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US Search settles agency charges privacy pledges were deceptive

An online data broker that charged consumers $10 based on the promise that it could “lock their records,” so others couldn’t see or buy them, has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that its claims were deceptive and violated federal law.

The settlement requires that US Search refund the fees it charged to nearly 5,000 consumers and bars misrepresentations about the effectiveness of any service that claims to remove information about consumers from the broker’s website.

US Search is an online data broker that compiles public records and sells data about consumers to the public. The records may contain names, addresses and phone numbers, but also information such as aliases, marriages and divorces, bankruptcies, neighbors, associates, criminal records, and home values.

Since June 2009, US Search sold consumers its “PrivacyLock” Service, which it claimed would allow them to “lock their records” and prevent their names and other information from appearing on the company’s website, its search results, or advertisements for a year.

The claims were false, according to a FTC lawsuit. The agency alleged the PrivacyLock Service didn’t:
  • Block consumers’ names from showing up as an associate of someone else in a search for the other person’s name.
  • Lock 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.
  • Work if the consumer changed addresses and generated new records that wouldn’t be subject to the PrivacyLock.
  • Work if the consumer had multiple records – for example, “John Smith” and “John T. Smith.”
The settlement bars US Search from misrepresenting the effectiveness of its PrivacyLock Service or other services it offers that will allow consumers to remove information about themselves from search results, websites, and advertisements.

The settlement order also requires that US Search disclose any limitations on its services and provide refunds to consumers who paid for the service.

The public can comment on the settlement until Oct. 22. Then the commission will decide whether to make the settlement final.

To file a public comment, click here. Written comments should be addressed to the FTC, Office of the Secretary, Room H-135, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20580.

Consent agreements are for settlement purposes only and don’t constitute an admission by the defendants of a law violation, the commission said in its announcement about the US Search settlement.

Copyright 2010, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist

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