FTC settles privacy complaint against online data broker

US Search failed to provide the records-blocking service that customers paid for, the FTC says

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has reached a settlement with online data broker US Search on complaints that the company failed to deliver on promises that it would not share the records of customers who paid a fee.

US Search, which advertises itself as the top people search website in the U.S., offered to "lock" the records of customers who paid a US$10 fee, so that other people using the service could not see or buy the records, the FTC said in a news release Wednesday.

But US Search's PrivacyLock service, available since June 2009, did not block consumers' names from showing up as an associate of someone else, did not block consumers' information from appearing in a reverse search of their phone numbers or addresses, and did not work if the consumers changed addresses, the FTC said.

US Search's public relations department didn't immediately return an e-mail message seeking comment on the settlement.

Under the settlement, US Search must refund the fees paid by nearly 5,000 customers to have their records locked. The settlement also bars US Search from misrepresentations about the effectiveness of any service that promises to remove information about consumers from its website, the FTC said.

US Search promised to remove the personal information of PrivacyLock customers from its site and the websites of affiliates and advertisers, the FTC said in a complaint. "When you enroll in the US Search PrivacyLock Service, you are taking a valuable step in securing your personal information," the company said on its website. "While many information providers either don't offer or don't honor privacy solutions, US Search quickly processes each request and provides verifiable results that can be backed by our 1 year promise."

US Search, based in Culver City, California, compiles public records and sells data about consumers. The records include names, addresses, phone numbers, plus information about aliases, marriages, divorces, bankruptcies, neighbors, associates, criminal records and home values, the FTC said. The company offers background checks and criminal records checks.

US Search also allows customers to search using a person's Social Security number. For a fee, the site will provide the bankruptcy information, civil judgments and tax liens of a person targeted by a customer. The site says it can provide address histories going back 40 years.

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

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