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March 18, 2006

mypublicinfo.com — Because 'privacy is an illusion'

Nsa_2

Well?

Are you ready to lose your illusion?

For $79.95 mypublicinfo.com will provide you with a one–time data snapshot of yourself, drawn from over 5,000 data sources nationwide.

They call it a Personal Information Profile.

Everyone else can find this stuff out about you so why shouldn't you have a fighting chance?

Don Oldenburg wrote an excellent piece for his "Consummate Consumer" column in the March 12 Washington Post about the company and its founder, Harold Kraft.

FunFact: Kraft is also an anesthesiologist.

Here's the article.

    Everything You Ever Knew About Yourself -- for $79.95

    Firm Picks Through Public Records to Create a Snapshot of Customers' Lives

    Public information is such a misnomer.

    Like foul pole, preexisting condition and reality TV, there really isn't such a thing.

    Conceptually, sure.

    Baseball fans understand the concept of "foul pole" despite the fact that a ball that hits one is fair, and consumers generally understand the idea of public information despite the fact that it isn't all that public if you have to gather it yourself. (Which isn't all that fair.)

    But that's because the big-time data-collecting companies that compile threads and shards of information from your life -- the kind of data that, say, go into a background check -- typically sell it to businesses and government agencies, rarely to individual consumers.

    Enter Harold Kraft, native Washingtonian, anesthesiologist-turned-entrepreneur, now chief executive of MyPublicInfo Inc., the Arlington company he and partner Pat Dane founded in 2004.

    The company launched its personal-information retrieval services to consumers last July.

    "Public information is pseudo-public. It is very difficult to get access to all those public records," says Kraft at his modest offices across the street from the Arlington County Courthouse.

    "Public doesn't mean that it's free, and it doesn't mean that it is easily accessible."

    Kraft first brainstormed the service after getting his hands on his own public data and seeing the paper trail of his life flash before his eyes.

    "Not only was it all information about my life, it was also some pretty detailed stuff that any business could find out about me," he says.

    "We decided to make our mission to bring public information to the public."

    So for $79.95 at MyPublicInfo.com, you can buy a one-time data snapshot of yourself, a detailed portfolio Kraft calls a "Public Information Profile" (PIP), culled from more than 5,000 data sources nationwide. MyPublicInfo taps your info -- plus data mistakenly connected to or confused with your identity -- from the brimming databanks of super-data aggregators such as ChoicePoint, LexisNexis and Acxiom as well as from small and specialized databanks and primary sources such as courthouses.

    Included in your PIP? Criminal records, bankruptcy records, liens and judgments, insurance claims, address and telephone histories, real estate transactions (even aerial photos of your house!), professional licenses, motor-vehicle registrations, unclaimed assets, etc.

    One thing you won't find here is your credit report.

    "You can get your credit report yourself for free now," says Kraft, who thinks checking your public records is as important as checking your credit report.

    But why public records?

    To monitor and protect your identity, says Kraft, to keep a step ahead of mistakes and miscues common in public records, to watch for criminal activity such as "synthetic" identity theft.

    That's when a criminal impersonates your identity using slight variations of your name or Social Security number to buy or rent a house or apply for a credit card.

    Often that goes undetected by the major credit-reporting agencies -- but a wrong address connected to your name or a stranger with a slightly different SSN popping up in public records can be an early warning of bad things happening.

    Not all of the "messy data" included in a PIP relates to criminal intent, however.

    You'd be surprised how many people with the same name as yours have filed for bankruptcy, been arrested or bought property.

    "It is better to know what's out there -- for better or for worse," Kraft says.

    "What we have come to realize is that we are just at the cusp of a huge problem involving public-records mistakes, mistaken identity and identity confusion. Sometimes typos just creep into public records."

    Some privacy experts are comparing the problem to the early days of identity theft.

    "We're seeing almost as much interest and concerns in background checks as we were seeing in identity theft about a decade ago," says Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego nonprofit consumer advocacy and education group.

    She says traffic at the PRC Web site's background-checks pages now equals that of its identity-theft pages.

    "We're getting lots of complaints," Givens says, describing cases in which people have been shut out of the workplace from faulty background checks, arrested due to mistaken identity errors and victimized by crooks who manipulated public data.

    "We hear on almost a daily basis stories like this. So much of this information is inaccurate."

    Combine that dreary observation with the estimated 80 percent of corporations that conduct background checks on job applicants, and Givens concludes that "the playing field for consumers needs to be more level than it is now."

    How?

    Short of federal regulation, consumers need to have access to their public records.

    But Givens says that access ought to be "free of charge, just like they can get their credit reports for free."

    She thinks MyPublicInfo's $79.95 fee "looks steep if it's not going beyond a quick and dirty database search."

    Kraft says his firm provides a premium, cleaned-up data collection from a myriad of sources while maintaining security and privacy of the personal data.

    This month, he adds, MyPublicInfo will launch another service, Identity Sweep, that for $4.95 a month provides alerts when something's amiss in your public records.

    As for the hacker threat, Kraft says that there's no database kept at the Arlington office and that its commercially managed center in California meets all standards for firewall protection, data encryption and intrusion detection.

    "We're not the only people who have your data," says Kraft, adding that after you've looked over your PIP, you can permanently delete it at the online account page.

    "And it's not just out there one place, it's out there in dozens of places. But we are the ones making it available to you."

********************

Oh, I see you're all revved up now.

OK, then: here's a link to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, which offers a consumer guide to background checks.

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Get a free copy of your credit report, as allowed by federal law, here, or call 877-322-8228.

March 18, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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