How data brokers find and sell your personal info

A data broker searching for and selling personal information, illustrating the dangers of data brokers.

Data brokers gather and sell information about you. Here’s how to gain some control over your data.


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Your consumer data is valuable to businesses. They would love to discover where you shop online, what Facebook pages you like, and how much you spend on your home. That's why data brokers are in business.

Data brokers are companies that collect information about you and then sell that data to others, usually companies or individuals. The information that data brokers collect can be extensive, everything from your birthdate and addresses to your job title, number of children, and even your outside interests.

In many cases, you might not be aware that these data brokers are nabbing your personal information.

What are data brokers?

Data brokers either collect information on individuals or purchase it from other companies. There's a reason these companies exist: The business of selling data is a lucrative one. According to WebFX, there were more than 4,000 data brokerage companies operating across the globe in 2019.

WebFX gives an example of how active these companies can be: The data brokerage Acxiom, which ranks as one of the largest in the industry, collects data on 500 million consumers. It collects up to 1,500 different pieces of information per person. WebFX said that in 2012, data broker companies made $150 billion in revenue.

What types of information do data brokers collect?

Think of anything a company would want to know about you to help sell you products or services. This is the kind of information data brokers collect on you.

Some examples? Data brokers might know how many children you have and their ages. They might know when you got married or, if things went bad, when you filed for divorce. Your income, gender, and home address are all pieces of information that data brokers collect.

But that's just the beginning. Say you spend a lot of time playing online video games. Data brokers might compile your favorite games or your favorite category of games, and then sell that information to companies hoping to sell you their own video adventures. If you collect baseball cards, a data brokerage firm will want to know. If you prefer one brand of dishwashing detergent over others, data brokers might know this, too, and will be happy to let companies know.

How do data brokers get your information?

You might be surprised of how much of your personal information is freely available to the companies that want it. Data broker companies don't need to work overly hard to find your data.

Data brokers collect much of their information from public records. This includes court records, motor vehicle records, Census data, birth certificates, marriage licenses, voter registration information, bankruptcy records, and divorce records.

Brokers also either collect or purchase data from credit card providers and retailers. This includes such information as the amount of money you owe on your department store credit card, the type of coupons you tend to use, and the items you've purchased in the past after swiping a store’s loyalty card.

If you spend a lot of time on social media or in the online world, you're giving data brokers even more information about you. Data brokers might nab personal information from the posts you've made or ‘liked’ online, online quizzes you've taken, online sweepstakes you've entered, and the websites you've visited.

How is your information used?

Selling your information hasn’t proved too difficult for data brokers. That’s because these companies have plenty of potential customers eager to purchase your information.

Some of these buyers will use your information to create online ads that are targeted specifically to you. Others will use it to determine how likely it is that you’ll default on a personal loan. Still others might use it to determine how likely it is that you will file an insurance claim or get into an auto accident.

Marketing and advertising

Have you ever been browsing the web only to see a banner ad for a product you already buy? Often, that ad for laundry pods pops up when your current supply is almost depleted. Data brokers might be behind this.

Businesses purchase your shopping and spending information. Data brokers can often tell them what brand of laundry soap you’ve bought in the past and when you purchased it. This allows companies to send ads timed to when you might need pods.

It’s not surprising, then, that businesses make up some of the most active customers of data brokers.

Fraud detection

Some businesses aren't after your information purely for advertising or marketing purposes. Some use it for fraud detection.

Maybe you applied for an auto loan. Your lender might check the information you provided on your application against the numbers that data brokers dig up on you. This can help lenders determine that the information you provided regarding income, debts, and salary isn't fraudulent.

Loan offers

Mortgage lenders, banks and credit companies are all interested in the amount of money you already owe, the loans you’ve already paid down, payments you’ve missed, income, job history, and the homes and cars you own. They might also be interested in what websites you’re visiting.

Why? If you have a mortgage loan with a high interest rate, a mortgage lender might want to entice you to refinance to a new loan with a lower rate. If you’ve visited online car dealerships, a lender might be interested in sending you online ads promoting their own auto loan products.

Or maybe you’re online shopping for the lowest credit card rates. Credit card companies would love to know that you’re in the market for a new card. They can then send you advertising, either online or by traditional mail.

People-search sites

People-search sites allow you to enter the name of any person and — usually for a fee — receive their phone numbers, addresses, age, birthdate, former addresses, and other information. Many data brokers gather this information from public records and sell it to these sites.

Is data brokering legal?

Data brokers aren't acting illegally if they are using public records to get the information they sell.

Several states, though, are taking a closer look at how data brokers operate.

Vermont in 2018 passed a law requiring all businesses that sell or share data on the state's residents to register in a public database and share information about how they work.

California's Consumer Privacy Act allows residents to obtain copies of the information that data brokers have uncovered on them. The Act also allows California consumers to request that the information be erased and to opt out of having their data sold.

The state of New York is considering its own bill to force data brokers to register with the state. The bill would also direct the state's Attorney General to maintain a website listing these data brokers.

How can I help protect my personal information from data brokers?

You can't completely make yourself invisible to data brokers. But there are steps you can take to at least reduce the amount of information they can collect on you.

  • Register with DMAchoice, which will get your name off direct marketing and telemarketing lists.
  • Register with the Consumer Credit Reporting Industry’s site to opt out of pre-screened offers for credit cards or insurance products.
  • You can pay private companies to keep your information away from data brokers. These services aren't free, though, and could cost you hundreds of dollars a year.
  • You can also adjust your online behavior to help protect yourself from data brokers. Don’t post personal information on social media. Don’t answer online quizzes, and don’t enter online sweepstakes. These sites all provide valuable information to data brokers.
  • You can also sign up for a VPN, or virtual private network. When you connect to the internet through a VPN, your IP address is hidden. VPNs also encrypt your data as you browse the internet, meaning that your online activity is hidden from snoops, including data brokers. Just make sure your VPN doesn’t sell your data to others. It’s sometimes best to avoid free VPNs and instead work with those that charge you.
  • If you want to remain anonymous while surfing the web, you can connect to the Internet with the Tor browser. This browser will help keep your online activity hidden from others. The downside? Browsing the internet with Tor can be a slower experience. 

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Dan Rafter
  • Dan Rafter
  • Freelance writer
Dan Rafter is a freelance writer who covers tech, finance, and real estate. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Fox Business.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Our offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about Cyber Safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses. The Norton and LifeLock brands are part of Gen Digital Inc. 


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