How to scrub your private data from 'people finder' sites
- 23 February, 2017 22:00
It doesn’t matter what you do online: The internet knows a ton about you, and that information is a mouse click away.
Search any people finder site—Spokeo, PeekYou, Whitepages, to name a few—and odds are you’ll find a page listing your full name, date of birth, names of family members, current address, and phone number. Depending on the site's aggressiveness, it may offer (for a low membership fee or the price of registering an account) additional details such as past addresses, social media profiles, marital status, employment history, education, court cases such as bankruptcies, hobbies, and even a photo of where you live.
Forget the National Security Agency. Aggregator sites such as Intelius, Radaris, and PeopleFinder have data warehouses full of information about you, accessible to people without your permission, and used for purposes you know nothing about. While these sites ostensibly provide background checks and other public services, they also simplify identity theft, stalking, and doxxing (exposing personal information online to encourage harassment), which is both creepy and downright dangerous.
Fortunately, most aggregators have an opt-out policy, so you can explicitly order them not to use your information. But for many of them—surprise!—the opt-out process is time consuming if not irritating. It’s also an ongoing project because opt-out requests tend to have a temporary effect. Still up for it? Then let’s begin.
Get everything ready
Before you start, make sure you have everything you need to fulfill the request. These companies have no interest in easing opt out and tend to give you complicated, very specific instructions. Miss one step and your request may be denied.
Some require filling out an internet form; others require a phone call. Some may demand that you fax a driver’s license or another government-issued document to confirm the identity, which is ironic: The goal is to remove your information in the first place, not give them more.
If they ask for an ID, after you scan or copy it, black out (in Photoshop or Microsoft Paint or with a marker on paper) your photograph and all identifying information except your name and address (and, if available, your date of birth). As previously noted, eventually, your deets tend to matriculate back to aggregators after you opt out. You don’t want that info to be richer next time.
Some aggregators require a cover letter explicitly requesting an opt out along with identification. The letter doesn’t need to be complicated. Try the following:
Create a template and keep it handy.
If you don’t want to deal with this on your own, you can always sign up with a third-party firm that will take care of this for a fee. But buyer beware—some are scammers looking for another way to collect your data. Privacy startup Abine offers a DeleteMe privacy service ($99 to $129 a year) that handles the task of deleting the data and sends over a monitoring report every three months. DeleteMe is one of the few reputable privacy services of this type that I’ve found.
First, find out where your data appears. Some of the less scrupulous sites may actually retain information typed into their search boxes, so it’s best to use a search engine: Type your name followed by “site:” and the URL of the people finder service. Next, scrounge around until you find the site’s opt-out policy.
BeenVerified’s opt-out policy is easy to find—it’s right in the site footer, as Remove My Info. To opt out, you must find your listing using the search tool at the top of the Remove My Info page, not the site’s main search box. Click on the That’s the One button, enter an email address, and fill out the CAPTCHA challenge. BeenVerified will send a verification email to that address. If you do not click on the link in that email, your request will not be processed, so check your spam folder if the email doesn’t show up.
Links throughout the site instruct you to copy and paste the URL containing your information and send it to Customer Service using an online contact form. Don’t bother—those requests will be ignored.
The Intelius Opt-Out online form requires that you upload a file containing a scan of your identification. Acceptable identification includes a driver’s license, a U.S. passport, a military card, a state ID card, or an employee ID card from a state agency. The email address is optional for receiving a confirmation link, but it’s a good idea to provide it since the same address will be used to send a final email after the process is complete. Don’t forget to fill out the CAPTCHA box.
Intelius also accepts notarized statements proving identity using its Notarized Identification Verification Form instead of government-issued ID. Requests can also be faxed to 425-974-6194 or mailed to Intelius Consumer Affairs, P.O. Box 4145, Bellevue, WA 98009-4145. Use your cover letter template for either method.
Intelius owns or is affiliated with ZabaSearch, PeopleLookup, Public Records, Spock, iSearch, PhonesBook, DateCheck, LookUp, PeopleFinder, and LookupAnyone. Removing yourself from one does not get you off the others—yes, you have to extract yourself from each one individually. ZabaSearch only honors requests by fax, whereas PeopleLookup accepts both postal mail and fax. Neither have online opt-out options.
Oddly, the opt-out fax number and mailing address for USSearch is the same as Intelius Customer Service, but you can’t include USSearch as part of the Intelius request. And the only way to submit the opt-out request is by fax.
