable anonymous ownership, one can utilize the power of a trust or an "Invisible" New Mexico Limited Liabilities Company (NM LLC).

Trusts and LLCs are legal entities that legally separate you from your property- but control over the use of the property is still all yours. For example, you could form an LLC for your home, then transfer ownership from your name to the name of the company. From then on, public record would show only the name of your company. Thus, someone looking through the records would not be able to easily find out where you live. Similarly, motor vehicles can be made more private by transferring ownership to a LLC or trust. Note, however, that your auto insurance rates may go up slightly, as "business" policies are typically more expensive (though usually more comprehensive) than coverage for individuals. On the other hand, if you're looking for more insurance already, this may not be a problem. If you want to transfer ownership of multiple assets, I recommend using a single LLC for each one. This insulates risk, and ensures that if one item is somehow found, the others will not be. Separation is most important for minimizing damages from lawsuits. After all, if a lawyer can't discover that you own anything, he will not try to bother suing you for it.

We now conclude this brief introduction to asset protection and the importance of privacy.
What have we learned? First, that privacy is an unalienable right that cannot be legitimately revoked or qualified on a whim by government. Next, I showed you a vivid example of what has happened on occasion to some people who did not take advantage of privacy protecting asset protection opportunities when they had the chance. Finally, you've learned a bit about how to actually use a legal entity like a LLC or trust to separate yourself from your assets so that the two will not be easily associated with each other.

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