Spokeo and other low-cost or free information sites on the web spew out a lot of garbage, and that can do a lot of harm.spokeo v robbins case.jpg

This blog takes no position on whether a private right of action exists under the Fair Credit Reporting Act even when no concrete harm can be demonstrated from bad information at Spokeo or other sites. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Spokeo v. Robins after a federal appeals panel in the Ninth Circuit decided that a plaintiff had standing to sue Spokeo because it got a bunch of details about him wrong.

The stakes are huge. eBay, Facebook, Google and Yahoo! all filed amicus briefs backing Spokeo.

What interests us about Spokeo and other low-cost or free databases on the web is that their results are often a little bit wrong or completely false, but people who do not deal in information on a daily basis do not know this. Sometimes there’s no excuse. If a person is in charge of populating his LinkedIn or Facebook profile, how can you take that as solid information about the person without independently verifying it?

We’re written about this issue many times, including here: Low Cost Background Checks Ruin Lives, which talks about a case where there was indeed concrete damage to someone mixed up with another person by the information robots at a database.

What we have to explain to clients all the time is that even the better, very expensive databases that we use on a subscription basis make a lot of mistakes too. We explain that:

  • Databases are only as smart as the people entering data into them. If a person’s name is misspelled by data entry clerks, the database won’t be able to tell. That is one of the ways databases mix people up.
  • Databases don’t talk to each other. If database A says that George Adams lives sold his house in Boston last year, database B may say that George Adams lives in Detroit because it never picked up the purchase of the Boston house in the first place. Database C may tell you that Adams owns two houses: one in Detroit and one in Boston.
  • The only way to sort through the mounds of information out there is to verify whatever you can with the public record. If Adams sold his house, go to the Suffolk County, Massachusetts county clerk and find the deed. Do the same for Detroit and figure out what part of the Spokeo record is right and what isn’t.

The most annoying feature of some information sites is the claim that they can conduct “nationwide” criminal background checks for almost no money. We know that is not possible, because just in New York, a search of all county criminal records through the Office of Court Administration costs $68. It’s cheaper in other states, but there is no way we can see that non-law enforcement can do a thorough nationwide search for anything less than $1,000 in court fees alone.

We sometimes like to pay 99 cents to put our own cell phone numbers into some of the Spokeo-like sites. The last time we tried it we were told our phone belonged to someone we had never met hundreds of miles away. It then signed us up for a monthly plan of $19.99, which the anti-fraud section of our bank got removed right away.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides in the Spokeo case won’t change a basic truth: harmed or not by a lot of the information on low-cost or free sites, it’s just not that reliable.