Forget shredding your mail or worrying about who might have a copy of a recent credit card transaction. You have much bigger problems if you want to keep your personal information private.
In fact, personal information is now so readily available that a total stranger with nothing more than an online connection and a credit card could discover everything there is to know about you. He or she could compile a complete dossier on you, your family members, friends, work associates, or business rivals without any special investigative training.
Fears about identity theft are not limited to spyware or to records stolen from corporate databases. As it turns out, the neighbor next door can be just as big a concern.
"Definitely, using the Internet to spy on average citizens is our next big social problem," said Avivah Litan, security analyst for identity-theft issues at the research firm Gartner.
Until a few years ago, people had few low-cost options available when they wanted to find out about someone else's background. Typical solutions involved paying private investigators hundreds or even thousands of dollars to pore through written records.
But now, for about $50 or less, anyone can take advantage of the search services that have cropped up on the Internet.
"Search engines have gotten better. This spy-on-your-neighbor mentality has come out of the collections world where skip-trace checks by creditors were common," she said.
High-powered information databases were costly to use and often were restricted to law-enforcement officials and lawyers. That is no longer the case. Today, almost anyone can become an "eTective" by taking advantage of various online investigative services.
"If you know where the person lives, and depending what you're looking for, you can search for any relevant court records, real estate ownership, etc.," said Jonathan Penn, principal analyst for identity and security issues at the consulting firm Forrester Research.
And for more detailed investigations, there is LexisNexis, a popular electronic archive of newspaper articles, legal documents, and other printed content. "About $200 will buy you a pretty complete search," Penn said.
Little Brother Is Watching You
Most large-scale theft of personal information has occurred at high-profile companies. For example, a laptop from Fidelity Investments containing information on nearly 200,000 participants in Hewlett-Packard's pension and 401(k) plans was recently stolen. Last year, financial institutions estimated that 55 million personal identification numbers might have been compromised in more than 130 reported cases.
But security experts say that even those numbers could be underreported, because only relatively few companies are legally obligated to report such thefts of corporate data. Other, smaller companies can avoid the public disclosure of an embarrassing incident. And nobody even keeps records of the amount of personal information legitimately obtained through inquiries on search engines and commercial Web sites.
According to Andrew Jaquith, a senior analyst for security issues at the research company Yankee Group, using the Internet to spy on people is a new variation on an old theme. Traditional fears of government spying on citizens are giving way to another kind of paranoia, he said.
"In the U.S., Americans are terrified of Big Brother. Yet we have no problem allowing lots of Little Brothers, such as the credit card companies, to have our information indefinitely. So now we have thousands of Little Brothers and the Internet giving us hundreds of new ways to track people," said Jaquith.
Using the Internet as a private investigator might start with the people-finder feature on popular search sites such as Yahoo. From there, searchers can click on links to paid services that dig even deeper into people's backgrounds.
Jaquith said that he knows of at least one case of a person stalking someone using information obtained online. "There is not much any of us can do about it," he said.
If You Can't Beat 'Em
It is very easy to start tracking down almost any person you wish. A good starting point is to simply type the words "people search" into your favorite Web browser. That will usually produce links to free services from Yahoo, Lycos, ZabaSearch, Bigfoot, and U.S. Search, just to name a few.
From any of these standard search services, amateur gumshoes can find paid services like Intelius.com. The Intelius page displays a list of matching names and addresses, along with the subject's approximate age and a link to further information. Would-be Sherlocks can buy a Basic Background Report for $29.95 or a Complete Background Report for $49.95.
The basic report includes a 20-year address history, and lists of relatives and roommates, aliases, and maiden names, and neighbors. The complete report includes all of that information plus a criminal check, sex-offender check, and details on bankruptcies and liens, small claims and judgments, and home and property values.
"Intelius is one of the most aggressive sites," Gartner's Litan said.
But even without using a pay service, a cyber sleuth should have no problem digging up dirt on you. Information gathering has become so prevalent today that people seem to give up personal information without a second thought. For example, every time you fill in an online product registration or mail in a product rebate card, you might make your personal information available to the public or to marketing companies.
Even routine transactions find their way into commercial and government people databases.
"Thanks to the U.S. government and big corporations, more and more of this information is being aggregated and linked together, which creates a sense of constant surveillance," said Forrester's Penn.
Although more and more of consumers' private information is exposed to public scrutiny, do not look for Uncle Sam to install protections any time soon, according to Litan and Jaquith.
"In particular, the IRS and the FTC should be protecting consumers," Litan said. "The Social Security number should be kept secured as a unique identifier."
In her view, the government needs to do more to protect people, especially because it might also be involved in exposing consumer data. "But government agencies never seem to look at their own actions and their role in posting privacy information about citizens," she said.
For example, in Ohio, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is taking heat following the recent disclosure by the Cincinnati Enquirer that an unknown number of business filings posted on the state's Web site included the Social Security numbers of filers. Most of the personal information appears on a lien form used from July 2001 to May 2002. As many as 150,000 of those forms are processed each year, according to published reports.
Ohio officials pointed out that they have broken no law. To the contrary, they argued, Ohio state law requires the filings be processed within 48 hours and made available to individuals and lending institutions by the third day. The rush to comply with such regulations might be part of the privacy problem, as the laws do not specifically describe how or where the business records must be made available. Posting them on government Web sites is fast and convenient.
"There is really not much consumers can do to keep such information from being posted," Litan said. "Consumers have to become proactive to search out what is being posted about them and then seek out each source to correct inaccuracies."
And if the status quo holds, people might have no choice but to keep investigating themselves, if only to ensure that their personal information doesn't contain a damaging lie.
"To solve this problem," Jaquith said, "we will need something like the European or the Japanese privacy laws. Those measures are very restrictive on who can post private information and what can be done with it."
In those countries, protections are so strict that a person's private information is treated like radioactive material, he added.
"Unless something like that is established in this country, I'm not sure any other measures will reach an adequate compromise to protect our privacy online."
Where To Start
Here is a short list of commercial Web sites to consider if you are looking to delve into someone's background. Features vary, but in general, expect to find access to records dealing with birth, death, adoption, bankruptcy, mortgages, marriages, divorces, felonies, small claims, foreclosures, tax liens, lawsuits, arrest warrants, and more.
For an online comparison, check out The Detective Detective, which lists the pros and cons of many sites that sell information.
Web Detective: Unlimited-use membership for $34.95.
Background Searcher: Lifetime membership for $39.95.
DataHound Detective: Search over 20,000 information-resource sites for $29.95
Online Investigations.net: One year's access is $29.95.
Intelius: Basic report $29.95; complete report $49.95.
Instant Detectives.net: In addition to providing access to public records, this site also sells a number of online spy tools such as keylogger software. Lifetime membership is $34.95.
Identity Crawler: Unlimited access for $19.95.