Archive for the ‘Data Brokers’ Category
TLO now owns Merlindata through the acquisition of another company that had recently purchased the public records data provider, in business since 1991 and much relied on by California private investigators.
Merlindata customers will now become TLO customers with access to the same data, albeit with a different interface and website. The California public records from Merlindata are not integrated into the people search and comprehensive reports in TLO but are a stand-alone product that incurs per-search fees on par with the other TLO offerings.
Merlindata customers who have an annual fee contract can continue on the same terms with a new TLO negotiated contract, but they will be charged monthly, not annually, as subscribers to Merlindata were.
TLO doesn’t offer an unlimited search option for access to their menu of searches. TLO’s “flaterate” is a reduced cost on the transactional fee. This reduced cost is available for accounts with at least 200 searches per month. In this arrangement, the subscriber might pay $.60 for each search rather than $1.00. The “flaterate” contract includes the TLO data and the newly acquired Merlindata California databases. However, they are not integrated and must be separately searched.
The Merlindata site now directs subscribers to transfer their account to TLO or to open an account if they’re not already a Merlin user.
IRBSearch, a reseller of the LexisNexis Accurint data, which is very similar to TLO’s, has undoubtedly taken a financial hit due to the low-cost pricing of TLO. This is the new favorite among private investigators. Hopefully that won’t lull investigators into relying on one online public records data source — which may become difficult to avoid if other companies’ products are out of reach because of pricing or restricted access to private investigators.
In my prior post, Due Diligence on consumer data brokers, I discussed what you should know before purchasing public records from a consumer personal information data provider. The consumer pay-per-search websites package public record and private sourced data – property ownership, residential addresses, business filings, court records, telephone number listings. The pricing structure is usually not very transparent and the reliability and relevance of the records may be difficult to suss out before you plunk down your $50.
I followed the digital trail – using only free sources – of one data seller to find the identity behind the website and brush away a little of the dust clouding consumer-oriented data brokers.
How To Spot a Legitimate Data Broker
Look at the website. I mean, look at it. Is it an out-of-the-box design or does it have a unique look? I go to the “About Us” link, and that should be well-placed, easily found. Does it tell you about the proprietor or give entity ownership? Compare it to a professional database. For example, Merlindata and Westlaw.
Find a telephone number for customer support and call it. If the number connects to a live human, do they know the product and talk openly about it? Is the pricing structure and termination policy clear? Oftentimes the full cost of a search at a consumer site isn’t revealed until you’re into the signup and purchase process.
The site with the specialty services
My fellow private investigator was lured to a site by the suggestion that it could provide employment income information. There are many types of information that are legal to seek out but are not available through databases. Identifying where someone is employed is pure gumshoe work. The website “Govmarriagerecords (dot) org” lists “income” as one of the “premium search access” results available for a fee plus an automatic monthly charge (until you cancel).
Think about it. What public record would be electronically available that lists personal employment income? Likely none. It might be in a divorce file. But you’d have to go to the courthouse to review that. The salaries and names of employees of government agencies are public records. I’ve compiled links to hundreds of those that are in online databases.
A data broker that suggests you can get on-demand income information is playing with your assumptions. My guess is that the “income” this site provides is the median neighborhood income from the U.S. Census Bureau, which is available for free. You can search by city, town, county, zip code or state.
Guaranteed! Free! Complete!
You shouldn’t have to read the fine print to find out what you’re going to get for your dollars. What does the claim “Guaranteed Instant Results” suggest? There’s no such thing as guaranteed results, so the guarantee must be the “instant.” The cost for searches isn’t mentioned on the Home page or in the Terms of Service. Cost is revealed once you execute a search, and even then it’s not clear what the fee covers.
Follow the Identity Trail
A free search of the domain ownership for “Govmarriagerecords (dot) org” at Domain Tools identified the registrant and the number of other domains registered to the same entity. This site is registered to Information Technology Services Inc., domiciled in Nevada. I checked the Nevada Secretary of State, Business Entity Search for the corporate name and it revealed that one person — Areg Sakanyan – held all the officer positions.
