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Your Data On Sale Here
Jeff Pasternack

Get'cher hot and tasty social security numbers here! Find out almost anything about almost anyone for cheap cheap cheap! At these prices, you can't afford not to shop for all your data needs here! Curious to know more about your boss? No problem! Just give us her name and birth date and we'll give you her world! Want to know what kind of business dealings your daughter's fiancé is really into? Give us his name and address and you can verify his pedigree! Its all on sale now….ungh. Welcome to the not-so-shadowy world of web-based data brokering, where more than 17 billion current and historical records are up for sale. Identity thieves must be salivating. I know I am.

Surely, this comes as no surprise, right? I mean, you knew it was out there for any Tom, Dick or TechnoPeasant who whimsically decides to start a collections company, right? The State of Maryland charges a few bucks for registering the company but aside from that, its pretty cheap, easy and fast. Then that Tom, Dick or TechnoPeasant simply fills out the data broker's application, agrees to pay a nominal monthly fee and a nominal per-search fee and its off to the races.

For example, here's a complete list of current and historical information that's available for under $50:

  • Addresses and phone listings
  • Social security numbers and date of birth
  • Summary of assets, real estate holdings, vehicles and firearms
  • Driver's and professional licenses
  • Information on business activities, partners, affiliations and FEINs
  • Neighbors' contact information
  • Relatives' contact information
  • Bankruptcies, liens, judgments

Now, I don't know about Tom or Dick, but the TechnoPeasant…he's a funny sort of guy. He loves to play tricks on unsuspecting lawyers, allegedly from a big company, that threaten to sue him for writing true tales about his experiences. Point of fact: Secretaries of unsuspecting lawyers, allegedly from a big company, are very helpful when you want to add their bosses to your birthday gift list. They'll give up ages, birth dates, spouse names and all sorts of things if you just pretend to be a bit absent-minded and friendly. Armed with this information and a subscription to a data broker like ChoicePoint, there's a lot of fun to be had.

Who'd have thought that you could buy all of that sensitive data for less than $50? For an extra $32, I can conduct a 7-year search of civil upper- and lower-level county court cases. Can you imagine the fun that can be had mucking around in the facts of the lives of unsuspecting lawyers who are allegedly from a big company? What about the fun an identity thief can have? In May of 2003, Boston-based consulting company Aberdeen Group reported that identity theft pays an average of $9,800 per incident. Invest $50 and get back $9,800. How's that for a rate of return?

Of course, when one subscribes to a service like ChoicePoint, one promises to use the data for lawful purposes. But how do they know? So I visited the lobby of a nearby building and used their concierge desk phone to call a customer service representative (CSR). You didn't think I would call a company like ChoicePoint from my own phone, did you?

CSR: "Thank you for calling this is can I help you?
TPR: "Hi, I was calling about your service. As I am a new subscriber, I was wondering…how would you know what I used the data for?"
CSR: "We wouldn't."
TPR: "Ah, good…I was hoping to play a few tricks on some unsuspecting lawyers allegedly from a big company."
CSR: "Excuse me? What did you say?"
TPR: "I asked how the weather was…sorry, I'm on my cell. Can you hear me now?"
CSR: "Yes I can and you did not. Sir, you promised in your subscriber agreement to use the data you bought for legitimate purposes."
TPR: "Oh, so you don't think playing pranks on unsuspecting lawyers allegedly from big companies is a legitimate purpose?"
CSR: " Sir, you can't be doing that, it would be against our policies and the law. You can't violate people's privacy like that. Just because we aggregate some of the largest databases in the world doesn't give you, or anyone, the right to mess with people's lives."
TPR: "But I'm paying you for it and besides, they're lawyers, what do you care?"
CSR: "Sir, I want to send you a copy of our policy. What's your email address?"
TPR: "My email? Oh, its uh, Better send one to my partner, too. He's also interested in violating people's privacy. Ah, I mean, you know, using, ah, data, legitimately. His email address is Are you sure we shouldn't be using your data to do this?"
CSR: "Ashcroft….Ashcroft…wait a minute. Are you related to the guy who lost an election to a dead man?"
TPR: "I uh…I have to go now."

Truth be told, there are many legitimate business reasons supporting the use of data brokerages. Perhaps you want to do a credit check on a prospective client before extending more credit. You may think twice if you find that two of the client's past businesses went bankrupt. The same could be said for a physician seeking to merge with another practice; one may want to know more about prospective partners before teaming up.

Without question, the large majority of people who subscribe to these brokerages are using the data for reasons that most folks would probably agree is legitimate. My concern, however, is when a subscriber is feeding data to identity thieves who, for a handful of sawbucks, can access everything that's needed to steal, and summarily wreck, what a person has spent a lifetime building. With almost 162,000 cases of identity theft having been reported to the FTC in 2002, data brokers may be a double-edged sword: they provide information to both legitimate businesses and scammers of the worst kind. Gee…with 162,000 cases of identity theft, who'd notice the torment of a couple of unsuspecting lawyers allegedly from a big company? Can you hear me now?

Jeff Pasternack is the president of Dynamic Consulting Group and author of the TechnoPeasant Review. If you have questions about technology or comments about this column, please write to him at


Jeff Pasternack is the president of Dynamic Consulting Group, a franchise partner of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and author of the TechnoPeasant Review.
If you have questions or comments about this column, please write to him at