What the Web knows about you

How much private information is available about you in cyberspace? Social Security numbers are just the beginning.

The company processed my transaction, but I received no report. Over the next few days, several phone calls and e-mails went unanswered. I ended up challenging the charge on my credit card bill -- a process that eventually resulted in a refund from American Express. Caveat emptor.

I then approached Intelius , a bigger name that also provides data to business partners such as ZabaSearch . Intelius waived its US$49.95 background search charge for the purpose of this story. I requested a few extra bells and whistles, which would have brought the total cost to US$77.

Among other things, the report included searches of criminal records, civil judgments, sex offender records, address history, real estate property records and death certificates. Intelius gets its information from public records, marketing databases and information that is scraped off the Web, says Ed Petersen, co-founder and executive vice president at Intelius. Much of the information is purchased from other data providers.

Inaccuracies in the data and the abundance of data on people who were not me made combing through the 67 pages of results a bit of a chore. After removing the irrelevant content, I was disappointed to find that the report contained just one piece of data that I had not found through my previous, free searches: a June 2004 property tax bill in the amount of US$1,857.

Despite the fact that I'd entered my address and Social Security number, the bulk of the report consisted of state and federal criminal records of 156 Robert Mitchells from all over the country, none of which were me. It included incorrect names of "relatives" as well as records with my correct phone number attached to the wrong address and vice versa. It did not find my primary legal residence address or phone number at all. (We moved one year ago.) The business records section of the report did not turn up my position at Computerworld or my business phone number.

Intelius did aggregate a lot of data about me that I had already discovered, and might have saved some research time. However, I would still have had to do additional work to resolve the inconsistencies and other errors.

Next I tried a service called ReputationDefender , which tracks both what is being said about you (the MyReputation service; US$9.95 per month) and personal information available about you on the Web (MyPrivacy; US$4.95 per month). After a few days, the service uncovered my residential phone numbers, information about my work with a nonprofit organization, details of my Flickr account and a couple of Web sites I set up.

Finally, I tried searching public records through LexisNexis. Computerworld 's subscription includes a search function that combines data from public records databases ranging from motor vehicle records to court documents to hunting and fishing licenses. While much of the information LexisNexis returned was the same as what I'd found previously, it produced more information overall, and data accuracy was somewhat better.

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Robert L. Mitchell

Computerworld
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