Personal Information Databases and Your Privacy

Privacy - Image of person being examined by magnifying glass

My shocking personal information story

Last weekend I got a text message from my daughter. She had been online and had found one of the personal information databases that had my name in it.

There are a couple dozen popular sites like the one she checked. They all offer background and personal information about anyone, usually including phone number, address (and past addresses), email address, relatives, pictures, social connections, court records, etc. While you usually can get one or two pieces of information just by typing in someone’s name, for a fee you can get all the records.

Well, my daughter got my whole record and sent it to me. IT WAS SO, SO INACCURATE!  Wrong birth date. Unknown foreign “friends.” Places I’d never been to! When I got to the (false) court records I shut the phone in horror!

(Now my daughter being who she is, she sent me specific instructions of how to cancel the account, which I was able to do within 24 hours. At no charge.)

Still, it was a shock. While I spend a lot of time online, I simply don’t use personal information databases and have never looked myself up.

But since we talk about cyber-security a lot here at Emergency Plan Guide, it seemed important to share more about it today. These personal information databases are legal. They have found information about you without breaking any laws. There have been no “leaks.”

But your privacy is certainly threatened by them.

The Big-Daddy Personal Information Databases in all our lives – the Credit Bureaus

Most everyone is familiar with the credit bureaus that track 9 of every 10 adult Americans: Experian, Transunion and Equifax. A fourth seems to have been added to this list: Innovis.

While we often speak of “your credit rating,” or your “credit score,” you really have one from each company.  

But each credit report will be different. Why?

All four companies track money that you owe: mortgages, bank loans, car loans, student loans, and credit card debt. Credit bureaus also get information from public records, like property tax rolls or court records.

But businesses are not required to report the loans they make to you, so many businesses report to only one or two of the credit bureaus. That explains the variations in the reports

Action item: Check your credit reports.

If you haven’t checked your credit scores lately, you may want to. According to the Federal Trade Commission “You’re entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide credit reporting companies. Order online from, the only authorized website for free credit reports, or call 1-877-322-8228. You will need to provide your name, address, social security number, and date of birth to verify your identity.”

According to the Innovis website, they offer a free credit report, too.

I have checked my own records in the past. Every time I found errors. Once it was a misspelling that dropped someone else’s debt into my file. If you see debts you don’t recognize, or other strange information, you can work with the credit bureaus to get your report cleaned up.

The “people-finder” sites track even more personal information.

Wikipedia says there are close to 4,000 “information brokerages.” This probably includes the credit bureaus. All of these companies are for-profit organizations that make money by charging for certain services and by selling your personal information to marketers – and to each other.

The people-finder sites are giant personal information databases. They start with names and aliases. They list addresses where you have lived and currently live. Some have reverse directories – enter an email and they’ll give you a phone number to go with it, or enter a phone number and you’ll get an address.

That is just the start. You may find lists of your children. Other relatives and ex-relatives. Lists of friends. Where you’ve traveled. Property you own. If you’ve been in trouble with the law or owe taxes. If you are a sex offender. Have declared bankruptcy. You may find photos of yourself!

How much of this information do you want to be available to anyone willing to shell out a few dollars? What if there are errors in the data? How can you protect your privacy?

When I found out about being on one of these sites, I immediately jumped into action to find out more.

How the people-finder information databases work:

  • You usually can’t get a complete look at your people-finder record  — or the record of someone else — without paying at least $1 for a “trial.” If you sign up for a trial, read the fine print. Trials typically turn into a “regular monthly subscription” unless you cancel within the specified time, which may be just a few days.
  • If you want to update or clean up your record at the people-finder site, you will run into challenges. They get your information by scraping the web – that is, by finding publicly available info. Obviously, you can’t “change” public information, although you can delete some of it. (Looks as though you can’t delete court records that aren’t officially expunged.)
  • Once the site is updated, you will be offered the option to subscribe for a monthly fee to monitor your account to keep it clean and also to be able to search for other people. Subscription prices seem to vary starting at as little as $5/month (for a multiple-month contract) but most are more in the $20-30/month range, with an extra fee for what has been termed the “juicy stuff” – criminal records, tax records.
  • Like me, you may want to close the account and remove all the information. Every site’s requirements for opting-out of the site are different – but from what I am reading, it is possible but your patience will be tried. You should not have to pay anything to get off the site but you may have to jump through hoops.
  • Even after you are successful at having the account closed, it may reappear again in the future when they “find” new information . . .

Here are some of the sites I came across in my research.

 I used an old email to check on a couple of them and found myself in every one I looked at. My photo was there, too! I am not recommending any of these sites — they are just to help you get started on your own research!

  • Peoplefinder
  • Beenverified
  • Mylife
  • Instant CheckMate
  • Spokeo
  • Anywho
  • Truthfinder
  • Whitepages
  • People
  • Peoplesmart
  • Intelius
  • US Search
  • Radaris
  • SeekVerify
  • Pipl

Can you remove yourself from these online databases?

How to get off the credit bureaus. The only way to get off them entirely is to become one of the 26 million or so people in the U.S. that have no debt profile. That means they have no credit cards. No mortgage. No car payment.

Most of us couldn’t function without at least some of these. So the best thing to do is to be sure your credit report is at least accurate.

How to get yourself off the people-finders. It looks to me as though getting totally off is impossible. You would need to have no online banking accounts. No social media accounts. No websites. You’d have to avoid using public wi-fi, and if you went online, use a Do Not Track browser. (Apparently Google does have a Removal Tool but it sounds as though they make it tough to use.)

Best thing to do here? Go to as many of the people-finder sites you can and ask that your information be deleted. Go there regularly. This is a lot of work.

Hire a “reputation manager” to help?  You can hire a “reputation manager” company that will search out negative info on your behalf, then remove or suppress it. Some of these companies specialize in business reputation management, others work for individuals. Fees for their services depend on the complexity of your situation, but customized plans seem to start at around $400 – 500/month.

“Privacy is dead. Get over it.”

You have probably heard this quote. It is attributed to the co-founder and CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy – and he said it way back in 1999!

Obviously, the more we rely on digital communications to run our lives – essentially everything on the Internet of Things — the less privacy we will be able to maintain. Is there an answer – or is the genie out of the bottle, never to be returned?  I’m afraid the genie is dancing in triumph right now!

But in being conscious of what data you’re making available by participating in the digital society, you can at least be better prepared for what might come!

You Emergency Plan Guide team

P.S. I am not an expert in this topic. If it interests you, YOU need to become your own expert. If you already have stories to tell, please share them with us by leaving a comment below!

P.P.S. We have written pretty regularly about security and privacy. Here’s an earlier Advisory that talks about why home electronic devices are so vulnerable to hacking.

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