SAN FRANCISCO, California -- Data brokers gather information about you, then sell it to companies and individuals. Right now, your worst enemy could go online and with a few clicks of the keys, gain access to several specialized websites.
Rob Shavell is co-founder and CEO of Abine, a Boston based online privacy company.
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He says personal data websites compile information, "...like your past addresses, your current address, age, sex date of birth, political affiliation, relatives, their ages and your relationships with them and then it can get a little bit more in depth."
Information like your cell phone number, a photo of your home and your criminal record.
So for less than $35, I buy a month-long subscription to the data broker instantcheckmate.com and ask San Francisco resident Richard Sachs to input his name and information.
As he looks through the site, he hits upon the criminal records segment and finds a couple of traffic violations.
I ask, "Are these yours?"
"I think they are," he says, "They sound like they would be mine."
He also finds some notations about being a fugitive from justice and there is an arrest warrant.
"I don't think that's me." He assures me, it is not him.
The criminal records section shows cases under your name and similar names. The website makes that perfectly clear.
Joe Ridout is with consumer action. At my request, he taps in his name.
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"These addresses are accurate, " he says as he looks through the website.
I ask for his thoughts on all this.
"There may be, actually, about a hundred of these 'people search' companies out there," He tells me, "Compiling your data without your permission, selling it to companies without your knowledge and doing it all behind your back essentially."
It is perfectly legal, but is it fair? I ask instant checkmate and I am told these types of public records have, "...always been publicly available, it has been expensive, time-consuming and burdensome to retrieve... Instant Checkmate believes that making public record information more accessible helps people."
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Data company Spokeo told our Fresno sister station it has reunited family members and also helps protect online dates from catfishing scams. A spokesperson saying, "As much as we understand how much we help the 19 million people who visit our site monthly, we understand there are some people who are uncomfortable with their data online."
There is good reason to be uncomfortable. This is a treasure trove for stalkers. Identity thieves could use some of the information to commit fraud in your name. So, what do you do?
Well, every site offers an opt out. You can go through them one by one or you can hire a company like Abine to do the work for you.
"You get four reports a year, "Rob Shavell says, "We tell you where we found your information , we tell you when it was opted out and you can go back and see when you do a search for yourself it is gone from those websites."
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While information will be taken down from the sites, the underlying public record still remains.
Joe Ridout says, "It is not actually being deleted. It is like an extended game of whack-a-mole."
Rob Shavell agrees, saying when a life event happens like a new baby or mortgage that can trigger someone's information to be reposted.
"The upshot," Ridout says, "is people have lost control of their private information and they are frustrated with how many entities are wheeling and dealing their personal data without their permission."
If you want to remove the information yourself, but aren't sure how to begin, check out our list of links to more than a dozen of the top data collection sites.
What does this mean for you? If you want to remove the information yourself, 7 On Your Side has you covered.
Below is a list of some of the top data collection sites, along with the links you need to start taking down your information.
Note that many of the sites require you to search for your information first, and then copy and paste the link to your data into the opt-out form.
USA People Search
US Identify (scroll down to "IV. CHOICE AND OPT OUT")
Veromi (scroll down to "IV. CHOICE AND OPT OUT")
ZabaSearch (scroll down to "How to Remove your Information from Our Database")
For just a few dollars, strangers can learn a wealth about you online