By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support local journalism.
Ancestry.com tree at root of Brown's problems
Ancestry.jpg
Annie Ruth Brown holds up a letter from the state denying her a copy of her birth certificate based on inaccurate information obtained from an Ancestry.com fact sheet, information that no one should be allowed to see except the tree owner and others the tree owner invites to the tree. - photo by Lisa Hobbs

One person’s voyage of discovery on a popular genealogy website has created a real world problem for a relative. 

Annie Ruth Brown said someone placed inaccurate information on Ancestry.com about her place of birth and that information has been used by the Tennessee Department of Health’s Division of Vital Records and Statistics to deny her request for a birth certificate.

“I need my birth certificate so I can obtain a phone ID,” said Brown. “Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency, I’ve been getting help with my electric bill for years, says they now require a photo ID before they can help me anymore. I need a copy of my birth certificate in order to get a photo ID.”

Mrs. Brown, who is 74 years old and has been legally blind since birth, sought assistance from her niece.

“We gathered all the information they said they needed to issue her a birth certificate,” said niece Linda Wilkerson. “A few days later, my aunt gets this letter in the mail denying her request based on inaccurate information on an Ancestry.com fact sheet.” 

The correspondence was from Angela Coulter from the Special Services Vital Records division at the Tennessee Department of Health and is dated Aug. 26, 2019. 

“We have received a Social Security numident that states Annie’s name is ‘Annie Ruth Brown,’ her date of birth as ‘11/17/44’ and her place of birth as ‘Woodbury Cannon County TN.’ We have received an Ancestry.com fact sheet that states Annie’s name as ‘Annie Ruth Brown,’ her date of birth as ‘11/17/44’ and her place of birth as ‘Warren County TN.’”

Wilkerson is livid.

“They completely ignored official information from Social Security and denied my aunt because of information placed on an online ancestry database that most people do just for fun,” she said. “We went online in an attempt to change the inaccurate information and we weren’t allowed to see it because she’s living.”

According to Ancestry.com, people marked as “living” in family trees are not visible in searches at any privacy level. Only a living person’s gender is publicly displayed. All other details are hidden from view. Living people are visible only to the tree owner and to anyone the tree owner invites to the tree and authorizes to see living people. If no death information is provided, people under 100 years old are considered to be living.

“As you can see, my aunt is very much alive,” said Wilkerson. “How did they see private information? No one should be allowed to see it, but the state obviously did. Right there in the letter it says the information was obtained from an Ancestry.com fact sheet. People need to know the state can access this information, even though it says no one can. If the information is inaccurate, it can create problems for your relatives.”

Wilkerson says their relative, whose identity is unknown, may have believed Brown was born in Warren County due to her mailing address being Morrison, Tenn.

“A lot of people in the outlining areas of a county have that same situation,” said Wilkerson. “She was born in the house she currently resides in. That house is in Cannon County, but her mailing address is Morrison, Tenn. Someone must have believed that her mailing address was her place of residency. It is not.”

Wilkerson said she obtained and submitted a State of Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Real Estate Assessment Data that listed the mailing address as Morrison but the parcel of land is in Cannon County. 

“She still hasn’t received a birth certificate and time is running out,” said Wilkerson. “We’ve reached out to everyone we know for assistance, even calling the governor’s office. We can’t change what someone else placed on Ancestry.com but that information is being used against her. This isn’t right and people need to know what can happen. If this can happen to her, it can happen to anyone.”

Brown added, “I have until the end of September to get a photo ID and apply for assistance from UCHRA. If I miss the deadline, I can’t get help with my electric. I need that assistance. I’ve been receiving assistance for years and now I’m going to lose it because of this.” 

Attempts to contact Coulter by phone and email went without response.