How safe is your privacy online?

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – You may not know it but armed with just your name and a computer, a stranger can find out a lot about you. There are dozens of websites that collect information about consumers.

Information you may think is private is actually public and it's available for free on the web on sites like Spokeo. A viewer called 12 concerned about the sites and we investigated.

Shelly Epperson makes it her business to protect people's privacy. She works with Madeline's house, a center for violence prevention. For people who use the shelter, privacy is a matter of life and death.

"Their lives have been threatened, they have been threatened with fire arms, they left the home knowing that if the perpetrator did get them that they would kill them," she said.

Epperson contacted 12 when she came across a website called Spokeo. It's an information website that includes detailed information about people; things like your address, with a picture of your home, marital status, hobbies, and more.

"I was shocked, I was really shocked because personally, it's scary because you can become a target," Epperson told us.

Spokeo is not the only site like this. There are hundreds of others that specialize in providing information about consumers. We wanted to know how the sites collected the information and if it was legal -- we posed the questions to Jim Gibson, a Law Professor at The University of Richmond.

"They take information that's available maybe in a couple of different places and put it all together and offer it up for sale to the public," he said.

The companies can get your information from a number of places -- for free. They search public records, phone books, political donations and more -- and Gibson says they are not breaking the law.

"People very casually sort of release their information on the web, they post something on Facebook, or they give their email to some company that offers them some special deal and there is no law that can restrict what that company does with that information once it has been disclosed," Gibson said.

We contacted Spokeo about the privacy concerns. In a statement it said, "We welcome your inquiry and appreciate the opportunity to address Spokeo's privacy practice and any concerns you may have. We value people's privacy and feedback.

The driving force behind our product was to create a more efficient and user-friendly people-search engine that would allow users to locate information and keep up with their friends more easily. It's important to understand, however, that offering a more efficient mechanism by which to pull together information is not the same as providing greater access to personal information.

Unlike many other online directories, Spokeo is committed to privacy and transparency and does not possess Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, bank accounts or other private information.

Spokeo only aggregates publicly available information. Although the information is public, we offer a free opt-out feature through an easy email verification process. It is noteworthy that few search engines offer a full opt-out feature, or if they do, make it remotely as easy to use.

The small percentage that do offer this option frequently employ lengthy and demanding authentication processes, often requiring one to submit hard copies of driver's licenses, social security numbers, or other forms of identity via fax or mail.

Thanks to Spokeo's efficient and user-friendly approach, people use Spokeo for a number of reasons, including but not limited to: locating family members and old friends, managing online reputation, and organizing their contact's many online public profiles and updates through our import feature."

When asked about its paid subscription, Spokeo said, "Our premium membership provides full access to additional features including reverse phone searches, email search, username search, and an importing feature for address and social network contacts.

Moreover, our premium service provides a greater level of access and information including more detail on the person's lifestyle and interests, zodiac, neighborhood demographics, address, and social profiles."

"I think it is rather scary and I think there is limited amount of things consumers can do to try to protect themselves. First of all don't put anything on Facebook or any publicly available website that you wouldn't tell to your worst enemy," Professor Gibson said.

Spokeo offers a free and paid subscription.The paid version gives you more information about a person. All you need is a name and a few seconds -- and you can find out a lot about a total stranger -- we found a willing participant.

Ironically, one lady we interviewed, didn't want to give her name on camera for privacy reasons. She was shocked to find out her fight for privacy appears to be a losing battle. Within in seconds, we knew where she lived, how many people lived in her home and if she was married.

Gray: "This type of website makes it easier for scams and for crooks to get your information that has to concern you, especially being a parent?"
Response: "Right absolutely, it does, it makes me feel more insecure that people are out there that could be figuring out where I am."

There is some good news -- sites like Spokeo allow you to remove your information from the site, but Professor Gibson says don't count it as a victory.

"Keep in mind that doesn't remove the information from the internet entirely. The source from which Spokeo and other companies withdrew the information are still out there," Gibson said.

The law does protect some information. Things like your tax documents, medical records and student files are considered private. Gibson says the best way to protect yourself, make sure you read privacy statements and understand who you're giving your information to. "Know what Facebook can do with your information, know what Linkedin can do with your information and if you don't like it, they usually give you an opportunity to opt out and if they don't, then maybe you should opt of using them entirely," Gibson told us. But in a world of increasing connections, disconnecting yourself in the name of privacy -- may be impossible.

For a look at other sites that may be collecting your information, click here for a link to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Also, you can click here for PC World, which provides other tips on how to erase your data from the web.

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