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The Danger in People Search Sites

When you run a Google or DuckDuckGo search for someone’s name (including yours), mixed in the results will probably be a bunch of websites which list and offer a many personal details – including age, addresses, job information, relatives names and more. These sites are called people search sites (many are also data brokers) and they’ve made a business out of selling people’s personal information to anyone willing to make the purchase.

The existence of these sites make online privacy extremely difficult and also make it easier for hackers and scammers to legally obtain the information needed to steal someone’s identity, get into their accounts, or scam/hack them in many other ways.

What People Search Sites Do

Some of the better known people search sites include BeenVerified, TruthFinder, Whitepages, Spokeo, and Intelius but there are hundreds more. These companies all collect information from various sources (public and non-public) available on the internet. These sources can include social media sites, public records (such as housing, marriage, and other government records), and any other site where your name and/or email address can be found alongside any other personal information (such as your job, income level, demographics, or more).

These sites can also purchase data or engage in a data-sharing agreement with companies you’ve willingly given your data to—companies won’t always disclose their partners or they may bury it in a lengthy privacy policy.

People search sites are slightly different than data broker sites, in that people search sites generally sell data to individual consumers, while data brokers collect and sell data – on both individual and population aggregates – to other companies for advertising, demographic, or behavioral purposes. You can learn more about data brokers in this article and more about the difference in this interview with Zoro CEO Patrick Ambron. 

Legitimate Uses of People Search Sites

People search sites make it possible for you to verify someone’s identity, check a prospective tenant, babysitter, or job applicant criminal background history (if any), credit history, and employment history. They can also be used to find a long-lost relative or friend to reconnect.

But while there are legitimate reasons why someone might want to use these sites, there are no rules or limits on how they can be used, or who can use them. So from an individual’s point of view, there is a lot of risk to having so much of your personal data available for display or sale to anyone who wants it. There are people you know that you do not want to share all of these details with, and there are people who you don’t know that you definitely would rather not have such easy access to all of these details.

The Risks in People Search Sites

When your personal information is listed in dozens (or hundreds) of websites, available to anyone who searches or who is willing to pay, you face several important risks:

You don’t know who’s accessing your information

There’s no way to know who is accessing your information and there’s no system in place to provide any alerts when someone has bought your info from any one of these sites. This isn’t the case with credit checks, for example, as there are alert services provided by credit card companies and identity theft protection companies.

This creates a huge risk as companies have no incentive to filter out any bad actors, scammers, or criminals who are looking for a new victim to hit with an identity theft attack or may want to target someone at their home, extort them, or use personal information to carry out other kinds of attacks such as a SIM-jacking attack.

The fact that this information is incredibly easy and accessible (profiles can cost as little as $10), means there is a legal and legitimate market for scammers to have a target in mind and start the process by buying that person’s entire profile for just a few dollars. This risks embarrassment, harassment, and even physical harm as most of these services also provide home addresses.

You’re not aware it’s happening

You might have heard of BeenVerified or Peoplefinder.com, but there are hundreds of other companies that are selling your information and you don’t even know all of their names. New sites are created all the time, they often pull data from older sites (either because they have the same owners or because they steal info from each other), and ultimately it just means you have no idea where or how widely your information is being shared.

They can get a lot of information wrong

The data in these sites is pulled from multiple sources, merged and aggregated by algorithms, and rarely if ever verified or curated. That can mean incorrect information about you is being shared, whether it’s by mistake or because data from someone else with your same name is being attributed to you. Of course, the people who see or buy this data won’t know it’s wrong, and may take actions that affect you based on this incorrect information. 

You were never asked permission

These companies never asked if it was okay to collect your information or sell it in the first place. Instead, they’re scraping data from other sites and your accounts and profiles without even letting you know it’s happening. They’re selling your data – be it right or wrong – for their own profit.

Your relatives are at risk

These sites also commonly list your relatives and spouse (current and/or former) which makes it easy for people to get information on you and contact those relatives and sound as if they know you. so if someone really wanted to bring harm to you, they’ll know who your relatives are and be able to buy their personal details.

These companies can be hacked

The fact that these companies have amassed databases of people means any hacker can potentially make their way into these companies to steal, leak, and/or sell all your personal data even more widely.

It’s hard to opt-out

Even if you’re able to identify some of the websites that have your information, it’s not easy to remove your data from their databases. Every site has a different opt-out and deletion process and some companies intentionally make the process difficult to discourage people from opting out. Finding and removing yourself can be a long and tedious process and many sites will just re-upload your information after some time, forcing you to perform the same song and dance again.

How to minimize the risk involved with people search sites

One of the challenges people face when trying to remove themselves from people search sites is the fact that there are hundreds of these sites. New ones pop up constantly because the financial incentive is lucrative. It doesn’t take much (or cost) a lot to buy personal data in bulk or scrape it using existing tools – selling individual profiles for less than $10 still nets these companies a profit.

So it becomes a nearly impossible task to look for all these people search sites, find their opt-out policy, and then go through the necessary steps to remove yourself from these sites. You’ll also have to keep an eye on these sites to make sure your details don’t surface again.

The best way to handle this is to use a public data removal service, like Spartacus, or Zoro. These services automate the data removal process and they already have knowledge of the opt-out process for hundreds of these sites. Depending on the plan and service you use, they will also monitor these sites and re-remove your data if it shows up again.

These services provide convenience and expertise and are extremely effective at making sure your personal information doesn’t spread all over the internet. To learn more about these services, check out our Zoro overview here.

People search sites are here to stay (unfortunately)

Because these sites are easily profitable and there continues to be a market for them, people search sites will continue to thrive. Unless regulations and/or laws are passed that give people more ownership of their data, there’s no need or reason why people search sites would ever change the way they work or suddenly start asking people for permission before they can sell someone’s data. 

That means you’re the one that needs to take action to protect yourself and minimize the risk involved if you think any of the issues covered above may apply to you. Unfortunately, there aren’t any preventative measures you can take to stop these sites from taking your information—public records can’t be hidden and even if you keep your social media profiles hidden, it’s hard to know what other companies, sites, or apps, are sharing your information.

We recommend and encourage considering a private data removal service. It’s one of the more effective ways to stay private online and it performs a service that’s nearly impossible to replicate manually.

Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

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