People search sites claim they verify people and provide a useful service. They also violate privacy and use questionable sales tactics to convert visitors into buyers. These tactics can make you believe someone is a criminal without reason.
A colleague of mine, Katie, once told me a story of how her 60-year-old mother called to interrogate her because she found Katie’s profile on a site stating that she had a criminal record. It took Katie days to convince her mother of her innocence.
Katie’s situation came to my mind as soon as news that the FTC had filed a lawsuit against MyLife came out, alleging the company enticed people to subscribe to its background report services by posting misleading “teaser” background reports. The story is getting increased attention from outlets that cover consumer protection and privacy rights, such as Consumer Affairs. It’s not the first time MyLife has come under scrutiny, either. Stories of other misconduct and intervention from the BBB came to light less than a year ago. And yet consumers are still signing on to people search websites.
There are various reasons why people Google others or look for them on sites such as MyLife, TruthFinder, BeenVerified and similar. Some do this out of curiosity, some look for contact details to send Xmas cards. But many just want to make sure their new acquaintance is a safe person to be allowed into their lives. MyLife and a slew of other sites heavily exploit this natural human tendency for profit. Here’s how.
1. Lengthy interactive sales funnel to get you invest a lot of time
If you go to MyLife, TruthFinder, BeenVerified or any similar site to search for someone, you will quickly find yourself going through a series of endless screens with questions, warnings and loaders – all aiming at keeping you locked in, while alarming you about possible problems with a person you’re searching for. Throughout this aggressive sales funnel, you are likely to see warnings like this one used by MyLife: Do not refresh, close, or click the back button until the scan is complete or your information will be lost.
On average, it takes about 15 minutes to get through the series of progressive screens before a site offers you to buy their background reports subscription. That’s a quarter of an hour which you’ve spent reading various warnings about “possible” criminal problems with the person you are interested in. Think that’s going to move you towards buying the report?
2. Escalating language to get you into a state of alertness
Here are the snapshots of a couple of screens from the TruthFinder background report teaser:
The choice of words alone used through a series of these sales screens can make you believe there must be something wrong with the person you are trying to look up. Here are some examples:
“We are scanning for the most uptodate information so you learn the truth about them.”
“I WILL NOT harass people whose criminal records appear on this site.”
“I understand this website includes arrest records, and it does not necessarily mean the person was convicted.”
“Learning the truth about the history of your family and friends can be shocking, so please be cautious when using this tool.”
“Some reports feature user comments which may contain embarrassing or surprising insider information.”
“You may be shocked to know John does have a possible criminal record. Continue to learn which crimes are in John’s report
3. Criminal records and traffic records combined under one category
Perhaps this is the biggest sin and exactly what happened to my colleague Katie. She had to get her background report from that people search site to look at the criminal record that kept being mentioned while she and her mother were wading through that typical endless sales loader. When she finally got the report, instead of a criminal record, she saw an old traffic ticket in a “Criminal and Traffic Records ” section of her background report.
Brion Finlay, the Minnesota man who sued MyLife for implying that he had a criminal record, had a similar experience. MyLife stated in its teaser that “Brion DOES have Arrest or Criminal Records.” While in reality, this only meant that the full background report “may include any DUIs, traffic tickets, and outstanding warrants,” as the website warned. And this was exactly Brion’s case. As Finlay’s attorney, Dave Madgett, said, Finlay doesn’t have anything more serious on his record than some traffic tickets, which are not considered criminal offenses in Minnesota. But as long as MyLife suggested there might be something worse lurking in Finlay’s past, potential employers might be put off.
Deceptive marketing strategies described above add to many other reasons why FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) forbids sites such as MyLife to sell background reports to consumers or businesses who need them for decisions about employment, insurance coverage, tenant screening, consumer credit or any other purpose that would require FCRA compliance. Such reports can only be provided by consumer reporting agencies, which MyLife cannot claim to be, yet it behaves as if it is.
However, according to a complaint filed by the Department of Justice on behalf of the FTC, MyLife.com has touted in testimonials that its reports were useful to those making housing, lending, and employment eligibility decisions.
MyLife is currently under fire. Chances are high that soon other people search sites will be forced to reconsider their questionable practices and finally stop threatening people’s reputations and relationships, exploiting our universal human desire to make our lives and the lives of our families safe.