Meet the data brokers. There’s a whole industry full of companies who make their money buying and selling our personal information. The FTC is working on busting this dark racket wide open, but in the meantime, they’re out there. Who are they? Can we stop them? Read on to find out.
What Are “Data Brokers?”
Data brokers scrape public information like names, home addresses and purchase histories, credit card activity and other such sensitive tidbits. Then they sell it. There is nothing at all to like about this. At best, they’re Spam-as-a-Service companies. At worst, they enable violent criminals.
It’s mostly marketers who are interested in this information, particularly people who do online targeting. But many of them just sell it to whoever wants it. Here’s a horrifying example of what any crazy person with a credit card can do with this information:
"My husband was killed in March 1987. The person who killed him was tried, and convicted in 1992. The defendant went to jail and was released last July after only serving 18 yrs out of a 25-life sentence. The defendant being savvy and enraged at being incarcerated has been using been [been]verified.com to try to find 'me'."
She goes on to write that BeenVerified.com, as well as “dozens of other companies,” never responded to her attempts to be removed from a database. BeenVerified is one of the most notorious and irresponsible of these companies. Here are many more examples of its sleaziness.
The Most-Wanted List
There are tons of data broker companies. Here’s a selection to give you a sense of the kinds of language these companies use to describe their products, namely us:
- US Search
- USA People Search
- White Pages
Acxiom- “The 21st Century Marketing Funnel” - “Clean Your List: our data hygiene services start at $25.”
RapLeaf - “Upload… your customers’ emails and instantly get age, gender, and more.” - Best part: it asks for your “work email address” before you can use the free trial service.
Spokeo - “Not your grandma’s phone book.” - Its listed use cases are “Find Friends,” “Find Family,” and “Identify Unknown Callers and Emails.” I wonder what else you could do with it?
PrivateEye - “Billions of Records At your fingertips” - “You don’t have to be a member! Just enter as much info as you have about the person you are trying to find and our People Search Engine will do the rest.”
Radaris - “Radaris is a powerful search engine geared specifically to help people find one another easily despite distance and time.”
And then there’s the infamous BeenVerified. Just read the whole disclaimer on the footer of the site:
Disclaimer: While we are constantly updating and refining our database and service, we do not represent or warrant that the results provided will be 100% accurate and up to date. BeenVerified is a database of publicly available sources of information aggregated for your convenience. BeenVerified does not provide private investigator services and this information should not be used for employment, tenant screening, or any FCRA related purposes. BeenVerified does not make any representation or warranty as to the character or the integrity of the person, business, or entity that is the subject of any search inquiry processed through our service. None of the above-featured companies either sponsor, endorse, or are in anyway affiliated with BeenVerified.
You get the idea.
What Can We Do About This?
On Monday, the FTC released a detailed report calling for Congress to act to give consumers control over the data these companies gather and sell. Sites are currently not required to delete your data upon request. While the government slowly churns toward possibly someday doing something about this, there are companies out there to help individuals delete these records.
SafeShepherd is one such company, which deserves specific mention because it does such a good job of explaining the problem it solves. Its basic service is free, and it will find your info, give you privacy alerts and request removal of basic records. You can also pay for a more thorough cleansing.
SafeShepherd stays on top of all the data brokers it can find (including all the ones listed above). On average, it finds customers’ info on 11 such sites.
Keep in mind, these sites don’t have to comply with removal requests. But there are way too many data brokers to contact them all yourself, and SafeShepherd will keep trying over and over again.
For a lasting solution, we’ll need legislation. U.S. citizens who want to require data brokers to delete records on request should contact their representatives.
Lead image via Shutterstock.