Home Office: The Best Web People Finders Are Free

Illustration: Geoffrey Grahn
You may have been tempted at some time to try a fee-based people-finder service on the Web. My advice, based on the six I tried, is to keep your money in your pocket. You can find out just as much about almost anybody with only a browser and a Net connection.

In February I told you about some no-cost people-search Web sites ("Learn (Almost) Anything About Anybody"). When I looked at some of their fee-based counterparts recently, I was appalled. It wasn't just that the goods they delivered were underwhelming. I was repulsed by the sleazy sales tactics of some of these rip-offs. And the topper is, the best of what they sell is available elsewhere for free.

For instance, Intelius wanted to charge me $10 for a report on political contributors in my neighborhood (free at Fundrace.org) and the same amount for an unclaimed-property report that's gratis at the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators' site. Intelius charges $6 for a death record report, yet it couldn't find one for a close relative; I found the record myself, free, in--no kidding--RootsWeb.com's Social Security Death Index. Would you like a satellite photo of your home? Grab a view at ImageAtlas--or if you simply have money to burn, you can pay Intelius $6, plus a buck to e-mail the report to you.

Finders Losers

I entered my father's name in the search field at MyFamily.com, and the resulting information was only partly correct; without spending a cent, I got the errorless results I needed on Google, including a free map to my parents' house.

If you want free access to many of the sites that I paid $30 to see, hop over to the following page and check out the list at Docusearch.com.

Web Detective ($30 for a "lifetime" membership) was by far the worst of the paid services I tried. The site makes you scroll through more than 18 screens full of links to commonplace sites. I counted 77 links to government sites, such as the FBI, CIA, and IRS. Web Detective even screws up the simplest people-search tools, making it difficult to find someone by name, phone number, address, business, and so on.

Net Detective ($29 for three years of unlimited use) was a little better, beginning with an easy-to-navigate menu that listed hundreds of links in ten categories. Some of these links saved time by bringing me right to the state and county sites I needed. Even so, I could have found any of those government resources on my own, and many of Net Detective's other resources are simply padding, such as the Internet Movie Database, Smoking Gun, Urban Legends Reference Pages, and Showbiz Search.

What really riles me is how some fee-based sites continue pitching for my pennies even after I have paid the price of admission. Take MyFamily.com (please!). After handing over $30 for a one-year subscription, I searched, found the data about my father, and then got pushed to buy a $20 detailed report about his neighbors. And unless I stop MyFamily.com, the service will automatically renew my subscription and bill my credit card--all for my own convenience, of course. Net Detective's search for detailed data on my father, meanwhile, was fast and accurate, but the service offered three other searches that took me to yet more fee-based sites.

Get Removed

If you're intent on removing traces of yourself from the Internet, enter your name in every search engine you can find. Visit Pandia Powersearch's for list of engines. Some sites offer a way for you to get your name out of their database, often on their Terms of Service page. Visit ClassMates.com to remove your listing, and go to to update or remove your listing from InfoSpace's White Pages.

You could edit your record and replace the data with bogus information (I'm now Sammy Gray on MaidenName.net, for example), but it's safest to contact the service via e-mail, phone, or snail mail and ask to have your data removed.

Now that's what I call an eye-catching example of addition by subtraction.

Contributing Editor Steve Bass is the author of PC Annoyances, published by O'Reilly. Contact him at homeoffice@pcworld.com.

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