Privacy check, part two: Testing free Web people directories

Online people-search directories make it easy to discover a wealth of private information simply by entering a name, address, and/or phone number in their search boxes.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
6 min read

Much of the recent concern about the Web's lack of privacy protections has focused on Facebook--rightly or wrongly. Just a few days ago, Chris Matyszczyk described in his Technically Incorrect blog how a man blackmailed women into providing him with revealing photos by breaking into their e-mail accounts using data he collected from their public Facebook profiles and searching for racy image attachments, which he threatened to make public.

(In August 2009 I described how to keep your Facebook profile private, and while some of the settings have changed since that time, the steps are about the same.)

The online threats to your privacy extend far beyond Facebook, however. In yesterday's post, I described the personal information I discovered about myself and others by searching two free Web people directories: PhoneNumber.com and MyLife. PhoneNumber.com is a standard street address and telephone directory with reverse lookup (watch out for the pop-ups) and MyLife prods you for your private data, which it shares with unnamed third-party marketers.

Even more private information is offered on three other free directories: 123people.com, Intelius, and Spokeo. All three reveal street addresses, ages, and other personal data for free--and even more details for a fee. (The first two also list the names of your close relations for free--yikes!) However, some of the information about me on one of the sites--Spokeo--was tremendously out-of-date and downright erroneous.

A wealth of free personal info--and plenty of ads to boot
You may be surprised to discover the amount of private data available for free simply by entering a name at 123people.com, including photos, videos, and the names of relations. When I entered my name at the site, its search-results page showed pictures of me and several other "Dennis O'Reilly"s, one of whom is a convicted murderer (not me!)

At least one of the dozen-or-so partial e-mail addresses returned by the 123people.com search was mine (gleaned from an Intelius database, according to the site). The results page also showed several blog posts, biographies, links, partial phone numbers, related products, related people, IMs/microblogs, videos, news items, documents, social-network profiles, and a tag cloud.

123people.com people-search results page
Much of the personal information returned when searching a name at 123people.com consists of ads for other fee-based people-search services. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Links to fee-based information promised public-record and criminal-record searches on my name at Intelius, USSearch, and Peoplefinders, as well as birth, death, marriage, divorce, census, immigration, and veterans records from Archive.com.

I recognized only seven of the 35 Twitter accounts the site claimed were related to my name; several of the others were celebrities, none of whom I had signed up to follow on Twitter. Four of the 10 video links referred to GPS video reviews I had done years ago. My LinkedIn account was one of the 28 social network profiles returned, but my private Facebook account was not listed in 123people.com's search results.

When I clicked the page's link to find the complete e-mail addresses, Emailfinder.com opened with a list of several dozen "Dennis O'Reilly"s, complete with middle names and initials, ages, and current and former cities of residence. The link for my entry led to a page that offered a full background check for $30, contact information (e-mail, street address, and phone number) for $8, and a one-year membership providing unlimited people searches, including social network profiles, for $23.40, with a 7-day free trial.

Partial addresses and telephone numbers were listed for dozens of Dennis O'Reilly's, but my contact information was not among them. Having a relatively common name such as mine may actually help me maintain my online privacy, although there's still plenty of information about me available to anyone who cares to search the Web for it.

123people.com doesn't offer to remove any of its information. Instead, you have to remove the data from the site the service scraped it from and then wait for 123people.com's temporary cache to be emptied, which the site claims may take several days. The service lets you register, but all you get in return is its e-mail newsletters and regular updates on your searches.

Plenty of personal info for free--even more for a small fee
Intelius is one of the leaders in the personal-info field, and a search for my name returned a whopping 223 entries, the 108th of which was mine. The entry includes my age, current and past cities of residence, and the names of two close relatives. For $2, the service promises to provide my date of birth, phone number, address, estimated income, estimated home value, and other information. (For $20, you can search an unlimited number of names and addresses for 24 hours.)

Intelius free people search report
The Intelius people-search feature shows the person's age and the names of close relatives; for a fee you get even more private data. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

You receive a complete background check for $50. This includes criminal and civil checks, liens, aliases, lawsuits, judgments, property, and marriage and death records. (The company is offering discounts when you sign up for a trial of its Identity Protect service.) I didn't test any of Intelius' fee-based services.

Intelius' reverse phone lookup doesn't show any specific information for free, but for $5 you receive a report with the name on the account, the carrier, current and "historical" information (including calls made and received), average income, and average home value.

None of my e-mail accounts was among the 44 returned by the site's e-mail address search. For another $5, you're promised the personal and business e-mail addresses, corresponding street address, and "location details."

The Social Net Lookup service on Intelius returned 12 accounts when I entered my name, one of which was likely my LinkedIn account. I would have to pay $10 to learn the account holder's name, address, phone number, and social networks, including URLs. This is yet another good reason to keep your Facebook profile private.

The service's Property & Neighborhood Report costs $15 per street address and includes the estimated home value, property information, tax and ownership information, and neighborhood information. The report also verifies the address and associated phone numbers with public utilities, and gives the names and locations of neighborhood sex offenders.

Intelius' services for business include employee and tenant screening, and driving records. Also provided are a date-check service and cell phone caller ID. The company doesn't offer to correct erroneous information in its reports.

While I didn't pay for a complete Intelius report, the information viewable for free was accurate. It was more than a little startling to see the free entry list the names of two close relatives.

People directory entry is 20 years behind the times
There has been quite a bit of buzz about Spokeo recently. Kashmir Hill describes the Spokeo brouhaha in her Not-So Private Parts blog on Forbes.com. Compared to the private information available about me on other Web directories, Spokeo is no great shakes.

For example, the site's entry for me listed an address dating back to the early 1990s. (Spokeo located 23 other "Dennis O'Reilly"s in the U.S.) According to the company, I'm still single and living in a house I last saw when the first George Bush was president.

That tends to make me distrust the other information the site has gleaned from various public records. Spokeo promises to reveal my e-mail address, phone numbers, estimated income, photos, videos, social profiles, hobbies, "lifestyle," and other information about me for $35.40 per year.

The site claims the rate is $2.95 per month, but you're billed the annual rate immediately, and the service's terms of use indicate that no payments will be refunded. Spokeo doesn't guarantee that "full data" will be available for all profiles and records.

The service searches its directories for information tied to e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and user names as well as people names. Spokeo also offers to raid your Webmail contact list to search for information about your friends, relatives, and business associates. The results of the service's address and phone-number searches were more accurate than the service's name search, but you can get more-trustworthy information for less money from Intelius.

Spokeo promises to remove your information from its directories by following the information on its FAQ page. The question is whether it's worthwhile to request removal of your personal data because the information may be retrieved with the service's next scan of Internet public records. That's a subject for the third and last part of this series.

Next: Ways to find, manage, and control (but not necessarily remove) your personal information on the Web.