Honey, your FBI background check is ready!
With a quick search of your name, a screen pops up showing the members of your family, the addresses where you used to live, a photo of your house, an estimate of your net worth, videos and photos of you, your hobbies, and your online profiles. No, we’re not describing an FBI background check—we’re talking about Spokeo.com, a free website that collects and provides your personal information to anyone who looks for it. The free “individual search can display: your full name, address, employer, last four digits of your telephone, parents names, siblings, marital status, and more…
Yes, Spokeo has your information.
Unless, of course, you’ve never made a Facebook account, never registered with an online store, never sent in a rebate card, never entered a contest, or never done just about anything a typical person does online. Simply put, the chances are good that you’ve given your information away to Spokeo.com without even realizing it. Try searching for yourself right now and you’ll see what we mean.
Spokeo is just one of many people search databases, also called information brokers . These companies buy and sell your personal information, effectively making a business out of privacy violation. Sites like 123People.com, Intelius.com, MyLife.com, USAPeopleSearch.com, and WhitePages.com are a few other examples. You can see a complete list here maintained by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
These sites collect your information through everything from old accounts you’ve made (of course, you always read the full terms of service before clicking “I accept…” right?) to public court documents, real estate holdings, and online surveys you completed. The bottom line: be careful whenever you give away personal information, because you never know where it will show up.
Spooked by Spokeo: What you can do about people search databases.
If you’re spooked by Spokeo, you’re not alone. Last week, a campaign to push individuals to remove their information from the site went viral across social networks. Ironically, social networks are one of the main providers of source information to Spokeo and other people search databases. If you’re not careful to protect your tweets or set your Facebook privacy settings to prevent third parties like Spokeo from accessing your profile information, you’re unknowingly providing them with a wealth of information about you.
As an online privacy company with experts who delete our customers’ info from people search databases every day, we’ve had a lot of experience with these sites. Below, we’ve put together what people are saying about Spokeo and other people search databases and explained what’s fact, fiction, or a mix of both:
Myth 1: “I’m just one person; there’s nothing I can do to take a stand against people search databases and data mining.”
Although the process varies for different sites, you can remove your info from almost every database (or our experts can do it for you). You can also be vigilant about protecting the information you make public: use multiple identities online, generate anonymous email addresses, and be wary of sites that force you to register an account with them.
You can also voice your privacy concerns to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC doesn’t act on behalf of individual complainants, but if they get sufficient reports, they’ll bring an action on behalf of the general public.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the strength of vocal, passionate people in numbers. Get the word out to your friends and family to be careful about the information available about them online.
Myth 2: “You should never search for yourself on a people search site, because inputting your information to run the search is actually how the sites collect it in the first place.”
It’s unclear whether sites actually retain the information you enter about yourself into their search boxes, but many suspect that this is a key method of data collection.
For now, it’s better to be safe than sorry: never type your info directly into a people search site. Instead, run a Google search for your name and the name of the site; you’ll be able to tell from the search results if you’re listed.
Myth 3: “Spokeo collects your info from public sources and doesn’t actually obtain it itself”.
Spokeo is what’s called an aggregator, which means that it scours the web collecting any information on you from many different sites. To make sure that sites like Spokeo don’t get a hold of your information, you have to remove it from wherever it exists in the public record. See Myth 5, below.
Myth 4: “Spokeo is just a marketing tool to get people to use Reputation.com”
Spokeo’s website directs people worried about their privacy to Reputation.com, a service that manages peoples’ online reputations. Some believe that Spokeo is merely a front to sell Reputation.com (which used to be called “Reputation Defender”):
- “Spokeo is also clearly a marketing tool to sell the Reputation Defender product. They are guaranteeing themselves a client base.” –Fiona, About.com user
- “Spokeo seems to have partnered with Reputation Defender . . . Seems somewhat unethical in a “We aggregate info about you but you can pay to remove it” way.” – HackerNews user post
- “[Spokeo] partnered with (or are one and the same with) ReputationDefender.com, and they’re trying to get you scared enough to pay them to keep your info off of Spokeo and other similar sites.” – Rodney, About.com user
When confronted by these allegations, Spokeo responded that their site has an advertising agreement with ReputationDefender, but that the two aren’t linked.
Myth 5: “All I need to do to protect my privacy is remove my listing from Spokeo.”
Even though you may have taken a step in the right direction by deleting your listing, the underlying information that Spokeo used to create your listing is still out there on the web. You have to delete it at its source.
Ready to take a stand against people search sites?
We offer several DeleteMe services to help protect you. We can:
(1) Direct you to our do-it-yourself removal instructions for the biggest people search sites, including Spokeo
(2) Subscribe you to our DeleteMe service. This 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 to these sites.
Don’t want your online life to become a searchable public record? Still want to use the Web? Here are 7 things you can start doing today:
1) Change your privacy settings on all your social networks
2) Stop “liking,” “digging,” “upvoting,” and especially “checking in” using Foursquare and other location check-in services, or don’t make them public
3) Consider tools that block advertisers and other online trackers from collecting your online activity
4) Setup Google or Bing email alerts to track new mentions of yourself
5) Use tools to frequently flush all types of cookies, clear history, and proactively block online tracking
6) Use private browsing mode in combination with a proxy service that hides your IP address
7) Want to keep something a total secret? It may seem obvious, but don’t tell anyone…not even if you think a site is private!