Sticking it to the people search sites

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people searchTell us if this situation sounds fair to you:  dozens of websites you’ve never heard of are publicly displaying and selling your personal information–your address, phone number, email address, family members, etc.–and profiting off it.

The companies selling your personal info don’t ask you first if it’s okay, and you don’t make any money from it.  At the very least, it should be easy to remove yourself from these databases, right?  Not quite:

  • There are over 180 websites like this, and most of them have different deletion procedures you have to follow, each one more complicated than the next.
  • They say you can delete your info, but only if you send them more recent info.
  • The worst part: if you try to delete your listing, they’ll tell you it’s gone and then put it back up without telling you.

So much for privacy…

This is what happens all the time on people search sites, and we’re sick of it.  That’s why we filed a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint against BeenVerified.com, “America’s largest background check” website, because it wasn’t treating consumers fairly.  We’re going to summarize our argument here, but a full PDF is available if you’re interested.  The FTC stands up for consumers’ rights.  If a company is ripping you off, defrauding you, or deceiving you, reporting them to the FTC is a good place to start.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) hears your complaints about companies.

We have a subscription service called DeleteMe that removes people’s personal info–addresses, phone numbers, etc.–from the web.  We started noticing a pattern with BeenVerified where it would put our customers’ information back up online pretty quickly after we’d removed it.  We thought this was, to put it bluntly, crap.

To delete your own information from BeenVerified, info you never approved to be published on the site, you have to send BeenVerified an email with all of the following:

  • Your name as shown on their site
  • Your age
  • Current address
  • Previous addresses
  • Listed relatives

If you take the time to write this email and trust this company with your personal info, you’d expect them to follow through with deleting your listing, right?  Well, that wasn’t what was happening.  Even though BeenVerified tells you that “This information will no longer appear in the results when a search is run on your name,” it was back in about 3 months.  We saw this over and over, and we took pictures, saved emails, and documented it.

An email from BeenVerified claiming that a listing was removed. Sure.

Here’s the basis of our argument:  it’s deceptive for BeenVerified to say they’ll remove your listing if you follow their opt-out process, then remove your info temporarily and put it back up only a few months after and without telling you.  Not only is this unfair and unexpected, but it can be harmful, especially to those who are at risk of identity theft, domestic violence, stalking issues, or other threats.

There are some people you just don’t want knowing where you live.

We’re also worried that BeenVerified is using the info you send them in your opt-out request to update their databases.  In other words, your request to be removed feeds them information, which they then sell.  The people search industry as a whole needs to be much more open about where they get their information.  Simply saying “it’s public record” doesn’t cut it.  As the big corporations in this equation, the burden should be on them to explain the sources of their data, not you, the consumer, to figure it out.  We think some of it doesn’t come from public sources at all:  things like data breaches, marketing databases that aren’t open to the public, and other sources.

We’re asking the FTC to investigate these and other inconsistencies.  We want something like the Do Not Call Registry, but for your personal info:  like Do Not List Me, for example.  It’ll be a 1-stop shop to unlist yourself from all people search sites, once and for all.  Until this happens, we’re offering the next best thing:  our DeleteMe subscription service, which finds and removes your personal information from over a dozen databases and checks back throughout the year to make sure it’s gone.

It shouldn’t be this hard to be private, and companies shouldn’t be able to get away with deception.  To learn more about the people search industry, how you can make a quick online complaint of your own, and how you can spread the word to the people you care about, please visit our advocacy site and read journalist and author Julia Angwin’s Wall Street Journal story on the subject.

37 Replies to “Sticking it to the people search sites”

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    Oh, and equally importantly — are there student discounts??

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  5. Anon says:

    This is very useful – I have a unique name and it is very scary looking at the data that these “People Companies” have on me. Thanks for working on this issue.

  6. Dear Abine,

    Not all people search engines make it difficult for users to remove their links. We, 123people.com, have very recently launched 123people Manager. It is a selfservice tool that helps users exclude unwanted links that relate to them from the search results under their name pair. It’s a quick and easy solution to help our users protect their online reputation and digital footprint, not only by showing them which information appears online, but also by empowering them to control their data.

    That said, our service is compliant with (the upcoming, new) EU Guidelines on the right for oblivion. As we are based in Vienna, Austria, we comply to Austrian Data Protection Acts and EU Guidelines in general. In Europa, every user has the right to have his information restricted from search results, or from the web.

    Thank you for pointing out this important topic!

    Kind Regards,

    Remco Janssen
    Freelance Communication Expert 123people

    • Sarah Downey says:

      Thanks for the information and for doing the right thing for consumers. I’d be interested to see what you think of the recent developments in America to offer a 1-stop shop where consumers can view and edit all of the information that data brokers have on them. Currently it’s only a “view & edit” option, but we’d like to see a universal opt-out as well. You can email me directly at Sarah at Abine dot com.

  7. JC says:

    http://www.ussearch.com is bad too. I even followed their instructions (faxing my driver’s license with photo & number blacked out) to be removed from their site, and almost 3 weeks later my info is still there. We need to stop these a-holes!!!!!

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  22. Jack says:

    I think it is a great shame that there are so few possibilities for us to exclude ourselves from those databases. It is such a hassle that the majority of people will never do it and that’s why those services are still being successful.

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