, The Online Privacy Company, Presents:
You've probably heard of sites like
which publicly post and sell your personal information.
They usually have your name, other names you've gone by, where you currently live, where you used to live, your phone number, your family members, your birth date and age, your criminal record, the real estate you own, and more.
Some sites (like Spokeo, below) claim to have even more information on you:
People search websites fall into two categories, which we'll call:

primary and secondary.

Primary Site Characteristics:

  • Get their information more-or-less directly from public record sources
  • Collect data through some human action, such as going to a local courthouse
  • Generally more accurate than secondary sites
  • Examples: Intelius, LexisNexis, PeopleFinders

Secondary Site Characteristics:

  • Aggregate their information from primary sites, social networks, and other online sources
  • Collect data automatically, through electronic means
  • Known for being fairly inaccurate
  • Examples: Spokeo, Pipl, Radaris

But because everything starts with public records,

it's important that we know what public records are.

Here are the biggest sources:

  • Real estate transactions (including appraisals)
  • Trademark filings
  • Marriage licenses and divorce decrees
  • Any unsealed lawsuits or legal actions
  • Birth certificates
  • Death certificates
  • Census statistics
  • Voter registrations
  • Drivers licenses
  • Utility companies
  • Government spending reports
  • Political campaign contributions
  • Sex offender registrations
  • Legislation minutes
  • Business and entity filings
  • Professional and business licenses
  • Criminal records

There are also public record sources consisting of information
that we voluntarily provide, even though we didn't know that it'd
be used for something beyond the purpose for which we
provided it

Common examples include:

  • Sweepstakes
  • Surveys
  • Rebate and warranty cards
  • Online account registrations and profiles
  • Forum posts
  • Social networking info
    • This sometimes depends on the site's Terms of Use regarding sharing info with third parties, as well as your own privacy selections on that site (e.g., your Facebook likes and interests, your friends, your tweets, the work information you provide to LinkedIn)

Secondary sites, advertising networks, companies, and all sorts of third parties
collect, store, and sell this information through data mining and online tracking.

They build a profile of you: who they think you are, and what they think you like.
What can online tracking find out about you?

Then they target you with ads based on your profile. They also constantly
update your information with anything new they find while scraping the web.
An In-Depth Look at Primary Site
Enclosed circles show affiliation between sites (same opt-out procedure, same parent company, and/or shared databases)
Add social networking sites to the mix, and you have another massive source of information for people search sites.
An In-Depth Look at Secondary Sites
Remember that secondary sites aggregate their information from many internet sources, and that it's usually less accurate.
So what can you do about all this?
(aside from live under a rock)
Remove yourself from all the people search sites that currently list you.
There are a lot of them and it can take a while, but all of the primary sites (and some of the secondary ones) let you remove yourself. Click here to learn how to do it yourself, or you can have us, Abine's DeleteMe service, do it for you.
Only give out your information when you have to.
Next time you're checking out and the retail clerk asks you for an email address, stop. Stay on your toes and always ask yourself, Is this really necessary?

The same goes for rebates, sweepstakes, warranty cards, and everything you post online. It's always a tradeoff: is it worth it to you to risk giving these companies yourinformation in exchange for whatever benefit you're getting?
When you can't avoid giving out your information, be smart about it.
Need to sign up for an online account or a contest but don't want to use your real email address? Use anonymous email software.

Don't want to be the only person in the world who isn't on Facebook? Go ahead and join, but be vigilant about your privacy settings and your postings. Don't provide Facebook with your mobile number just because you're prompted to.
Take advantage of privacy software and browser settings.
You may not know it, but you have a lot of great--and free--options out there to let you browse in safety. Some are built into your browser (see the box on the right for a how-to); some are downloadable add-ons. And we admit we're a tad biased because we make one such add-on called PrivacySuite, but here are just a few things you can do with it:
  • See which companies and advertising networks are tracking you on each site you visit, and block them from tracking you
  • Stop seeing targeted ads designed to appeal to you
  • Automatically fill online forms
  • Safely store all your usernames and passwords in an encrypted state
  • Browse the web with multiple identities: one for work, one for personal, one that's protected, and one that's the real you
  • Create anonymous email accounts that forward to your primary account
If you catch a people search site being deceptive, report them!
The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC for short, exists to help consumers who notice, or are victims of, shady business practices. If you've been ripped off, had your identity stolen from a site, seen a people search site repost your information after claiming to have removed it (or completely ignore your opt-out request), you can make a quick complaint online by visiting here. The FTC takes action on patterns of bad behavior, so your complaints really do matter.