Humm… that can’t be a very common name. I looked up the name using the free portion of the website’s search, which returned one listing, in Massachusetts. Not exactly near Nevada, but many businesses incorporate here even though they don’t operate in the state. Although the domain registration had a Nevada address, the phone number was from elsewhere. I searched the number through fonefinder.com and found that it was in Massachusetts. I plugged the business owner’s name into a search engine. One result piqued my interest because it linked to a media announcement at the website for the Pennsylvania Attorney General. In 2008, the AG filed a civil lawsuit against a Massachusetts man named Areg Sakanyan for “operating a deceptive and misleading” website. That website has since been taken down but you can see archived copies at archive.org. A collection of new domains was registered by him in 2009, including the one profiled in this post. They all begin with “gov” and end in “records.” Sandwiched in between are the types of many other public records.
Few website owners are going to have an Attorney General after them but the shady operator will often have negative consumer reviews at complaintsboard.com, ripoffreport.com or scamchecker.com.
The Terms of Service in the “members” section of the website (different from the “Terms” on the Home page) names two other entities that provide data. One, “Records Authority” is never clarified but is identified as the “public records search services”. The other, InteliGator (dot) com, provides “Premium Search Access.” I could go on but… How confident are you right now that this is a reliable, transparent service?
What should you know before you purchase public records from a consumer personal information data provider? Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has a list of some of the data brokers – the well regarded and the may-be disreputable — but many, many are not here and one site owner may have a dozen or more domains that draw on the same data. Professional investigators get snookered, too, much as consumers do who want to reverse an unlisted telephone number, identify the user of an email address or find where someone works. These searches are more uncertain because the information is not usually in electronic databases of public records.
When It’s Too Good To Be True
If a data broker uses terms that suggest you can get instant online access to court records, a residential address or income, look closely at their language. Are you making assumptions about what the words on the site refer to? Does it really say what you think it does? Sure, millions of criminal records are searched, but is a list of geographical areas covered and inclusive dates at the site? The town, county, state or type of record that’s relevant to your subject may not be included. At most, you may get a disclaimer I read at one site: “In the event of using this service for criminal background checks, you should not assume that this data provides a complete or accurate history of any person’s criminal history.”
Free or fee?
A common practice of the consumer sites is to layer the costs. First, the searcher is presented with a “free” name lookup. Then there may be a fee to identify an address, an additional one for a criminal record search or a “special offer” that reduces the cost but levies a revolving monthly credit card charge. After all that, the site may provide you with a residential address but how current is it? It’s more likely to be current if the person lives at a real property that they own. But then you can look that up for free at the online website of the County Assessor or Clerk-Recorder. You can find links to the free government public records at SearchSystems.net. This site has the most extensive collection of links, and they’re updated daily. Look for the section “Free Public Records Locator” in the middle of the page.
SearchSystems.net does offer fee searches – for criminal, bankruptcy, court judgment and tax lien records – that are good quality. This may meet your needs if you want to search more broadly than in just one jurisdiction or for filings that aren’t available at an online government site or if you don’t have access to a professional database source. Refer to books by Internet for Lawyers for evaluations of public records directories and other investigative resources.
Narrow your search, reduce the costs, get more accurate results
An uncommon name is helpful when you’re searching through thousands of people with the same name who may even have the same birthdate. But you probably won’t be graced with that. So look for a people finders site that will let you perform a free search by name and narrow your search by age or state. Then it should return a list with all the matches. This will give you a good idea of the number of people with the same profile. A middle initial, names of relatives and former addresses may also be returned. You’re more likely to find information on the right person if you know more about them. Once you’ve pinpointed the person, you can lookup criminal, divorce, property and other records at the associated state or county online database, for free.
In the next installment, I’ll illustrate the research I did on a data broker that a fellow PI considered using. The owner of that company was taken to court by a state Attorney General for defrauding customers of a public records site he operated.
Related post: CriminalSearches – A free criminal records resource
The Texas Attorney General is employing various media – screen shots, video, press releases and court documents – to broadcast its recent shuttering of USA Skiptrace, AMS Research Services, Inc. and Worldwide Investigations, Inc. for selling consumers’ private telephone records and impersonating those account holders. These businesses were based in Colorado but conducted business in Texas when they called Texas telecommunications companies.
