When delete means delete: the inside story of our FTC complaint against BeenVerified.com

You are for sale on people search websites.

You’ll need some background on our DeleteMe service for the following post to make sense:  our service deletes your personal information from many of the largest people search websites that list it.  These are sites like Intelius.com, Spokeo.com, and WhitePages.com.   We monitor your personal information online to ensure that it doesn’t return, and we compile this information in a PDF report that we send to you via email every 3 months.  The service covers you for an entire year and costs $99. 

Here’s the inside story of what transpired when BeenVerified.com continued to repost personal information that our customers had requested be deleted.

You know the anger we all have against telemarketers?  Well, people search websites are like telemarketers, but of a far greater magnitude:  they post your private information online for everyone to see, and they sell it to whoever’s buying.  There’s been a groundswell of opposition to these data brokers, or as they’re referred to these days, people search websites.

After a 2011 Consumers Union poll found that 80% of surveyed respondents were “concerned that companies may be sharing their personal information with third parties without their permission,” HearUsNow.org launched a public initiative in September of 2011 to encourage individuals to contact their congressional representatives about people search sites.  94% of adults ages 45-54 think there should be a law that requires websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about an individual.

BeenVerified.com, one of the people search websites from which we remove our customers’ personal info when they order our DeleteMe subscription, kept re-posting “deleted” listings.  We saw it time and time again, so we reported them on behalf of you, our customers, to the FTC.  You can download our complaint.

A screenshot from BeenVerified’s website.

Our customers have privacy concerns for all sorts of reasons.  Some have had their identities stolen.  Some are law enforcement officers who want to protect themselves from convicts who have sworn to come after them when they get out of prison.  Others have dangerous exes who try to make their lives miserable.  Others have stalkers.  Most of them simply want to be left alone.

The fact that your deleted information can be re-populated in rare cases shows us how important services like DeleteMe really are.  For most people, having to stay on top of your personal information all the time is just too difficult a task.  Trust us–we know it firsthand.  You should see the piles of letters we send out of here, the numbers of CAPTCHAs we type, our absurdly high eFax bills…and that’s not taking into account that people search companies are always changing their opt-out policies and mailing addresses.  But services like DeleteMe actually do work.  What isn’t workable, sustainable, or legal, however, are companies reversing repeated requests to remove personal data.

Removing yourself from online databases is a looooooong process.

We publicly post instructions for how you can delete your information from these sites yourself, but many people still choose to have us do it for them.  And we understand why:  very few people have both the free time and the knowledge required to decipher convoluted privacy policies and opt-out procedures, let alone vigilantly check and re-check multiple people search sites.  It’s a full-time job, and you have to stay on top of it.  But you have jobs, kids, bills, Facebook accounts, emails to return, dogs to walk–you have lives.  It’s unreasonable to expect the average person to crack the crazy code that is the people search industry.

Life was more annoying before the National Do Not Call Registry.

The best solution to the personal information problems posed by people search companies is a one-stop “unlist me” website, something like the Do Not Call Registry:  you’d go, click a button to state that you wanted your personal info removed from all the sites that are selling and displaying it, and that’d be it.  Presto.  And that’s precisely what we asked the FTC to create in our complaint about BeenVerified.  Of course the people search companies hate this idea, because it’d dry up their source of money:  your data.

Let us be clear:  there are some limitations.  As we’ve seen with BeenVerified, sometimes companies don’t follow their own removal rules (but we quickly catch them).  We also cannot delete your name by itself. The fact that you were born with a certain name is on your birth certificate, your driver’s license, and more.  It’s part of the public record, and we can’t wave a giant Men in Black flashy thing in front of the internet and make your name go poof.

When someone orders a DeleteMe subscription, we delete their contact information from this list of 18 people search databases.  This list, which we compile and maintain ourselves, represents the largest sellers of your data.  They’re the big players.  They supply hundreds of smaller sites, too, so when we delete you from the big sites, we’re deleting you from the small sites as well.  Our service is the most comprehensive on the market:  none of our competitors even come close to our success rate, and none of them cover the large number of sites that we do.

Erase your personal info from the web.

Until we have a one-stop “unlist me” registry, a DeleteMe subscription is the next best thing.  It’s not perfect, but it goes a long way to protect your information (and we have the testimonials of happy customers to prove it)!

Learn how you can take action against people search websites and spread the word about the danger they present to your friends and family by visiting our informational site about the people search industry, and check out journalist Julia Angwin’s Wall Street Journal article about the subject.  You’ll find out how to make your own FTC complaint online, file a dispute with TRUSTe, tell your state’s Attorney General, and more.

About Abine:   Abine provides consumers with online privacy solutions that are innovative, easy to use, and actually work. With proven tools, Abine enables people to both benefit from the Web and retain control over their most personal information. Abine is backed by premier venture capital firms Atlas Ventures and General Catalyst Partners. Abine: The Online Privacy Company ™. Abine.com.




14 comments shared on this article:

  • Anonymous says:

    Is there a student discount?

    Pleeeeease? Students are broke and poor but they get stalked by other students and creditors who look for people with common names!

  • Peggy says:

    I second the motion for a student discount. What say you Abine?

