Here’s how I tracked down the people selling my data, then stopped them

Keeping your data private online often feels like walking through a minefield. One wrong step and BOOM! — heaps of your personal information are suddenly in the wrong hands. For this reason, most of us go the extra mile to ensure our data doesn’t get compromised. We dial up privacy settings to the max, block web trackers, and maybe even browse in incognito mode. But I hate to break it to you: You’ve likely blown up all of that minefield a while ago.

The harsh truth is that there’s a good chance that shady “data brokers” are already trading your identity for pennies on the web, even if you’ve been super-careful online in the past, like me. I consider myself more privacy-minded than most, but despite all my years of treading softly on the web and locking down my data beneath layers of authentication, I recently discovered that many of my personal details were being collected and traded.

At first, I felt helpless. But then I started to wonder if there was anything I could do about it. If these brokers already had my data, was there a way to take it back from them? Could I track down these seedy companies and stop them from trading my information?

I set out on a mission to find out. Here’s how it went.

The booming business of data brokerage

The first big problem I encountered was that the data broker business is far, far bigger than I ever anticipated. As it turns out, it’s a $200-billion-dollar industry. At any given moment, there are more than 4,000 data brokers crawling the internet, looking for any and every opportunity to hoard information (including paying the government to acquire your DMV records) and sell it off to the highest bidder. Some of them have data on billions of people. Acxiom, a “people-based” marketing agency, for instance, is reported to offer records on more than 62 countries and 2.5 billion profiles.

Although most of these brokers offer a way for you to opt out of their data-collection practices, it was practically impossible for me to go through them all one by one. So I decided to pay someone else to do it for me.

In exchange for a small fee, there are a range of services that will do the laborious job of punching in opt-out forms for you. Once you tell them what to look for — whether it’s your phone number or email address — they scour dozens of brokers’ databases for it. If there’s a match, they’ll automatically put in a request to delete it.

From the many such websites available, I eventually settled on an online tool called Optery, since it scopes out the highest number of data brokers. For $10 a month, it sifts more than 150 people-search sites for a vast array of your data such as your phone number, email address, date of birth, family members’ names, locations, and more. Unlike others, it also offers a comprehensive overview of your digital footprint, how exposed you are to the internet, and it ultimately helps you regain a bit of anonymity.

Opting out with Optery

When I first signed up for Optery, it asked me for a bunch of my information. You can choose to reveal as little as your full name and email ID or go the whole nine yards and tell it to also search for more specific information like your residential address.

Obviously, Optery needs this data to scan broker sites, but I’m not going to lie, it did feel like walking into a trap. Fortunately, a quick trip through Optery’s privacy policy eliminated those concerns, as the service makes it clear it doesn’t sell or share with third parties.

Optery dashboard

Once I told Optery a bit about myself, it took a few minutes to look for traces of my identity online, and let me tell you, I was vastly underprepared for what it had unearthed.

Optery produced an alarming report, revealing that nearly 100 data brokers had somehow managed to acquire my data. Everything from where I live to where I was born was openly accessible on several people-search platforms. Suddenly, it made sense why I keep getting bombarded with phone, email, and mail spam despite following the best privacy practices.

Digging up your digital footprint is only one-half of Optery’s function. When you’re over the shock of the volume of crumbs of your data scattered on the internet, you can ask Optery to submit a removal request on your behalf. In case you don’t want to pay, Optery also lists the opt-out form links and contact for each data broker for free if you’d like to do it yourself.

Optery data broker removal

The process to get your data off of data broker servers from Optery is fairly straightforward. After you’ve confirmed that the identity Optery has spotted is, in fact, you, simply ask it to dispatch an opt-out request. Depending on the company’s policy, it takes anywhere between a couple of days to weeks for your information to disappear.

One of the features that I found especially handy is that Optery lets you visit your profiles on data brokers’ websites with dynamic links. You can use this to cross-verify whether your information is wiped once you take action on it, and that’s exactly what I did. Within days, Optery had successfully managed to take down my data from dozens of data brokers. My quest to reclaim my information from the shady online sellers was complete. Sort of.

Blocking brokers is a bandage

Unfortunately, this was merely one small victory in an ongoing war. After a spending a few bucks and fiddling with some software for a few days, I managed to scrub some of my data from a few dozen dark corners of the internet. And while it’s certainly encouraging to know that something like this possible, I now realize that it’s only a temporary fix. Even with these proactive measures, I’m certain that my personal information will eventually make it back into the hands of data brokers.

From federal records to online breaches, there are several ways data brokers covertly siphon off your personal data. A few years ago, even Facebook was collaborating with data broker companies to create better-targeted ads. Privacy tools have come a long way, but at the end of the day, there’s little you can do to control data brokers’ channels of access except wait for broad privacy laws to come into effect.

But until that happens, at least there are services like Optery that can help you bite back.

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