Think that a Google search will reveal everything the Internet knows about you? Don’t believe it. The search engine giant won’t even come close to showing the average consumer the complex web of personal information that poses a hidden online privacy risk to all of us.
Data brokers and data aggregators like Instant Checkmate know more about you than you may realize. They collect information about all of us from online and offline sources, and happily sell personal information to marketers or display it online for the whole world to see. They’re drawing a portrait of you based on a massive amount of data, and there are few checks on the accuracy of the data they’re collecting, so the portrait they paint can be misleading.
The downside of having accurate or inaccurate personal information collected and shared can be huge.
Do you have any enemies who might use negative information against you? Upset coworkers, competitors, exes, stalkers and anyone else with a grudge – or just too much curiosity – can go online and find more information than most people are comfortable sharing.
It’s easy to do.“Been issued a speeding ticket? Failed to stop at a stop sign? What about your family members and friends?” asks an ad for one of the large data aggregators.“If you are like most of us, the answer to at least one of those questions is ’yes’—the vast majority of us have slipped up at least once or twice.” The company is one of dozens that promises to reveal “the full scoop on millions of Americans.”
“(Our company) aggregates hundreds of millions of publicly available criminal, traffic, and arrest records and posts them online so they can easily be searched by anyone. Members of the site can literally begin searching within seconds, and are able to check as many records as they like (think: friends, family, neighbors, etc. etc.),” the ad promises.
What Personal Information about You is Available Online?
The data brokers collect and display a huge range of personal information about average Americans. What kind of personal information? Here’s a list of just some of the data that could be available about your family:
- Marriage & divorce records
- Licenses issued by the state (medical, firearm, aviation, teaching credentials, hunting and fishing licenses, etc.)
- Arrest records (arrest records may be available even if charges were later dropped, and traffic offenses are usually readily available)
- Current and previous addresses (probably with street-level or satellite images of the property)
- Landline and cell phone numbers
- Birthdates (for you and your kids)
- Estimated income levels
- Property tax records
- Political campaign donations and voter’s registration data
- ”Known associates” including neighbors, relatives and friends
- Former and current employers, including the street address where you work
- Social media profiles, with links to social media accounts
Even the data brokers admit on their blogs that, “It’s really pretty scary just how much information is in these reports.”
Identity Theft and Other Risks Posed by Data Brokers
Data aggregation – that is, bringing together information from a wide range of on and offline sources — is the Internet’s dirtiest secret and biggest threat to personal privacy and liberty. It is the same sort of thing the NSA does only it’s done by private businesses. Worse, most of these data aggregators place the burden of verifying the information’s accuracy on consumers (whether they know what information the data broker has collected about them or not).
How is that possible? Shouldn’t there be a law to protect consumers from having their personal information splashed all over the Internet? Well, there is – sort of. Federal law limits the kind of information that credit reporting companies can collect and distribute, and places strict requirements on how the information that they collect and resell is used. And a number of states have consumer protection laws that allow consumers to opt out of the files kept by data brokers.
But only companies that provide data for use in situations governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) must follow the federal guidelines on the accuracy of personal information they sell.
The data brokers who aggregate personal information are very careful to tell potential customers or website visitors that they are a public records search service, and not a consumer reporting agency. They explain (in great detail) that the information they provide is not governed by the FCRA.
Site users are asked to accept a list of permitted – and prohibited – uses for the data. For example, users of most data aggregation sites are warned multiple times during the process of downloading reports of someone’s personal information that they may not use the information contained in the data broker’s reports to make decisions about consumer credit, employment, insurance, tenant screening, or “any other purposes that would require FCRA compliance.”
Here’s what the data brokers encourage their customers to do:
- Check out “new, suspicious, or creepy neighbors”.
- Search for registered sex offenders in your neighborhood.
- Track down “estranged members of your extended family, or find out if your parents have ever been arrested.”
- Run background checks on your childrens’ friends and their parents – or on your own friends or potential dates.
- Learn the details your social media friends, online buyers and sellers, or co-workers won’t tell you about themselves.
- Identify the past records of college roommates or study partners.
- Find out if a celebrity or political candidate has a criminal record.
And, of course, the data brokers encourage consumers to pay them for a report on themselves, so that they can find out what information is available about themselves.
If the information about you that has been collected by the aggregators is accurate, then all those details – family members, old addresses, and other personal information – make identity theft ridiculously easy.
How to Protect Your Personal Information
IdentaLocker, a leading service provider that helps prevent identity theft or repair the damage afterwards, says that identity theft based on information purchased from the public information data brokers is more common than people think. Figuring out what personal information about yourself is available to an identity thief is important. And it’s a daunting task that takes far more time and effort than you’d think.
But inaccurate or just plain wrong information can hurt even more consumers. You don’t have to be the victim of identity theft to be harmed by the data brokers. Do you want to bet your next job, relationship, or credit purchase that every customer of the data aggregators is following the rules about how the data is used? On the accuracy of information scraped from public databases?
According to the company, protecting the privacy of personal information doesn’t just affect your wallet. An identity thief can compromise your safety or that of your family, or even your life.
IdentaLocker monitors more than a thousand databases, with more than 650 billion data points, and helps victims rapidly detect identity fraud and restore their identity if it is compromised. For more information on how to protect your online privacy and personal information from inaccuracies in the databases maintained by data brokers, visit the IdentaLocker and InfoEraser websites.
Photo credit: The two images included with this blog post are published under a Creative Commons License from Pixabay, and were created by anonymous contributors to the site.