There was a time on the internet when no one would know if you were a dog, but those days are long gone. It’s now incredibly easy to find deeply personal information about someone online thanks to data brokers, more commonly known as “people-finder” sites.
Your Personal Information Is (Probably) Out There
People-finder sites are a veritable treasure trove of information. They often have your address, phone number, email, and age. They even include data from court documents and other public or government records. These days, not only can you find out the breed of a blogging dog, but also the last time he had ringworm.
If you want to check out this seedy underbelly of the web, just Google yourself or a family member. Unless you’re a public figure who’s frequently in the news, the top results will likely be from Whitepages, Spokeo, BeenVerified, and other similar sites.
People-Finders Know a Lot About You
These sites often display an alarming amount of information up front but provide even more behind a paywall. They sometimes prey on the basest of human motivations. For example, BeenVerified teases that you should “check your lover.” If you click for more info, it tends to take an artificially long time to “compile results.” This is a psychological tool designed to make you invest in the process and more likely to shell out some cash when the paywall appears.
Some of these sites are even more unscrupulous than that! In 2011, MyLife.com was sued for scamming people into believing they were being investigated, and then giving them fake names for a fee. The suit was ultimately dismissed, but the site was sued again in 2015 for misleading people into giving up both personal information and cash.
Selling to consumers generally isn’t even the primary business model for these websites—it’s often just a side hustle.
“Selling directly to consumers doesn’t scale,” said Nader Henein, senior research director at Gartner. “Data brokers primarily sell to organizations looking to enrich their information about a large pool of individuals.”
These sites get some data about you from social media sites. However, most of it comes from public records, like court documents and real estate transactions, or other online data, like search histories.
Many companies are more than willing to sell your information to these data brokers—even seemingly innocuous sources, like warranty and sweepstakes registrations will do so. Unless a form specifically states a company won’t sell your personal information, you can safely assume, sooner or later, it’ll end up on a site like Spokeo.
You can extricate yourself from this sordid affair and delete your personal information from these sites. Depending on your approach, though, it can be either difficult or expensive.
Despite an abundance of advice to the contrary, one thing that probably won’t be terribly effective is reducing your social media footprint. That’s because social media reflects only a tiny percentage of the data these companies collect about you.
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Henein.
Use the Law to Your Advantage
Depending on where you live, the law might be on your side. While there’s no federal law akin to the National Do Not Call Registry in the U.S., a law took effect in California on Jan. 1, 2020 that protects the 40 million people there.
The California Consumer Privacy Act allows people to, in part, request that their personal information be deleted from websites. It’s similar to the General Data Protection Regulation, a European law that went into effect in 2018.
If you live in California, you can use resources at YourDigitalRights to send data deletion requests to a large number of people-finder sites. The site also offers a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that will submit a deletion request when you visit an offending website.
A nonprofit organization operates YourDigitalRights. The service is free and doesn’t collect your personal data.
Manually Deleting Yourself from People-Finders
If you don’t live in California, you can still opt out of many people-finders, it’s just a more “manual” process. While some sites might have a link for removing personal information, the actual process could be convoluted.
Spokeo is, perhaps, the simplest. You just find your profile page on the site, go to spokeo.com/optout, and then type (or paste) the link along with your email address so you can confirm.
Others are not as straightforward. At Whitepages, you have to paste the URL to your profile at whitepages.com/suppression_requests, and then type the reason you want to opt-out. After that, you have to provide your phone number—yes, you have to give a data broker your phone number. You then receive a call from a robot, which gives you a verification code you have to type on the website to complete the process.
The ultimate indignity? 411.info actually charges a fee if you want it to remove your info.
“It is illegal in Europe,” Henein said. “But there’s nothing to stop them from charging for this in the U.S.”
Overall, removing your info isn’t hard; it’s just cumbersome and time-consuming, which is intentional. If you want some help, Delete Me offers detailed instructions for a handful of the most common sites. Privacy Duck maintains some video opt-out guides, as well.
Likewise, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has a fairly exhaustive database of over 200 data brokers. It also indicates whether each site has a way you can opt-out, although you’ll notice many entries are marked “unclear.” If it’s possible to opt-out, click the company’s name on the left to see the details page, which generally includes a link to the site’s opt-out form.
Opting Out Is an Endless Task
Manually removing yourself from people-finder sites can be a lot of work. And just because you opt out today doesn’t mean you’ll remain opted-out forever. If you move, change your phone number, or have a major life event that’s documented somewhere, you might find these sites add you again.
“When you ask to delete your information, they’re obliged to delete the information today,” said Henein. “But there’s nothing that says they can’t start collecting more information about you moving forward from that point.”
Paying to Delete Yourself from People-Finders
One way to mitigate all this is to sign up for a service that removes your personal data on your behalf. Unfortunately, these are not cheap. Privacy Duck, for example, is ludicrously expensive. The basic service, which cleans up to two people from 91 data-broker sites, costs a heart-stopping $500 per year (the VIP service covers 190 sites for $1,000 a year).
In comparison, DeleteMe is a bargain! This service removes you from 38 common sites for $129 per year, with other plans that go up from there.
Faced with these prices, removing yourself manually might look compelling. Or, you might question whether it’s that important to remove your personal data in the first place.
The Cost of Privacy Is Eternal Vigilance
Keep in mind that no matter which solution you choose—doing it yourself or investing in a removal service—you’re only removing results from a particular set of sites. If you want to keep your info off these sites forever, eternal vigilance is required.
Your personal info will likely reappear on these sites as they acquire new info about you. So, you’ll still have to clean up on your own if or when you stop paying for a subscription service.
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