So-called “people finder” sites like PeopleFinders, WhitePages and many others buy, sell and trade your private information for profit. Few people are happy to know how a stranger – or a marketing company – can get their home address for a few dollars, and it’s hard to stop.
But not impossible.
As we learned in How to opt out of people search websites, Peoplefinder sites are giant databases that make money by selling your profile to anyone with a credit card.
For instance, PeopleFinders is one of the largest of these sites. Right now they are making a sale.
At PeopleFinders, it’s only $0.95 for anyone to buy your full name and all variations, address, phone number, relatives’ names, age and date of birth and they promise up to 40 years of history of your address.
Big spenders can pay $39.95 and get all of the above plus information about any property you own, your marriage and/or divorce records, any bankruptcy information, a sex offender check, and a check. of the criminal record.
There are dozens of people search sites, and many of them belong to each other. They are the front side of a sleazy world where data dealers comb through public records, buy and trade information from online stores and social networks, and scrape sites for the profile information of n anyone and everyone. Then they smash it all into a profile – of you – and put it up for sale.
Many people searched to find records that were incorrectly associated with them. It’s fun when people think you’re an opera singer, but scary when it comes to a criminal record.
While one of the major sites Intelius conceded in SEC filing that the information it and similar companies sell is often inaccurate and outdated, many people can find their own home address with just a few clicks.
I think a lot of people don’t realize that when they click “accept” on social media and other websites, the little footnote about agreeing to share data with third parties means that their phone number is sold to anyone for a dollar. Or have their profile data added to these databases, filling in any information gaps about their various people search profiles.
Right now, it seems data dealers are really taking advantage of the fact that few people understand this.
That’s why lately I get really mad when sites like Facebook and Google+ require legal birth names for users. They claim that using a real name makes people behave better, when there is no evidence to support this claim and many people have the opposite experience. I think the truth is rather than a legal name makes personal data collected by Facebook and Google+ more valuable because it is accurate.
I also bristle when people try to use the fact that these social media sites are free, in any type of “like it or leave it” argument. They’re not free when you consider that the end result of submitting your profile information will net a company $35 off your “free” participation on social sites. Or that when Facebook sells or trades your phone number and address, they don’t give you a share of the profits.
I fear this has created a world where privacy and certain types of personal security are a commodity.
So you can disable people search sites, but you can also do what you can to stop Wikileaks of personal information that everyone knows about unknowingly in the hands of data buyers and sellers.
Where People Search Sites Get Their Data About You
I’ll start with the bad news first. As we know, these data thieves get some of their information about you by getting their hands on your public records.
There are no laws against it, but I’m starting to think there should be. Before the Internet, access to public archives was not easy. Their physical locations and the procedure surrounding accessing documents made the barrier to access prohibitive – unlike today where any creep can stalk you and view your public records from their couch.
My interview topic How to withdrawlawyer and privacy expert at Abine Sarah A. Downey, explains the public records:
“Public record” is a term defined by law, and includes anything prepared by a government employee or for the advancement of government business. All public records are accessible through the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), both federal and state.
Each state’s freedom of information is different, which causes conflict. For example, Florida has a very liberal Freedom of Information that allows public posting of ID photos, which has led to a fairly lucrative – and controversial – ID photo website business.
According to Downey, this is a list of the types of sources that people search sites use to compile their lists:
- Real estate transactions (including appraisals)
- Trademark filings
- Marriage Licenses and Divorce Judgments
- Any unsealed suit or legal action
- Birth certificates
- Death certificates
- Census statistics
- Registrations on the electoral rolls
- Driver’s license
- Government Expenditure Reports
- Political campaign contributions
- Sex Offender Registrations
- Minutes of Legislation
- Corporate and Entity Filings
- Professional and commercial licenses
- Criminal records
Data brokers and people finder sites also obtain your data from public archival sources consisting of information provided voluntarily by individuals, though presumably unaware that it would be used for something beyond of the purpose for which you originally provided it. Downey listed these sources as examples:
- Prize draws
- Discount and warranty cards
- Online account records and profiles
- Forum Posts
Speaking of social networks… Advertising networks are the same kind of resellers of personal data. If you were one of 70 million MySpace users, your profile now belongs to the targeted advertising network that bought them on June 29, 2011 – Specific media.
I have the general impression that there are a few big players here who do everything. By “everything” I mean:
- Both buy and generate data and lists themselves.
- Sell it to individuals (through people search service storefronts) and businesses (other data resellers, AOL, targeted advertising companies).
- Negotiate it with partners (post-deal marketing firms, analytics companies like KISS Metrics and the Direct Marketing Association).
After public records and online accounts or registrations, people search sites collect their information from other people search sites, social networks, online accounts, online tracking software, etc.
In a blog post, people search site Intelius openly states another site, Spokeo, compiles data from social networking sites, and they say that Facebook and Twitter are “the face of a hidden world of commercial data brokers”.
What you can do to protect yourself
There is little we can do to prevent people-finding sites from obtaining and profiting from public information about us.
By unsubscribing from people search sites, your privacy will be taken out of the public market.
After you unsubscribe, there are a number of things you can do to prevent your information from appearing again on people-finding sites:
- Only give out your information when you have to. If it’s optional, don’t. Facebook continually asks me to give them my phone number for “better security” but I don’t fall for it.
- Look at your privacy settings on all your social networks; change them or lock them if you can.
- When you have to give out information for a profile or registration, consider giving the minimum amount of information and be strategic about whether or not you give them your real information. Give them only what is absolutely necessary for site membership.
- Beware of sites that require you to register to use them. They’re not “free” to use if you give them something they can – and will – sell.
- Don’t make it easy for sites to create an accurate profile about you, and know that your email address is in the hands of anyone you give it to. Use an alias or pseudonym and consider using an anonymous email that gets forwarded to your real inbox to avoid being spammed.
- Think twice before putting content on sites that require you to create a profile, such as dating sites.
- Know that your likes, check-ins, and +1s are public – not just public, but also profitable for the companies that created the buttons. Think twice before ‘liking’, ‘digging’, ‘voting for’ and especially ‘registering’ using Foursquare and other location-based registration services.
- Do what you can to block online tracking; it won’t hurt to use browser add-ons that block cookies and targeted ad trackers.
- When you find that a people search site is misleading or you feel like it has tricked you, use this form to report them to the Federal Trade Commission.
I don’t want you to think I’m typing this wearing my best tinfoil hat – as I explained in How to withdraw, I have been harassed, threatened and harassed by someone who used people search sites with the stated intent to harm. I was shocked to learn where people-finding sites get their information – and horrified to have, at one point, willingly handed over the information that was used to terrorize me.
But I’m not going to live under a rock and not use the same social sites my friends all use. Just because I don’t want to give out my personal data doesn’t mean I have to live a life of exclusion.
I just think that until we have more privacy rights – especially around the websites where we create our profiles – we need to be careful about ourselves and the people we care about.
The people we care about are the spouses and family members featured in your $0.95 file currently on sale at PeopleFinders.