Carolyn Lucas, 62, of Sims, North Carolina, is one of about 400 workers across the country who gather local tax lien and civil judgment records for National Data Retrieval, a subsidiary of the data conglomerate, ChoicePoint. On this day, Lucas walks past the wide, impressive columns of the Wilson County courthouse in Wilson, North Carolina, and is greeted as a regular by county workers. Setting out her papers on a table in the civil division, she copies information from large leather-bound books onto forms provided by her employer. Writing longhand with a ballpoint pen, she records the name and address of each local resident who's been issued a lien or judgment (for example, for being late on a car payment or a dentist's bill), as well as the details on the case - about a hundred new entries in this small county alone. Lucas travels an eight-county region gathering such data, then sends it by fax or overnight mail to ChoicePoint, where it's entered into the vast databases held in that company's computer servers.
(Photo by John Biewen)
[Ongoing street noise]
John Biewen: How long do you typically spend, in your business, at the courthouse?
Carolyn Lucas: It really depends. No certain time, because if I have a lot to do that day I might just copy a part of them or something and then come back and finish. So, I do not really have a certain type schedule.
Biewen: Is there a range of -
Lucas: No, I just play it by ear. I just play it by ear.
Biewen: I mean, can it be all day or -
Lucas: No, it's not all day. In this county, I would say to collect records it would - on a monthly basis I would say it would probably be 3 to 4 hours.
Biewen: So you come once a month here?
Lucas: I might come once a week. But I would just do it ... I just said it on a monthly basis.
Biewen: I see, so the total of your visits.
Biewen: And do you, on any given day - it sounds like you spread your work out. It's very flexible, right? You can do -
Biewen: And, on a given day would you typically just visit one courthouse?
Lucas: No. [truck rumbles] No, I might visit as many as five a day, but just depending on what type of work comes in.
[Ongoing background office noises]
But you know, people do not like people that do this type work. A lot of people - you know, like I can be in the court and someone might come in, and they have paid the judgment but yet it has not been cancelled, you know, on their credit record or something. And when I'm there, I mean, I always stay quiet because, you know, people are - people are upset with the people that collect the records. I didn't make the record, they made the record. You know, they had - probably had a, might've had a very good excuse. You know, they might have had sickness, they might have been laid off of their job, whatever, you know, but this is a job. You know, I make my living doing this just like whatever they're doing - making their living as. And it's something that I want to always do correctly.
Biewen: Do you ever give any thought to ... the amount of data that's being gathered about all of us really - and ... at a certain point whether that begins to change the kind society we live in, in any way? You ever give any thought to that kind of thing?
Lucas: I'm not sure I know exactly what you're saying.
Biewen: The war on terrorism - that, to the extent that information about, you know, who's who, where are they, what've they been doing, that that becomes part of a process of trying to find people who may be up to no good, that this contributes to that.
Lucas: No, I have never looked at it in that way. I mean, when I come to the courthouse and copy these records [snaps fingers] it's gone in a flash. You know, someone's going to come in and do this work. I enjoy this work. I enjoy not having - I have a boss, but really I am my own boss. And, I'm the one that gets on my case. And, sometimes - Eric has, he might have called a time or two and said - so I said, "Eric, I really need to get on the stick, don't I?" I think maybe a couple times he might've said, I don't know what he'd say, I said, but I'd say, "Oh Eric, I need to get on the stick, don't I?" and he said, "Ha ha, I guess you do."
But no, I do not look at it in any way as you're saying. I did not - I do not invent the records. They have been before a judge. I'm not the judge, and I'm not the keeper of the records. I collect records. And, someone's going to do it, and I enjoy it, and I - that's just how I look at it. And when I go home, I don't think about how these records are used - anything about it. I just go home satisfied that I have done my best. And that's -
Biewen: And, it's a - it's a pretty good living? You feel pretty good about what you get paid doing this work?
Lucas: It all comes together with everything that the Lord has sent. He has sent it all. ... We make a living. Well, we make a decent living, me and my husband. And - but you really have to work.
Biewen: There are people who would also say that there are some things that they don't like about it. ... That if Choice Point makes a mistake, or nobody makes a mistake but somebody uses - is able to get hold of that in a way that they couldn't 20 years ago - at least more easily, because of the way the technology works. All these sorts of things that some people see as concerns and they say well, you know, this whole sort of system of having all this data available in ways that it wasn't a generation ago - that there are some real concerns about it.
Lucas: Well, the only way to look at that is anyone - anyone, anywhere can go in the courthouse and pick up this information. If they want a certain person's identity, all they've got to do is come and punch it in the computer - go to the books, lookup everything about this person. So I don't feel responsible, because this is something public. It is not - anyone on the street can come in and do exactly what I'm doing, look up anything that I look up. And, I do not look at it as I'm doing a hazardous job, you know, as far as someone else getting someone else's ID, you know, because it's all public. It's all public.
And I really think maybe, you know, like online banking and things like that. I think that is a lot - has a lot more to do with someone getting someone's identity because they're wanting to get money. And I think, I mean, I do not do any online banking. I never will and, I mean, I'm just from the old school. I'd just rather know and see it on paper - what's happening, I mean. And I don't go to the ATM machines, I mean, that's just not for me.
Biewen: Say more about that, why is that? Why would you not use an ATM?
Lucas: Because I want it on paper, what I have done. I do not want to go to the machine and punch in something and [have] someone walk behind me and get my numbers, or someone come and run me over - like people have been killed, you know, like in Wake county, Raleigh last year. This car came and ran over a man and his little girl - killed the little girl. They were at an ATM machine. I mean, I just - it's not for me, all this modern computer
[Office noise increases]
Biewen: It sounds like you're not sure you trust those numbers that get punched in.
Lucas: No, and I do not want to put myself in a dangerous position, you know, I would just rather go to a drive up window, or go inside the bank, or whatever. I just - I think that's how people - how [they] gain people's identities so much is through banks and not records that I pick up at the courthouse.
Biewen: Do you think that most people understand the system, and understand the process, and know that there's - that there are people like you who are going to county courthouses and gathering the kind of data that you do?
Lucas: They probably do not unless they've had a problem. They might not know unless they have applied for credit and they didn't - and they got turned down for credit. They would know they had a judgment, then they would know - When they went into the courthouse they would tell them, you know, that someone comes in and collects these records. You know, we did not make up these records. You know, you were the person that owed this individual. And you know, they get - people get very upset with people that work in the courthouse because of the record, and they also are upset with the people who collect it. And the collector, or the person that puts it in the book, has nothing to do with it. I mean, we did not go out and invent anything or whatever.
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