Ray Schabell recently logged on to a popular people-search Web site, and was surprised to learn just how much personal information about himself was available with a couple of mouse clicks.
Schabell, an Arlington Heights, Ill., resident, discovered that the Web site, Zabasearch (search), had all sorts of personal information — including dates of birth, home addresses and home phone numbers, both listed and unlisted.
"It’s incredible,” said Schabell. "It's got one ... two ... three ... four ... five ... six different addresses that I've lived at over the last 20 years."
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But the easy availability of this kind of information to the general public makes some people nervous.
"Put this information in the wrong hands and it could be disastrous," said Schabell. "A lot of us have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and we're not getting it."
Companies like Zabasearch are part of a multibillion-dollar online people-search industry. But the surprising part is that the public helped build these massive Internet databases of names and addresses, often without realizing it.
"You gave [personal information] to somebody," said Zabasearch founder Nicholas Matzorkis (search ). "You put it out there in the public domain. It could be subscribing to a magazine ... applying or getting a credit card... possibly filling out a sweepstakes."
Zabasearch, which gets over two million hits per day, does not list social security numbers on their Web site, and Matzorkis says that it's impossible to steal somebody's identity from the type of information available on Zabasearch. People can "opt out" of websites like Zabasearch, but detailed personal information can still be found on the Internet.
"By removing your name or record from Zabasearch doesn't eliminate it from the records or the voluminous public record databases," said Matzorkis, who compares the effort to block the flow of information online to trying to use your fingers to plug a crumbling dam.
"We have run out of appendages," said Matzorkis. "There is no stopping the dam."
Some Internet companies do ask for permission before collecting personal information, a process called "opting in." Internet privacy groups have long lobbied congress to make "opting in" the law.
But the federal government has instead gone in the opposite direction, going for an "opt out" approach that puts the responsibility for online personal information squarely onto the individual.
Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (search), a consumer advocacy group, says that there isn’t much that an individual can do about having their personal information on the Internet.
"It is just plain not possible to wipe your information off of these databases," said Givens. She says that while the type of information companies like Zabasearch offer is not in and of itself that useful to an identity thief, what identity thieves often do is put together bits and pieces of information from several different sources.
Givens says that the final piece of information necessary to steal somebody's identity — a social security number — comes from public records at a local level, often from property tax files.
"A lot of counties are putting their government records on the Internet these days," said Givens. "And many of them if not most them are doing it without thinking about just what it is they are revealing."
Ray Schabell says that he knows that his personal data has always been out there in the form of court records and other public records. But what he says disturbs him is that now anyone can collect that private information anonymously by computer.
"It just seems too simple to be able to gather all of that same information by clicking a mouse," said Schabell.