A growing number of websites sell (or give freely) the personal information of individuals. These online information brokers (also known as data brokers or data vendors) gather personal information from many sources including white pages listings (directory assistance), publicly-available sources and public records. Some information brokers also offer the ability to conduct "social searches," which gather information by searching public profiles on social networking sites.
What Kind of Information?
Types of information available via these databases may include:
- Full name
- Physical address
- Marital status
- Telephone number
- A wide range of other information - from your date of birth, how much you owe on a mortgage to the ages of your children
Information brokers may offer the ability to look someone up via their name, email address, telephone number or Social Security number. Much of the information sold by online information brokers is gathered through public records. This may include portions of DMV records, court records, birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, property records, arrest and conviction records and even voting records. The extent of information available in public records will vary from state to state and county to county. Learn more about types of public and semi-public information available in government records by reading PRC Fact Sheet 11: From Cradle to Grave: Government Records and Your Privacy.
Some Concerns about Online Information Brokers
Many consumers have contacted PRC with concerns about having their personal information available on the Internet. This can be particularly troublesome for victims of stalking, law enforcement agents and victims of identity theft. Unfortunately, many consumers find it difficult to effectively remove their information from these lists.
A few of the issues that may arise when attempting to remove personal information from these online databases include:
- Information brokers may not offer a method of opting-out
- Information brokers may charge a fee to suppress information from their databases
- Personal information that has been removed from a particular database may be re-posted online at a later date when the company downloads a new batch of information. You would need to repeat the opt-out process again if your information is reposted.
For a discussion of the privacy implications of making records available online, read PRC's publication Public Records on the Internet: The Privacy Dilemma. For a comprehensive discussion of the data broker industry read Everything We Know About What Data Brokers Know About You.
Tips for Consumers Interested in Restricting Access to Their Personal Information
As of this writing, there is no single mechanism of suppressing your information from all information broker databases at once. Here are some tips to help you reduce access to your personal information online:
- Remove your information from directory listings Contact your telephone company and see if you can have your number unlisted and unpublished so that your information will not be listed in the telephone book or available through Directory Assistance. You can also choose to provide some information (like your name and number) while removing your address. You may be charged a monthly fee to have your information removed.
- Submit complaints If you are concerned about online information brokers, submit a complaint to the FTC and to your state Attorney General. Please be aware that the FTC and state Attorney General will not act on behalf of an individual consumer, but may launch an investigation if they receive enough complaints about a particular company or industry.
Want to do more?
- If your own county agencies are considering posting public records online, let your county supervisors know of your concerns. Attend public meetings on this issue and weigh in, both in written and in oral testimony.
- Organize with others who share your concerns. Organizations that assist victims of domestic violence and stalking, for example, are actively monitoring these proposals and are testifying at public hearings. To find links to assistance groups across the country, visit the website of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
- Many state court organizations have formed task forces to discuss the privacy and access of online court records. Find out if or how you can participate in these task forces. When there are public hearings, see if you can submit written testimony and/or speak. For more information about the topic of privacy and online court records, visit the National Center for State Court's website.
To learn more about public and government records, read PRC Fact Sheet 11: From Cradle to Grave: Government Records and Your Privacy.
Learn more about online information brokers by reading our Frequently Asked Questions.
This list is provided as information only. Posting of these sites and their opt out information should not be construed as an endorsement.
We acknowledge the work of Patricia, former Consumer Advocate, in researching and compiling this listing.