9/28/2012 3:06 PM ET|
Should you pay to be erased?
Like it or not, companies track your personal data and post it online. It may be futile, but you can try to scrub out some of that information.
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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Trying to restore your privacy is like playing Whack-a-Mole, if the carnival game had more than 100 holes instead of a handful. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has a list of more than 140 data brokers, including whether they have an opt-out option (many don't) and a link to that option, if available.
"They all have different rules" about getting your information suppressed from their online databases, Stephens said. Some make opting out easy, while others (like ZabaSearch) require you to send your ID.
"People are rightfully reluctant to do that," Stephens said, since driver's license numbers can be used in identity theft. (I redacted mine with a piece of blue tape.)
Even if people jump through the right hoops, their data might not stay suppressed for long. Every time the data broker buys a new marketing list or scours public records, your listing could reappear.
"It can very well end up an exercise in futility," Stephens said. "When the information is refreshed, you reappear. Or they might use variations of your name or your address which would cause it to appear as a different entity."
Why isn't Congress doing something about this, you might ask? A bipartisan group called the Privacy Caucus has sent letters to some of the biggest data brokers, including Experian and Intelius, asking about how they collect their information and their opt-out options.
That could result in some rules allowing people to view for free their own information and to correct errors, Stephens said. Data brokers could be required to offer an opt-out.
Since much of the information is available from public records, however, any effort to ban its publication would appear to violate the data brokers' and data retailers' First Amendment rights, Stephens noted.
Some regulation "is inevitable," said Reputation.com's Fertik. "I think it would be good for Americans . . . I believe your data is your data."
Intelius' Adler is less sanguine. "Legislation is a very blunt instrument," he noted. "There's always the risk of unintended consequences."
Because I don't have time to whack dozens of moles, I hired Reputation.com to whack them for me -- and its rival Abine's DeleteMe to whack them for my husband. I also signed up for MailStopShield, a service of Catalog Choice that focuses on getting your name off marketing databases. (For a couple of years now, I've subscribed to a freeCatalog Choice service that helps get rid of unwanted catalogs, coupons and other junk mail, and it seems to work pretty well.)
It's early yet, but I've noticed we're starting to disappear from some of the bigger databases such as Spokeo, WhitePages and, yes, even ZabaSearch.
Not all databases will work directly with Reputation.com or Abine. Some sites required me to contact them personally. A few required me to fax or upload my ID; others simply required me to select the record I wanted suppressed. Response times vary as well; some remove the information within a few days, while others take weeks or even months.
Here's the thing. Not everybody can or wants to pay $233 a year ($99 a year each for Reputation.com and DeleteMe, plus $35 for MailStopShield) for what is, at best, only partial protection.
"There's no one entity that can get you off all the databases," Stephens said. "Some of them simply don't offer an opt-out."
If we stop subscribing, the companies stop monitoring the databases for us, and our information could pop right back up.
If the whole situation irritates you as much as it does me, you might want to take a minute and let your lawmakers know how you feel. You can use this database to identify and contact them. (Yes, I see the irony of using one database to complain about others, but at least you're not trying to make a buck off the information.)
More from Liz Weston:
Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.
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I looked myself up and they have my age wrong and my location where i live.
Well, DUUHHH if there isn't a way to do it - how can you know how many WANTED to opt out?? Either he's an idiot or thinks we're all stupid enough to believe him - not sure which is worse.
This has been going on for years and years. For those of you who remember a time before computers when companies relied totally on mail or phone in orders: I used to misspell my name, or street, or city when I placed an order. Several weeks later I would start getting junk mail with the same misspelling from other companies.
Now it is just faster/easier to collect and store.
A lot of inaccurate information. Having kept up databases on a much smaller set of dynamic data that is to be expected though how some of the what they have got in there shows gross negligence on the part of the providers of the data. Anyone other than debt collectors, who generally use a shotgun approach and don't mind harrassing people even if they have the wrong person, or identity theives, trying to use these sites is unlikely to accomplish their objectives.
I can see very few legitimate purposes for these types of sites. If I were to consider business matters with a company and found they were using sites like this I would most definitly not do business with them. Stupid is as stupid does!
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