Privacy in Peril

That's Not Me!

Thieves aren't the only issue with companies that sell personal information. Just as with credit reporting bureaus, incorrect personal information in data files is a common problem. "It is reasonable to expect these files to contain some errors," LexisNexis notes in its privacy policy.

Information brokers allow you to see some--but not all--of the details they have on you. ChoicePoint shows you the public records it has, plus information covered by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which governs the collection, use, and communication of credit and other data about consumers. ChoicePoint says you must try to revise incorrect public records at the source (wise advice, but you have to be able to identify where it came from, and hope that the corrections ripple down to the broker). LexisNexis reveals even more--possible relatives, neighbors' names, and voter registration information--but that report (which the company mails) costs $8 and takes up to 45 days to reach you.

Not having the time to wait on LexisNexis, I ordered a background report on myself from Intelius.com, which provides much of the same type of data to anyone for $50. I found that a person living in California with the same first and last name as mine has a small-claims court judgment against him. Worse, my report listed several convicted felons who shared my first and last name, including one person in North Carolina with the same middle initial as mine--and no full middle name. The information isn't incorrect; but proving that those people and I aren't one and the same might be difficult, so I have to hope that whoever orders the background report will read between the lines.

Interestingly, Intelius also offers an ID Watch service to consumers. This service monitors an individual's credit, utility charges, new phone connections, change of address requests, and more for $95 per year.

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