FTC Says US Search's 'PrivacyLock' Service Did Little to Block Snoopers

privacy lockAn online data broker that tricked thousands of customers into paying $10 to "lock their records" from third-party scrutiny or purchase reached a final settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.

US Search Inc., which the FTC accused of making deceptive privacy pledges and violating federal law, agreed to refund as many as 5,000 consumers and stop claiming it can block access to their records on its site.US Search aggregates public records and sells data about consumers to the general public. Records compiled by US Search include names, addresses and phone numbers, aliases, marriages and divorces, bankruptcies, neighbors, associates, criminal records, and home values.

The people search service also offers a variety of other services, including "People Search," "Background Check," Real Estate Reports," "Criminal Records Searches" and a "Reverse Lookup" service that returns the names associated with a phone number or address.

Beginning in June 2009, US Search sold consumers its "PrivacyLock" Service, which it claimed would allow them to "lock their records" and prevent their names and other information from appearing on the company's website, its search results, or advertisements for one year.

These claims were false, the FTC alleged. The agency said the PrivacyLock Service:
  • Failed to block consumers' names from showing up as an associate of someone else in a search for the other person's name.
  • Failed to block consumers' information from appearing in a "reverse search" of their phone number or address, or in a search of their address in real estate records.
  • Failed to work if the consumer changed addresses, which generated new records not subject to the PrivacyLock and was also ineffective if the consumer had multiple variations on his or her name, such as "John Smith" and "John T. Smith."
The settlement bars US Search and US Search, LLC from misrepresenting the effectiveness of their PrivacyLock Service or any other service they offer that allows consumers to remove information about themselves from search results, websites, and advertisements. The settlement also requires US Search to disclose any limitations of its search services and refund all consumers who paid for the service.

The settlement, first announced last September, invited public comment for 30 days. It was criticized by the Consumer Federation of America, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and Robert Gellman, a privacy and information policy consultant.

All three letters to the FTC said the settlement ignored the most important issue raised by the case, namely, the ability of a company to make consumers pay to opt-out of personal information sharing. Here's what Privacy Rights Clearinghouse Director Beth Givens wrote:

"While it is entirely appropriate for the Commission to require US Search deliver on the promise that it made to consumers, the consent decree misses the most critical issue in this proceeding. The underlying problem is that a consumer can be charged a fee in the first place to stop the company from disseminating the consumer's information.

"If the Commission allows companies to charge for exercising an opt-out right, then a consumer concerned about protecting his or her personal information may, in the aggregate, have to pay huge sums to pursue that goal. Consumers who are intent on controlling the use of their personal information cannot avoid these charges and will have no alternative to paying the price demanded."
Consumer Ally recently wrote about five online people search services the SiteJabber community warned consumers to avoid.
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