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Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you know that the term “internet privacy” is a contradiction in terms.  If you put something out there, anywhere, anyone can get access to it.  I’ve always known this, but lately I discovered something that brought it home to me.

I first heard of Spokeo.com at the tail end of an evening newscast.  I hadn’t heard the whole thing, but I did catch the end where the newscaster told how to remove your name from this site.  Then later that evening I was on the computer and came across this warning from a woman on Ask Yahoo.

“FYI EVERYONE – There’s a site called spokeo.com and it’s an online phone book that has a picture of your house, credit score, profession, age, how many people live in the house. Remove yourself AND ANY AKA OR SPOUSE by the Privacy button on the bottom right. (passing along, scary stuff!) I have personally checked it out …. and it is really there! CUT PASTE AND REPOST!!!”

Naturally, this sent me to the site, where I typed in my name and, sure enough, it came up with my address and some other surface information.  I immediately followed the instructions to remove myself and it worked.

As I researched the site, I discovered that, for a fee, you can get a premium membership which gives you much more information.  It runs $35.40 for a year, $23.70 for 6 months and $14.85 for three months.  This is the membership for regular people.  They also have two higher levels, Business for $19.95 a month and Enterprise for $79.95 a month which gives people more detailed access to financial information and a certain number of reverse phone and reverse email searches a month.  It got me to thinking and made me wonder how much more information about me might have been available all this time to people who paid for a membership.  It really started to bug me, even though I had removed my name.

Finally, in the interest of this blog and my readers, I decided to pay for a three-month membership.  Fortunately, I always read the fine print, which informs you that in buying this you are giving permission to the site to renew your membership automatically when it runs out, unless you cancel it beforehand.  It also says that if you do cancel, you’ll still have access for the time you paid for.  I read carefully to find out what the procedure was to cancel and, once I felt assured that I could do it, I bought the three-month membership.  I joined and later that day, I canceled.  I paid with PayPal  rather than a credit card and, although canceling was complicated,  I achieved success.  I have a feeling doing so with a credit card would be even more frustrating.

Then I started typing in names.  The paid membership did, indeed give me more information.  It gives age, ethnicity, religion, occupation, political party, hobbies, education, estimated home value, college, children, wealth level, a picture of the person’s house and tells who all lives in that house.  I kind of wish I had joined before I removed my stuff from the site, just to see how close they came to getting things right.

For the names I put in, there were a lot of things right.  I knew what some of my friend’s houses looked like, and there were their houses!  It was kind of spooky.  It gave the correct ages and addresses for everybody and generally got the religion and political party correct.

But, the disturbing thing is – there was a lot wrong, as well.  According to her profile, my eighty-one year old aunt plays football and baseball.  For another friend, it showed that her ex-daughter-in-law lives with her and her husband and I can swear that would never happen!  The biggest error I found was regarding my little sister.  I haven’t seen her in two years, but, unless something other-worldly happened, I seriously doubt that she has turned into an African-American, which is how she is listed!  So anyone reading these might get some totally wrong impressions and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Aside from the creep factor, I feel a bit ambivalent about this whole site.  On one hand, it is disturbing to know there’s a place people can go and find out such personal things about you as your religion, your wealth level, your political party, how many kids you have and what your house looks like.  On the other hand, the site acquires all this information from public records.  So it is out there anyway.  And I’m sure there are hundreds of other sites out there just like this one.  So, what to do?  I know my friends and I are all careful about what we enter online, but we can’t control public records and certain sites that sell our information.

I guess all you can do is chip away at what’s out there a little bit at a time.  You might want to start with Spokeo.com.  Hit the privacy link at the bottom and put in the url for the page with YOUR information.  It’s not much, but it will be one less place that’s telling the world all about you!

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