Spooked by Spokeo
Online information brokers can help you find a long-lost relative or an old flame. But these sites put you at risk for identity theft. Find out how to keep your information safe.
Thursday, April 07, 2011
A stranger sits down at a computer and types your name into a search engine. In a matter of seconds he can find out where you live, your birthday, your marital status and your occupation.
Online information brokers such as Spokeo dish out much of the private information consumers try so hard to protect. These companies buy the information cheaply from a number of well-known businesses. When you fill out a magazine subscription, warranty card or sweepstakes entry, your personal information may be sold to these companies—without your knowledge. Data aggregators also troll through public information, court records, phone books and social-networking sites. Then your information is displayed on the web for anyone who is willing to pay a few bucks to see.
“Your identity is currency. It’s your asset,” said Adam Levin, Identity Theft 911 chairman and founder. “Unfortunately, everywhere we turn, someone is selling pieces of our information for their gain. Identity thieves are clever, sophisticated and patient. They have the time to cobble bits of information together, because at the end of their rainbow, there is the potential for a sizable pot of gold.”
The sites are increasingly popular. Spokeo estimates that the site receives “millions of hits per day.” Spokeo.com ranked among the top 250 most visited sites in the United States, according to web analytics firm Quantcast’s June 2010 Audience Profile.
“Many consumers would be shocked to know what's out there and how vulnerable and susceptible the information can make you,” said Brian McGinley, senior vice president of data risk management for Identity Theft 911.
Thieves can type your name into one of the data-aggregation sites and learn intimate tidbits about your life. Much of this information corresponds to the “out-of-wallet challenge questions” banks use to verify your identity. These questions are usually simple pieces of information such as your birth date and your mother’s maiden name.
“With that information, they can basically take over your identity,” McGinley said.
But the picture these sites create is not always clear or accurate. The people who run them don’t necessarily vet the information that they buy. Their laissez-faire attitude becomes your problem if it keeps you from getting a credit card or a job. Two lawsuits currently are pending against Spokeo in federal court in California. In both cases the plaintiffs allege that Spokeo violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by giving out false data about individuals without allowing them the opportunity to correct or remove inaccurate reports.
But McGinley said inaccurate information on these sites can actually help protect your identity. If an identity thief has incorrect data, he will give the wrong answers to the out-of-wallet challenge questions, which will send a red flag to financial institutions.
The best way to keep your personal information from winding up on these sites is to limit the information you give out.
“Be very selective in giving out information,” McGinley said. “Think about what you’re giving up and what you’re getting for it.”
Also, unless you’re filling out government records, there’s no reason to give your accurate birth date and middle initial.
“When you give out information to businesses you’re certainly welcome to be creative,” McGinley said.
Customers can even make up a fake mother’s maiden name to protect bank accounts. Just be sure you write it down and keep it somewhere safe.
Consumers can opt out of Spokeo by visiting the site's privacy page. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer education and advocacy group, lists other online data brokers and provides details on how to keep your personal information off the Web.
Consumers should be wary of sites that claim they can completely lock your personal records. In March, the Federal Trade Commission announced it had finalized a settlement with the broker US Search. The company charged consumers $10 based on the false promise that it could “lock their records” so that others couldn’t see or buy them. US Search has agreed to refund the fees it charged to nearly 5,000 consumers.
McGinley said it’s almost impossible to stop your information from winding up on a data-aggregation site. But the more information you keep guarded, the more likely you’ll keep your identity safe. And the harder you fight to remove the details of your life from the Web, the better off you’ll be.
“The data can be re-created,” McGinley said. “But it won’t be as complete.”
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