Spokeo.com: How Much Information Is Really Being Shared?

BlogHer Original Post

My dad called me in a panic last week. "Have you heard of that spoke-o-dot-com website? HAVE YOU HEARD?" The fact that my calm and collected father seemed panicked about something was alarming enough. The fact that he knew something about tech news as he is decidedly un-tech was even more alarming. But, yes, I had heard of Spokeo.com, and I was concerned about the level of information the search-engine-info-aggregator was sharing with the Web.

Spokeo.com

If you're unfamiliar with the site, spokeo.com is a data aggregator of all of your information. The site boasts the tagline "not your grandma's phonebook," and they get points for honesty. A phone book lists your name and address. Spokeo.com lists the worth of your home, its square footage, whether or not you're registered to vote (and for what party), your religious views, and your "wealth info." Among other things. Swell.

My dad gets mad props for tech-knowledge from me, because I had only become aware of the site earlier in the week thanks to repeated posts on Facebook. The status message my friends were sharing read like so:

There’s a site called spokeo.com that’s a new online USA phone book w/personal information: everything from pics you’ve posted on FB or web, your approx credit score, pics of where you live, income, age. Remove yourself by searching your name, copy the URL and then go to the bottom of the page and click on the Privacy link to remove yourself.

When I looked myself up, I found not only the listing for my Given-First-Name and Married-Last Name but also the First-Name-I-Go-By and Married-Last-Name, Given-First-Name and Maiden-Name, and lastly, First-Name-I-Go-By and Maiden-Name. I had multiple address listings for most of those names. My husband only had two: our current home and his college apartment. I followed the steps that Spokeo.com lists for removing yourself, though I ran into an error in that it only lets you delete two profiles per email address. Thankfully I have about a dozen email addresses due to work. And then the site eventually blocked me before I could remove my parents' information, claiming I had done too many removals in one day. Swell again.

I took advantage of the fact that I couldn't remove my parents information for them and decided to purchase a three month account to see what all the hoopla was about. The site recently moved all of the once-public information behind a paywall due to complaints.

Turns out, I'm not really all that worried about what the site is sharing... as most of it is wrong. My parents names, addresses, and general information were correct. However, there were huge discrepancies in information about their house. From my mom's profile to my dad's profile there was a $600,000 difference in their home worth. The Google map also showing where they lived was wrong though their address was right. My mom's only interests listed are that she "enjoys shopping," which she does, and that she "orders from mail catalogs" (again, she does). My dad apparently "plays sports" (uh, maybe one golf game per year), "enjoys food and wine" (food, yes; wine, uh, no) and "browses mail catalogs" (if they mean "complains that his wife leaves mail catalogs all over the house," well then, maybe). Also, spokeo says that it is unknown if my dad is registered to vote; he is.

As a note, none of the photos my mom has shared on Facebook have made it to her spokeo.com profile like the Facebook status update warning states. My dad doesn't even have a Facebook account, so he's safe there too.

I have since removed my parents' profiles and they can finally breathe again. But the question remains: Does spokeo.com warrant a freak-out?

The Better Business Bureau says no. In a blog post, they explained that the information being shared is public record, and the stuff that isn't is the stuff we're sharing online anyway.

So while you can delete your individual listing in the “Privacy form” on Spokeo’s website, just removing your search results won’t stop people from accessing your data by other means. If you don’t like your information showing up to ex-spouses, potential bosses, bill collectors, and the curious masses, don’t provide it to social networking sites. If you do, make sure your privacy settings are tuned to the highest possible level. And do realize that since we live in the Information Age, some information is public record, like real estate listings, some government information, and your phone number and address unless they are unlisted.

In a blog post at Forbes.com, Kashmir Hill hits on one of the issues plaguing Spokeo that might actually cause problems for site.

A few privacy advocates continue to whine, and are asking the Federal Trade Commission to step in. Last year, the Center for Democracy & Technology filed a complaint alleging that the company is violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act because it includes wealth information in its profiles. Spokeo says no, and says that anyone can request to have their profile removed from the site.

That offer has led to another FTC complaint, and this one could get the site in trouble if true. Multiple users say that they have asked to have their profiles removed and that they have come back. Zombie profiles that refuse to die could get Spokeo into unfair and deceptive business practices territory. The blogger who goes by Dissent Doe at PogoWasRight filed an FTC complaint this week, after profiles of her and her family that she had previously removed came back to life on the site. I reached out to Spokeo to ask why these profiles refuse to die…

Be sure to read each of the links contained in that quoted set of paragraphs. Even more information about this site and the issues are contained within each.

Nordette Adams of Whose Shoes Are These Anyway? left her information on the site and explained why.

Most likely, the government is the only entity that can stop this kind of intrusion by making it illegal for third party sources to make private citizens' information visible to casual Internet surfers without the citizen's explicit permission. I don't think the government can stop these aggregators from selling the information. The junk mail industry has thrived on these kinds of sales for years. But some kind of legislation should be able to stop aggregators from exposing the phone numbers, home addresses, and personal income of people with whom these sites have no direct relationship. Or at least perhaps some kind of privacy legislation can force these sites to reveal the original sources so citizens can have their information hidden at those websites or databases.

Whether or not they have the right to share this information isn't always the most important issue at hand as Heather Jeffery at The Daily Reporter found out first hand with a creepy phone call.

According to Mr. Hiatt, he did not find anything when searching under a minor’s name but using their email address, he found photos, videos and IP addresses for a 15-year-old local teen. Others here at The Daily Reporter have searched for information about minors by name and found information.

Now, this is what scares me. A pedophile’s dream, all the information you need to track down an unwarned youngster, including a picture of his/her home.

As a note: Neither of my sons' were on the site. They're five and three and, obviously, don't have a social media presence as of yet. But you really might want to do what this writer says at the end of her article and check on your children and the elderly people in your life.

I personally don't like the site because I don't like sharing matters of money with friends, family, readers or complete strangers. I am hoping that my removal of our profiles lasts, but I will keep an eye on it in case we reappear sometime soon.

Interested in removing yourself? Follow the steps that The Complex Media shared in a recent blog post as Spokeo doesn't dictate how to do them easily on their own site. It takes a couple of steps and, as I said before, you can only do two removals per email address. Here's how to do it:

  • Go to Spokeo
  • Search your First and Last name (especially the name you use on Facebook), your emails, usernames, phone numbers, etc.
  • Find your profile and click it
  • Click “See It All” which will bring you to a purchase page
  • Copy the entire URL from your browser
  • Scroll down and click the Privacy link at the bottom of the page
  • Enter the URL you copied, your email address, and click “Remove Listing”
  • Check your email for an email subject reading: Spokeo Directory Removal Confirmation
  • Click the provided link to confirm your listing removal
  • You should be redirected to a page that reads: “This directory listing has been removed.”

And then watch to see if you return. Spokeo does explain why that happens, but it doesn't make it any less aggravating.

By the way, if you sign up (which, trust me, it's not worth your money as so much information is blatantly wrong), don't forget to unsubscribe or you will be automatically billed at the end of your contract. You're welcome for the reminder (which was mostly written so I remember to go unsubscribe myself).

Have you opted out of Spokeo.com? Why or why not?

Contributing Editor Jenna Hatfield (@Stop, Drop & Blog and The Chronicles of Munchkin Land. She is a freelance writer and photographer.

Comments

In order to comment on BlogHer.com, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.