Special Report: How to protect yourself against new website exposing private details

Special Report: How to protect yourself against new website exposing private details

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Social Media companies have come under a lot of scrutiny recently over concerns about user privacy. Facebook executives have even testified before Congress about protecting its users’ personal information.

But CBS 58 found a website many people haven’t even heard of, and it’s giving away information for free.

It’s called FamilyTreeNow.com, and on the surface, it looks like a regular genealogy website. But with just a few clicks, you can find much more than your family history. Users just enter a name and city or state, and personal records pop up in an instant.

Larry Herek and his wife, Diane, and their friend Jane Fabian were enjoying lunch at Gus’s Deli in West Allis recently, when we asked them to put in their names.

“That’s my wife, that’s my daughter, that’s my mom,” Herek said as he scrolled down the screen. “Well, that’s scary. It gives all my numbers out.”

Herek found not only a list of family members but current and former addresses, phone numbers, and a list of friends. His wife couldn’t believe all of their information was available so easily.

“I think it’s crazy,” she said. “It shouldn’t be allowed.”

It appears to be legal. Websites such as FamilyTreeNow.com use an algorithm to compile public information. Sites pull records from local courts, the census, real estate transactions and more. Matthew Friedel is a senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Information Studies.

“I think people would be really surprised to learn what information is out there,” he said. “Their address, their past addresses, their phone numbers, their email addresses.”

CBS 58 looked up some famous names and notable politicians here in Wisconsin. Records matching age, name and family members popped right up for Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews

Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly picked right up when we called his cell phone.

“This is my personal cell phone, it’s not even my mayor cell phone,” Reilly said.

What’s different about FamilyTreeNow.com is that all of the information is available for free. Many similar sites charge a fee to gain access to personal date.

And Friedel said that raises safety concerns.

“I would think if you have a concern that someone is stalking you, or if someone is trying to find out where you live, or any of those items, I wouldn’t want that personal information out there,” Friedel said.

There’s something else that separates this website from others, too. When people sign up to use social media sites, it’s understood that you’re sharing some of your information. So, in that case, you’re opting in. To remove your information from a site like FamilyTreeNow.com, you have to opt out.

“With these platforms, what you have to do is opt out, so that your information is not presented.,” Friedel said. “Because they’re aggregating it from another place.”

Back inside at Gus’s Deli, Fabian said she was surprised to see so much accurate information available about her online.

“There’s too much information out there already and if anybody really wants to find you, they can,” Fabian said. “But to make it readily available, I don’t like it at all.”

It can be tricky to remove yourself from the website, but we’ve included a video with step by step instructions. Your information should be gone within 24-48 hours. We’ve also included another helpful link with instructions on how to remove your personal data from similar websites. You can find that information by clicking here

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