CDT Files Privacy, Credit Complaint Against Spokeo.com

The Center for Democracy and Technology has filed a complaint against people-search service Spokeo with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, alleging that the Web site contains inaccurate information and violates a consumer credit protection law.

Spokeo.com has billed itself as a resource for human-resources professionals, job recruiters and police, but the site contains "significant inaccuracies," according to the complaint, released Wednesday by CDT, a privacy and civil liberties advocacy group.

The site says it offers information on the credit ratings, investments, incomes and mortgage values of millions of U.S. residents, but does not offer the consumer protections required in the Fair Credit Reporting Act, said Justin Brookman, senior fellow at CDT.

Spokeo's credit estimates are "based on absolutely nothing, as far as we can tell," he said.

The site does not give consumers access to the data used in Spokeo's credit conclusions, does not inform consumers of adverse determinations based on that data, and does not give them an opportunity to learn who has access their profiles, as required in the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the CDT complaint said.

Spokeo allows consumers to remove their data from the service. It also offers a paid service, for US$9.95 a month, that says it allows customers to control their identities.

In addition to the credit concerns, Spokeo offers access to the detailed financial information to customers who sign up for service ranging from $2.95 to $4.95 a month, but the site offers little additional information to paying customers, Brookman said.

"Right now, the paid profiles aren't really worth anything," he said. "They trick you into signing up, based on a false representation about how much data they have."

Beyond credit and wealth estimates, Spokeo profiles include personal information including religious and ethnic background, shopping and recreational habits, and information about family members and roommates. Spokeo aggregates information from a variety of Web sites and other public sources, the company says on its site.

Spokeo, based in California, did not immediately return two e-mail messages seeking comment on the CDT complaint. On the bottom of profiles, it offers this disclaimer: "Profile data is derived from marketing surveys, consumer records, and public data sources and is not guaranteed to be 100% accurate. The data provided to you by Spokeo may not be used as a factor in establishing a consumer's eligibility for credit, insurance, employment purposes or for any other purpose authorized under the FCRA."

But Spokeo, in the past, has featured a link for HR recruiters on its front page, the CDT complaint said. The site formerly advertised subscriptions for businesses, recruiters and law enforcement, according to the complaint.

In a blog post June 22, Spokeo suggested its service remains useful to businesspeople.

"Want to know more about prospective, or current business associates?," the blog post said. "Let Spokeo free people search lead the way. Looking to hire someone, or maybe work for a company? Spokeo free people search is a great research tool to learn more about prospective employers and employees."

CDT has asked the Federal Trade Commission to stop Spokeo from offering consumer reports until the company complies with the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The FTC should also prohibit Spokeo from making deceptive claims about its paid service and require the Web site to pay back customers who paid for the service, CDT said in the complaint.

CDT's complaint said it found significant inaccuracies in "every single profile" that Spokeo published about the organization's employees. A Spokeo search on one IDG News Service employee found an incorrect telephone number, incorrect marital status, incorrect occupation, and an incorrect home value.

CDT wants new government rules giving consumers more information about the personal data that all data brokers hold, Brookman said. But Spokeo is a "particularly bad example" of data broker practices, he said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantusG. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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