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Posted at 10:28 AM ET, 07/ 1/2010

Update: Spokeo's consumer profiling prompts complaint to FTC

By Cecilia Kang

Updated: With comments from Spokeo

Forget Googling yourself. Try to Spokeo yourself, and you may be as stunned as I was with what I found. That’s made the data aggregation and broker the subject of a consumer protection complaint filed Wednesday to the Federal Trade Commission.

The Web site that tracks user profile information has a pretty rich profile of me, not all accurate. Yes, I’m Asian. Yes, I’m a Cancer. But, woah: Where did they get that stuff about income and credit?

Through various Web sites such as social networks, phone directories and marketing surveys, Spokeo finds publicly available information through its algorhythm on gender, ethnicity, credit worthiness and income – all information the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology believes crosses the line and needs federal scrutiny. Spokeo makes some of that information available for free and charges for other information.

Specifically, CDT said in its complaint, Spokeo’s actions violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act by publishing credit estimates and wealth levels of individuals. It also engages in unfair and deceptive business practices by luring users to sign up for its paid services on mortgage and other information that isn’t available after payment.

“Spokeo’s service is particularly troubling as much of the information is inaccurate or misleading, and the site is marketed to employers and other decision-makers who could rely on the advertised credit, wealth and lifestyle data to make negative judgments about consumers without their awareness.”

Spokeo said in an e-mail, that the complaint was "an unfortunate misrepresentation of Spokeo’s products and practices and propagates unnecessary anxiety among
users."

The company said that of the millions of search queries done on its site, only a small portion of visitors opt out of the service. Spokeo also said that the information it gathers is available to anyone searching the Web. The site just makes it easier to find.

The company, created in 2005 by a Stanford University student working out of his parents' basement, allows users to remove their profiles from the site. It took a few minutes and several steps: I had to paste the URL of my profile into a box, provide my e-mail (which I hated doing; the company said on its site that the e-mail is used to prevent further abuse), and type in a security code. Then the company e-mailed me a link to click on to finalize the steps. BUT, that’s not the end of it. I still see my cellphone and work number profiles on the site. So I will have to go through the same process two more times.

By Cecilia Kang  | July 1, 2010; 10:28 AM ET
Categories:  FTC, Privacy  
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Comments

Interesting and frightening report, but it would have been very useful to detail the process for removing yourself from the site, rather than just leaving the reader to discover the process for themselves.

Posted by: slgrieb | July 1, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

OK, now that I've removed myself from the site, I can say that the process is quick, if not immediately obvious. To remove yourself, you need to click the Join link from the site's home page, and find the Help link (in very tiny print) at the bottom of the page and click on it. Next, click the link on FAQ # 4 and follow the instructions. Removal is virtually instantaneous after you follow the link which is emailed to you.

Posted by: slgrieb | July 1, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I did a story on this earlier this year. Spokeo presented itself as being a social media aggregator to get people to sign up for it.

http://www.daniweb.com/news/story271760.html

Posted by: idslfisher | July 1, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

THANK YOU CECILIA KANG!

The problem with this kind of site is that it--or something similar--will become vastly more accurate with time. Yes, a lot of it is utterly wrong, but there is every reason to predict Spokeo will--if allow to--get much better.

The wealth estimates are particularly troubling. In at least some states I believe state employees' salaries are a matter of public record. Together with data on your vehicles, house value (from public records and real estate databases), names of your spouse and children, this could make for a great resource for potential extortionists and kidnappers!

Should American citizens put up with this sort of thing?

Posted by: jack80 | July 5, 2010 9:23 PM | Report abuse

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