Have you ever Googled your own name?
If you haven’t, do so now – type your full name into DuckDuckGo (let’s not give Google free data here) and look at the results.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll see a list of websites and companies you may have never even heard of promising to tell you (and anyone else) your personal details, background information, criminal history, relatives, past addresses, and even your credit history. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that these companies, for a price, will divulge even more personal information – your income level, current and past employers, and even your political affiliation.
These companies are called online directories, data brokers, and/or PII databases and they’ve proliferated over the last decade. They turn personal information – about you and everyone else – into a product for sale.
They offer personal details of and profiles on millions of people for any buyer, whether it’s an individual or a company. Data brokers give away a lot of personal details for free (click through to one of your results to see how accurate they are), but they’ll sell access to even more detailed information for as little as a dollar. The more information you’re looking for (including relatives, full phone numbers and addresses), the more they’ll charge.
These data brokers take advantage of the fact that most of your personal information is out there somewhere – in public, corporate, or government records, and they can collect and aggregate it, put all the separate details into one place, and the market easy access to that data.
Why do data brokers exist?
Companies sell personal information because people and businesses want access to it, and will pay for it.
There are both corporate and consumer markets for data. On the corporate side, this data serves useful purposes like helping businesses verify info on new employees, find potential customers, and assist political or non-government organizations who need to get the word out of their cause to a specific group of people in relevant counties or states. Regular people use these services to make sure the babysitter doesn’t have a criminal record, or that a new love interest is really who they say they are.
However, easy online access for legitimate purposes won’t prevent illegitimate access. These same companies make it just as easy for a stalker to find out where a victim lives, a scammer to impersonate someone at their place of work, or a bounty hunter to know more about a potential suspect (even if they’re innocent).
Depending on the kind of information these data brokers have, they can compile comprehensive profiles based on interest, predicted behaviors, propensity to make certain purchases, vote certain ways, or likelihood to subscribe to a service, tool, or ideology. Companies make their money by selling this data en masse, selling profiles numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
Can you stop data brokers from compiling profiles on you?
These companies’ business is to hoard and scrape your information so they can sell it – they have no incentive to make the process of opting out or deleting your access easy. That means the steps to opt out are different for each company and in many cases you have to give the companies more information to prove that you’re actually the person behind the profile you want to delete. Whether or not you can trust them is up to you.
It’s also hard to know how many companies have your data in the first place. Fast Company published a long list last year, so that’s a good starting point. Other helpful resources include Stop Data Mining Me, a long list by Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. However, it’s a toss up whether these lists also include YellowPages-style of directories or just list marketing databases that cater to companies.
You can also use specialized services like deleteme.com or BrandYourself that will, for a fee, delete and opt-out of these directories for you. Not only do the companies know how to navigate the specific websites you’re opting out of, they also know what websites have your information so you don’t take the time to look. These companies do focus on directories, which are likely to have more in-depth information about you.
We like BrandYourself (check out our guide here) because they offer some helpful services for free, such as giving you a list of directories that may have your information. If you don’t want to pay for their removal service, the list will give you a good starting point for opting out of several sites.
Protecting your identity
Traditional privacy-protecting behavior, like password managers, ad blockers, or VPN’s won’t keep your data safe from PII databases. They source data from legitimate sources, and it’s very hard to avoid giving your name and address at the DMV or to stay off LinkedIn keep all your professional details private.
You can, of course, limit what you share to the bare minimum, and use alternative email accounts, phone numbers, and even names to confuse the system. Dozens of companies ask for your name, email and your phone number every week – do you have to give it to them? Is there any reason not to answer with fakes or alternatives? For most requests, the answer is no.
By having a junk Gmail account, or using private identity apps like MySudo, you can have alternate accounts and you should consider using them whenever you need to give up your email, name, or address. Combining burner accounts with fake data lets you contribute to a plan of ‘security through obscurity’ – If you give out enough slight variations of your name, different phone numbers, addresses, and birth dates, the personal data brokers will wind up with 17 records for people who look a lot like you and it becomes difficult for anyone searching to figure out which one actually is you.
This won’t stop the large commercial data brokers, the ones who buy credit card data and work with the largest banks and marketers in the world, from having an accurate file on you. But it may stop or slow down people who are nosey or have some nefarious reason for researching you.
The other option, at least in terms of personal data brokers, is to use a PII removal service like BrandYourself or DeleteMe. These companies leverage the ‘opt-out’ options many of these companies offer but automate the process making it a small cost but a big convenience. Learn more about them here.