There’s lots of public information out there about people. So it’s no surprise there’s a booming business in the sale of data – and in the sale of services that promise to protect personal information. The FTC’s recent settlement with data broker US Search demonstrates that like any other advertising claims, representations about privacy and security must be substantiated.
US Search sells search services through a website. For a fee, people can enter someone’s name, address, or phone number and get additional information about them – like their age, address history, relatives, neighbors and associates, marriages and divorces, bankruptcies, tax liens, lawsuits, state criminal records, home value, and email addresses.
In addition to selling access to information, US Search sold a "PrivacyLock" service that claimed to block the appearance of buyers’ names and addresses in their search results. The company charged $10, but waived the fee for certain groups, like victims of identity theft who provided supporting documentation. The company claimed that buying PrivacyLock would "offer individuals the ability to lock their records on US Search in accordance with laws and US Search policy." The company further stated, "When you enroll in the US Search PrivacyLock Service, you are taking a valuable step in securing your personal information. While many information providers either don’t offer or don’t honor privacy solutions, US Search quickly processes each request and provides verifiable results that can be backed by our 1 year promise."
According to the FTC’s lawsuit, PrivacyLock didn’t function as advertised. For example, PrivacyLock didn’t block a person’s information from appearing in the results of a reverse search of their phone number or address or in a search of their address in real estate records. Furthermore, the FTC alleged that PrivacyLock didn’t block a buyer’s name from showing up as an associate of someone else. In addition, when buyers had multiple records – for example, Mary A. Smith and Mary Ann Smith – PrivacyLock may have applied to only one record.
The FTC’s proposed settlement requires the company to give refunds to people who bought PrivacyLock and bars it from misrepresenting the effectiveness of PrivacyLock or similar services in the future.