If you’ve ever entered your own name in a search engine, you’re probably shocked at what people can find out about you online. In addition to your social media profiles, newspaper announcements such as graduations or weddings, and photos of you that people have tagged, you probably saw a number of “people search” profiles offered by sites such as Spokeo, Intelius, and WhitePages. It’s appropriate to be worried about that personal information falling into the wrong hands, but those sites get their information from legitimate sources that anyone could access. In fact, they can help you find out what’s out there so you can choose what personal information you want on the Internet.
There are several kinds of people search sites. Sites like WhitePages pull together basic information such as name, addresses where you’ve lived, phone numbers, marital status, etc. Others, such as free service NETRonline, compile information from public records, and still others specialize in criminal background checks, social media lists, or job histories. Some free sites offer very basic information, with more detailed information available if you pay for a report. All of these sites use software that cruise publicly available sources including public records and social network profiles and compiles the information into profiles.
While it’s possible that identity thieves could use people search sites to steal someone’s identity, they’re not going to pay for detailed reports, and the basic information these sites offer for free is readily available to anyone who knows how to use a search engine. That said, the software that compiles people profiles isn’t 100 percent accurate (for example, two people with the same name and birth year might be mixed up), and inaccurate information in a profile could hurt you if someone were doing a background check for legitimate reasons.
It’s a good idea to check your own people search profiles from time to time. Most sites have instructions on how to request corrections to inaccurate information or how to opt out. If you find correct information that you just don’t want out there, try to figure out where it came from. You can’t change public records such as property transactions, but you can change privacy settings on social networking accounts and remove old ones that you no longer use.
In the “offline” world, you’re careful what you share. You don’t put out signs in your yard listing your job history or discuss family problems with the neighborhood gossip. In the digital world, people search sites are the neighborhood gossips, and they’re checking up on you all the time. It’s up to you to control what they can find out.