PeekYou includes its opt-out link inside the FAQ on the Privacy page. Before you go to the online form, find the listing containing your information. The URL has a string of numbers that acts as a unique identifier. Copy that numeric string from the URL and paste it into the Unique ID field on the online form.
Opting out of PeopleSmart is straightforward. Go to the opt-out page and search for your listing. When you click on the That’s The One button to select your listing, you will be asked who is opting out: yourself, family member, or other. PeopleSmart also needs your email address to send a verification link, so don’t forget to click on the link in that email. I was able to opt out myself and family members this way. Easy!
At least PrivateEye doesn’t require that you find a fax machine. Instead, you need to fill in this opt-out PDF form, print it, and send it via snail mail. Make sure you fill out only those fields for which PrivateEye already has info about you; no need to provide additional details the company can use to create a new record. The address to send the form: Opt-Out/PrivateEye.com, P.O. Box 110850, Naples, FL 34108
With PublicRecords360, it’s really difficult to submit a valid request. According to the instructions, you must first send a scan of your identification to the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. (If you created a notarized statement for Intelius or other sites, you can use it for PublicRecords360 as well.) After you email your proof of identity, complete the online form—actually a GoogleForm—with the name and the URL of your listing. In Information To Be Removed, I selected All Information.
Radaris publishes opt-out instructions on its removal page, but the goal here is to make the process so annoying that people will give up. The first step is to find your listing. Next to the name, there’s an orange Get Report button, and next to that is a grey downward-pointing arrow button. Click on that and a menu will open with the option to Control Information.
Select that option and you’ll go to a page with three links: Claim This Profile, Radar Updates, and Remove Information. Clicking on the latter opens up a window that says in order to proceed, you must create an account. After you’ve created that account, you can remove all the fields, but to save the changes, you have to enter your phone number so that you can receive a verification code via SMS.
To remove your info from Spokeo, you have to find your listing and copy the URL first. Then go to Spokeo’s opt-out page and paste the URL into the form. You need to provide an email address to receive the confirmation link and complete the CAPTCHA challenge. Make sure to click on that link in the email! You’ll get a second email once the process is complete.
Unfortunately, if your phone number shows up under Spokeo, that’s going to stay. I managed to remove my name from Spokeo, but a reverse lookup of my mobile phone number brings up my name and address.
USA People Search
Fill out the search criteria form to find your public profile. Click on That’s The One, at which point the site will tell you your IP address. Fill out the CAPTCHA and check off the agreement. So nice and easy!
Whitepages is perhaps the most annoying service of all, because to remove information, you have to register with the service. That’s right: To get off Whitepages, you need to become a member.
Search for your information using first name, last name, city, and state, and copy the URL of the listing that contains your information. Then log in to the site, either by creating a new account (feel free to use a throwaway email address) or logging into an existing one. Then click on the Remove From Directory link in the page footer to get sent to the Opt out of Whitepages page. If you aren’t logged in, you’ll be prompted before you can access the opt-out page. Paste in the URL of the listing to remove on this page and confirm by clicking on the Remove button.
You can also get an automated phone call to verify the removal. The call can go to the phone number included in your listing or to a number you provide. Pressing 1 verifies that you want your listing removed.
But all this effort removes you from only the free search. Whitepages Premium users (paid subscribers) will still be able to find your listing. To remove your data from the Premium search, you have to submit a support ticket via the Premium Help Page. Click on the blue Help button (not green as the FAQ states), select Information Removal Request from the Ticket Type menu, and submit your full name and address along with the URL of the premium listing.
Note that Whitepages doesn’t say it will remove or delete your information, but will “suppress” it. That’s because the information remains available for Pro subscribers, which are typically companies that pay for a business subscription to automatically verify information about customers to prevent fraud.
Opt out? Why would you do that?
Sadly, many sites won’t let you opt out at all. There are more than 200 brokers listed on the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse database, and the vast majority fails to offer a method to remove your information.
Some sites don’t even pretend to care. The aggregator Pipl, for example, simply states, “As a search engine, we are not the publisher of the information; we simply find and index what is already publicly available to anyone on the internet.” Pipl doesn’t even offer a selection to filter out information from search results as other sites do.
Going the distance
Opting out is not a one-time process. Aggregators regularly hoover up new data, which means information may get added back at any time. Whitepages explains this up front: “Whitepages continuously discovers new information, so please check back regularly to make sure your information is shown correctly.” Or not shown, as the case may be.
Vigilance is important. In this day of doxxing and identity theft, making it harder to find information about you is a good thing. But if you prefer to pay a privacy service like DeleteMe to handle it, no one would blame you.