The Office of the Attorney General charged USA Skiptrace with violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The corporate defendants were ordered to pay $150,000 in civil penalties, with John Strange also responsible for a separate fine of $2,500.
Do you think that the telephone companies might someday send customers automatic email alerts notifying them of inquires?
Defendants Barred From Obtaining or Selling Consumers’ Phone Records to Third Parties
The Federal Trade Commission has put a permanent halt to an operation that allegedly obtained consumers’ confidential phone records without their knowledge or consent and sold them to third parties. The defendants are barred from obtaining consumers’ telephone records without their consent and court orders impose judgments on the defendants totaling more than $600,000 – the estimated amount of their ill-gotten gains.
This is the latest in a series of FTC cases targeting telephone pretexters – individuals who use false pretenses to obtain consumers’ confidential information. Since 2006 the FTC has charged sixteen individuals and their corporations with violating federal law by pretexting to obtain phone records of third parties. All have now been barred from pretexting and all have been ordered to give up the money they made engaging in the illegal practice.
In February 2007, the FTC asked a U.S. district court to order a permanent halt to the operations of a company that sold consumers’ confidential phone records, including information on calls placed and received. The FTC also sued the individuals who had used false pretenses to obtain the records from phone companies and then supplied those records to the company for a fee. The agency alleged these practices were unfair and deceptive in violation of federal law, and could endanger consumers’ safety. The agency also asked the court to order the defendants to give up their ill-gotten gains.
According to the FTC complaint, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 provides that a customer’s phone records may only be disclosed “upon affirmative written request by the customer.” But the agency alleged that since at least 2005 Action Research Group, Inc., and its principals, Joseph and Matthew DePantes, sold confidential customer phone records, including lists of calls made and the dates, times, and duration of the calls, to third parties, without the knowledge or consent of the customers. To get the records, these defendants relied upon the other defendants, Eye in the Sky Investigations, Inc., Cassandra Selvage and Bryan Wagner, who obtained them from phone companies through “pretexting” – using “false pretenses, fraudulent statements, fraudulent or stolen documents or other misrepresentations, including posing as an account holder or as an employee” of a phone company. Selling the records constitutes an invasion of privacy that could endanger the health and safety of consumers, the agency alleged.
The DePantes and ARG agreed to settle the FTC charges. Defendants ESI, Cassandra Selvage, and Bryan Wagner are subject to default judgments entered by the court.
The settlement and default judgments permanently bar the defendants from obtaining, marketing or selling customer phone records or consumers’ personal information derived from those records. They also bar the defendants from pretexting or using others to pretext to obtain consumers’ information. The settlement order entered a judgment in the amount of $67,000 against the DePantes and ARG, the estimated amount of ill-gotten gains the defendants earned from their illegal scheme; the judgment was suspended upon a payment of $3,000 based on the defendants’ inability to pay. In the default judgments, the court ordered Wagner to give up $428,085 in ill-gotten gains and ESI and Selvage to give up $110,762.
The Commission vote to accept the settlements was 5-0. They were filed in U.S. District Court for the middle district of Florida, Orlando division.
NOTE: Stipulated final orders are for settlement purposes only and do not constitute an admission by the defendant of a law violation. Consent judgments have the force of law when signed by the judge.
What are your comments in this topic?
Jimmie Mesis, Editor-in-Chief
The FTC reached an agreement on Wednesday for $600,000 in settlements and judgments against several private investigators others involved in the Hewlett-Packard Co. boardroom scandal.
The FTC settlement imposed a $67,000 penalty against Matthew DePante, his father, Joseph DePante, and their now-defunct company, Action Research Group Inc., which was based in Clearwater, Fla. All but $3,000 was suspended due to their inability to pay.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Orlando division, also entered default judgments against DePante’s subcontractors, Bryan Wagner, who must pay $428,085, and Cassandra Selvage and her company, Eye in the Sky Investigations Inc., who must pay $110,762.
What are your comments on this topic?
Jimmie Mesis, Editor-in-Chief