May 28, 2010— -- For a $2.95 a month subscription on Spokeo.com, anyone can find your name, age, ethnicity, marital status, religion, politics, address, home phone number, mobile phone number, e-mail address, social networking profiles, photos, videos and blogs.
The website uses an algorithm to search public databases, so the information is only as accurate as the sources, but many may be surprised by the amount of accurate information available online. As opposed to social networks, people search engines like Spokeo.com do not require you to sign up for anything in order for your information to be found.
Search yourself on Spokeo.com and you may be surprised to find how much information is available to anyone with a computer and a modem. Although public records have always made certain information available, the Internet age, and the subsequent rise of social networks, has increased the ease with which people can track down general, and personal, information about you. But are these sites also a new tool for scammers and identity thieves?
Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's office released a consumer alert about Spokeo on May 7.
"The difference with these web sites is that information from a variety of disparate sources is aggregated, collated, and presented in one place. It's like pieces of a puzzle put together. The result is that consumers enjoy less privacy, and that is understandably shocking," the AG said on its website.
"The reason we singled out [Spokeo] is we received numerous inquiries from consumers," Arkansas Deputy Attorney General Jim DePriest told ABC News, although he made clear that Spokeo is one of many sites that aggregate personal information. "Consumers are a little taken aback that this information is available in one place, and they feel that their privacy has been invaded, so we are responding to those fears."
Facebook, the leading social network, on Wednesday addressed user privacy concerns ahead of a proposed "walk out" that had been planned for May 31 by some of that site's users. New settings unveiled this week by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg simplify privacy settings on the social network, giving users more control over how their information is shared with third parties. MySpace has also recently re-vamped its privacy settings.
Spokeo co-founder Harrison Tang believes that Facebook chose not to simply retract the public information in question because people want to share their information online.
"There is such a dilemma between sharing someone's information and hiding information. You cannot have both," responds Tang. "The more information people share, obviously the more connected they are. The less people share, the more isolated people will be. From our statistics, and our studies on the web, we believe, and we think Facebook and MySpace believe, that the web is becoming more people-centric."
Security experts believe that although people search engines provide publically available information and are not acting illegally, they are making it much easier for identity thieves to steal your information.
"From our perspective, it is concerning because it makes it so simple for thieves," Lifelock CEO Todd Davis told ABC News. "It is not against the law, the information is already public, and these sites will tell you they are helping you find data about yourself, but the reality is about making the data readily and easily available to sell … these kinds of sites, as well as peer to peer file sharing sites, are factors in rising numbers of identity theft." Davis estimates that identity theft is a $50 billion a year industry.
The nature of identity fraud means that your information, once stolen, can be dispersed quickly.
"Part of the challenge is that a lot of identity theft starts in places like Nigeria and Prague, but they are not the ones to commit the crime," says Davis. "They get the data, go to the online black market of thousands of chat rooms that work like an eBay for identity information. It is not like selling a car, when I have your information, I can sell it as many times as I want."
"For some people, [sites like Spokeo] are a very disturbing concept," says DePriest. "There's a place where they have all this information about you, and people say 'No way! They wouldn't allow that, would they?' Well yes, they would. There's not much we can do about it."
Critics say making that information readily and easily available makes it simple for thieves to get crucial information.
Davis told ABC News, "If I have one or two bits of information about you, these sites make it very easy to fill in the blanks."
ABC News asked Spokeo's co-founder about the criticism. He told us, "We do not have people's social security numbers, we do not have people's driver's license numbers, we do not have people's bank account information, so I think, personally, that it is probably hard to steal people's information."
DePriest says that sites like Spokeo can present a risk.
"The stuff that Spokeo provides, as a general rule, is not what you need to commit identity theft, although I don't disagree with the notion that it can speed up the process," he told ABC News.
Since the consumer alert was released, and based on feedback from users, Spokeo has addressed some concerns.
"We allow you to opt out of our public searches in one step … We realized on the first day this was a very important issue, which is why we designed this one-step opt-out privacy setting that you can do yourself, you don't even need to contact us, it happens immediately," says Tang.
Ultimately, says Tang, he envisions Spokeo as a way for people to control all of the public information about you on the internet. "We are actually trying to, in a sense, make our privacy page a place where you can see where your public information comes from, and if it's wrong, you can correct it, manage it and control this information."
Some standards have also changes over time.
"It wasn't all that long ago that if I had your name I could go down to the driver's bureau and get all the information they had on you, which necessarily would include a phone, address and photo of you," says DePriest. A statute was passed to stop this process.
"What we recommend to consumers over and over is to change their focus on these things. A lot of information is available to bad guys if they know where to look, and believe me they know where to look," says DePriest. "We want consumers to change their focus to protecting themselves from identity theft and the main way to do that, in addition to being circumspect with their private information, is to review their credit reports on a regular basis, to try to find out at the earliest date possible if they are a victim of identity theft, and to know what to do when they become a victim of identity theft."
But, even while taking precautions, as LifeLock's CEO put it rather ominously, "If someone wants to find you, they can." But, he adds, "Don't give into fear. We believe you can secure yourself … You can make it hard on thieves."
"It's a new world out here, and you need to have new skills and new tools to survive," says DePriest.