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Redesigned Spokeo now focuses on reconnecting old pals

August 14, 2013|By Paresh Dave
  • A screenshot of a Spokeo webpage explaining how the people-search service aggregates data about individuals.
A screenshot of a Spokeo webpage explaining how the people-search service… ( )

Fined just over a year ago for marketing itself as a way for employers to dig up dirt on potential hires, the people-search service Spokeo is refreshing its website Wednesday to emphasize finding long-lost friends, classmates, lovers and family members.

Spokeo aggregates personal information that’s publicly available, including phone numbers, housing records, court files and social media data. The Pasadena company then charges people to search through its massive database.

Since settling with the Federal Trade Commission for $800,000 last June, Spokeo has tried to distance itself from past practices and limit misuse of the data.

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The commission had said Spokeo was acting like a credit reporting agency. But while marketing to recruiters, it wasn’t following rules designed to protect consumers from losing out on opportunities because of issues such as inaccurate information in the Spokeo profiles.

Enhanced disclaimers now warn users that information from Spokeo cannot be used to to determine an “individual's eligibility for credit, insurance, employment, housing, or any other purpose covered under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.”

Starting this week, Spokeo said, the 20 million visitors to its website each month will see a slide show introducing them to ways the service can be used. The messaging follows a larger overhaul of Spokeo’s look this past spring, including a logo that depicts two people coming together.

Chief Executive Ray Chen said a survey of its users found that reconnecting with friends and family was the main goal of Spokeo subscribers. Spokeo charges as little as $23.70 for a six-month subscription.

“We want to stress to our users these are the best ways to use our technology,” Chen said.

The new homepage has buttons for small businesses and nonprofits too. Spokeo suggests that those organizations can use the service to research potential clients or donors and to detect fraud.

Another feature is a celebrity search that loads a Wikipedia-like profile of famous people that includes personal information such as a family tree and limited location history.

Individuals can search by name, email, phone number, username or address to learn more about people. They are limited to a certain number of searches each month, except when searching by name. Spokeo says there are safeguards in place to keep people from scraping data off the site for potentially malicious purposes.

Spokeo also offers a way for people to remove their own information. Still, the company warns that the information will exist in its original source. Spokeo doesn’t display the exact source of information.

“We’re actively exploring any option where we can provide more transparency,” said Spokeo general counsel and chief privacy officer Angela Saverice-Rohan. “At the same time, for competitive reasons, we haven’t done so, and we’re also restricted by contracts with the vendors.”

One of the lesser known sources of data is online market research surveys that some Internet users could be filling out without realizing they’ve consented to releasing personal information.

Saverice-Rohan said Spokeo has examined each of its vendors during the past year to make sure they are getting data in ways that are compliant with state and federal privacy laws.

One of the areas being scrutinized recently for collecting data with little or no notice has been mobile phone apps. Saverice-Rohan made clear Spokeo isn’t buying any such data.

In a sign that tide could be turning, many recent complaints online about Spokeo focus on the lack of information available rather than the "creep" factor.

“People will always be concerned about privacy, but I think people are becoming more aware that this data is out there,” Saverice-Rohan said.

Services similar to Spokeo include Zabasearch, Pipl and Wink.


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