User name field on computer screen © William Andrew, Photographer

If you haven't already, cruise over to ZabaSearch and enter your name. Chances are fairly good you'll find it, along with your address, your phone number and possibly your age. Click on your name, and a helpful map targeting your address pops up. Oh, yes, and there's a "Get the dirt" link for further information.

OK, now try to find a way to opt out of having your information shared this way. Not so easy, huh?

I did finally find the link here. You're asked to fax a copy of your driver's license. I tried, several times. The fax number listed wouldn't accept the call.

And there you have, in a nutshell, what's wrong with the online data industry. Dozens of sites like ZabaSearch make money selling your personal information, which also can include an estimate of your income, as well as unlisted phone numbers, email addresses and the names of your spouse and even your children. Many of these sites aren't all that helpful when you want your privacy back.

"There's a lot of incentives to get you into the database," said Michael Fertik, the founder and CEO of Reputation.com, which sells services to help people remove themselves from such databases. "There's no incentive to get you out."

Jim Adler, the chief privacy officer for Intelius, the company that owns ZabaSearch, said that he had the fax number checked and that it was working. He suggested an easier way to opt out would be to use Intelius.com's form that allows people to upload, rather than fax, a photo ID. Adler said I could just add a note that I wanted my information on ZabaSearch suppressed.

When I asked why ZabaSearch itself had no information about this form, or a link to it, or a button offering any opt-out details at all, Adler said there wasn't enough demand to justify it. People mostly are looking up other people rather than themselves, he said.

"We just don't see that kind of traffic," Adler said. "There isn't much call for that. People find (the opt-out information) reasonably well the other way."

Still, Intelius has launched a free service, TrueRep, to help people opt out from the company's various people-search websites, including Intelius.com, LookUpAnyone.com, PeopleLookUp.com and PublicRecords.com. ZabaSearch isn't part of the service yet, he said, but "stay tuned." Adler said the service was designed to give people options about having their own data published.

"If you give people more awareness and more control," he said, "that's good for business."

Indeed - although they might not need such services if opting out were easier.

Once upon a time, you had to go to some effort to get personal information on people. If their phone numbers and addresses weren't in the phone book (a big paperback book everybody used to get -- ask your mother), you had to schlep down to the county courthouse and hope they owned property, since that would make it easier to find their address. Divorce records might reveal nuggets, such as incomes and expenses, but otherwise that kind of information generally was tougher to get.

No more. In addition to aggregating information from public records about you, databases buy and sell information gleaned from warranty cards, loyalty cards and frequent shopper programs. They might snoop into social network sites to uncover information you've posted about your politics, job searches or health. They may buy data from credit bureaus and marketing databases to fill out your profile.

It's not just a treasure trove for stalkers and perpetrators of domestic violence searching for their victims, said Paul Stephens, the director of public policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. There's some risk of identity theft, particularly if the readily available online information is paired with something like your Social Security number, which sometimes can be purchased at black market online sites. The sheer volume of information also could help hackers either guess or reset your passwords on various online accounts, Stephens said.

Trying to stay out of databases is pretty tough in the modern world. You might be able to do so if you don't buy real estate, don't register to vote, don't drive, don't have credit accounts and don't use loyalty cards. If you've already done those things, though, you're in, whether you want to be or not.

"The No. 1 information source is the county recorder," noted Chuck Teller, the president of Catalog Choice and chief strategy officer for its new parent, TrustedID. "When you buy a house, it's game over in the privacy world."

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