    You don’t hate education and the next generation of Americans do you?? ;) Come on….

    • Sarah Downey says:

      I love both education and the next generation of Americans. Seems like a valid suggestion to me. I’ll see what I can do.

  • Doug says:

    I like the work you are doing! A student discount would be nice though! Check out my blog on internet privacy issues! http://netroamer.blogspot.com/.

    • Sarah Downey says:

      Hey Doug. We’re expanding and making a lot of changes to DeleteMe right now, so we’ll keep your suggestion in mind. Seems fair. Cool blog, btw…added to my RSS feeds.

  • Peter Hedstrom says:

    It seems a stun of students want a better price! How about pay it on a sliding or a monthly scale. Your initial startup 50$ then 15 every interval/year. Thinking about that, it seems to me that it would be crowded at the start then it would slim out as your diligence continued to force the unscrupulous admen to grow some …. and get on the “one for all and all for one” pattern that in the know humans are investing their minds and souls in.

  • Peter Hedstrom says:

    you wiped out my beautiful reply %#$@* captcha

  • lily says:

    Hmm, let me know if you add a student discount. I love what you are doing. By the way, what has been the FTC response to your complaint against BeenVerified?

    • Sarah Downey says:

      It’s been really good. About a month after we filed it, the FTC announced that they’re cracking down on people search sites (or “data brokers,” as they call them). Both the White House and the FTC have been pushing the point that data brokers need to provide consumers with a 1-stop shop where they can view their info and make sure it’s accurate. That would be a step forward, sure, but we don’t think it’s enough. We want a 1-stop opt-out for all data brokers. That’s what regular people actually want, and we think it’s totally reasonable to ask for it. We stated this much in our public comment to the Commerce Department last month, which you can read here: http://www.ntia.doc.gov/federal-register-notice/2012/comments-multistakeholder-process

      In sum, the reaction has been great, but we’re pushing for more.

  • LuckyStar61 says:

    If you publish a list of individuals who own or work for these people search websites and other data brokers, I will pass it along to a few of my friends in low places who do contract work for various governments (including ours) and are well trained and experienced with using that flashy thingie to remove anoying or dangerous people. Perhaps, selective culling of individuals who work or are otherwise part of that industry is in order. Exposing these pinples and removing a few of the larger organizations and data users who use data not otherwise available to them may go a long way to moderating this curse.

    I thank you for your good and well-intended efforts to assist ordinary people to restore and protect their privacy.

  • NR says:

    Thanks. Keep up the good work.
    Interestingly to me the age baseline is shifting here. The data miners realize that even you can’t keep up with the technology, coding and use of new gadgets by younger and younger persons and those who may not even understand the concept of boosting personal data, much less realize that medical, political, life preferences and any other category you can think of are combined and statistically maneuvered to allow even one’s most personal and private life to be illuminated by all to see.
    And, most don’t realize this is not just for “Advertising” and the lie of “helps us target information (usually with some kind of warm feeling about what’s happening) but for legal and medical and professional and law enforcement and…
    Finally, although your company is trying to be proactive you WILL FAIL in the long run. Why? You are not using your capabilities with enough force. Your copy is marketing copy, you are treating the problem as a video game. I wish you the best of luck because hopefully you will realize that there is very little between the good, hardworking, basic person using email and the spector of the future as all walking in lockstep and wearing the same color shirts.

  • Elliot Field says:

    Sarah, I applaud you and Abine for your efforts. I realize that getting these companies to remove personal information is like trying to push back the ocean with a broom. That said, however, I’ve been a DeleteMe member since March 10th (2012), and my information is still listed–if only under one of the aliases I noted on my application–by most by the companies on your list, even those that supposedly opt people out “immediately,” “within 3-5 days,” or “within 14 days.”

    I’m just wondering: are these results typical? Do I (we) have any recourse as far as the slow-moving companies are concerned? Or, should I just continue to wait and hope for the best?

    • Sarah Downey says:

      Hi Elliot, and good questions. First things first: I passed your comment onto one of our DeleteMe operators to prioritize re-checking and re-removing your info from those sites.

      As for your second question, yes, those results are typical. These sites get your information from a lot of different sources. They aggregate it automatically, and any number of things can update it: social network privacy settings, utility bills, rebates you’ve sent in, a new apartment lease, etc. It’s a constant battle on our end to keep removing it. That’s why DeleteMe is a subscription service and not a one-time thing.

      Another complication is that people search websites don’t technically have to offer *any* opt-out method. Those that do tend to make them complicated and difficult, but unfortunately, there’s no requirement that they remove anything. Aside from hounding them, publicly complaining about them, and reporting them to the FTC, there’s no way to force them to act. In your case, we’ll hound away. Feel free to email deleteme at abine dot com with specific sites/listings you’re worried about.

  • Leanne says:

    BeenVerified CLAIMED to have removed my information, but they merely re-categorized it under my maiden name and old states I’d lived in decades ago. When I requested THAT information be removed, they again claimed they’d done so, but put back in the current info. These guys are beyond disgusting. They don’t care one bit that they enable criminal activity, including physical assault. They laugh all the way to the bank while you suffer.

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