US Search, Inc., the company behind PrivacyLock, is an online data broker that compiles public records and sells data about consumers to the public. The records may contain not only names, addresses and phone numbers, but also information such as aliases, marriages and divorces, bankruptcies, neighbors, associates, criminal records, and home values. US Search offered customers a variety of search services, including “People Search,” “Background Check,” Real Estate Reports,” and “Criminal Records/Court Records Searches.” It also offered a “Reverse Lookup” service that can return the name of an individual associated with a particular phone number or property address.
The company’s PrivacyLock service promised consumers that it would block others from seeing their personal information, but according to the FTC complaint, these claims were false. The agency alleged that since June of 2009, the PrivacyLock Service:
- did not block consumers’ names from showing up as an associate of someone else in a search for the other person’s name;
- did not block consumers’ information from appearing in a “reverse search” of their phone number or address, or in a search of their address in real estate records;
- did not work if the consumer changed addresses, thereby generating new records that would not be subject to the PrivacyLock; and did not work if the consumer had multiple records – for example “John Smith” and “John T. Smith.”
The settlement bars US Search, Inc. and US Search, LLC from misrepresenting the effectiveness of their PrivacyLock Service or any other service they offer that will allow consumers to remove information about themselves from search results, websites, and advertisements. The settlement order also requires that they disclose any limitations on such services, and that they fully refund 5,000 consumers who paid $10 each for the service.
This is the latest in a series of FTC cases challenging companies’ failure to honor their privacy pledges, and we need the watchdog functionality that the FTC and organizations like the World Privacy Forum, who assisted in bringing this case forward, represent.