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

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

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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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bugssoren 241 days ago
Part 2 (looks like my post was truncated)
While it takes a fair amount of resources to scrape the Internet for personal information, that could be done by a few home based computers over time. Or faster with an army of unsuspecting computers that were subverted by virus to do the work for them.

BUT now that this site exists, others can more simply scrape this site for the information. With the information collected, it doesn't take a big bankroll to run a similar site. So I expect more similar profitable sites to already exist or to appear in the future.

The familytreenow.com domain name has been registered since 2014, so this site has been around for a while. The site ownership is privacy guarded. The operators could be anywhere in the world.

Your video was helpful in removing my information. I shall see if it was removed and revisit the site in the future to make sure they don't put my information back with their next scrape of the Internet. Thank you for bring this to the attention of the public.
bugssoren 241 days ago
FYI, the link you provided to the lifewire.com page maps to a 404 (not found) page. Either link is invalid or possibly page was remove/remapped to 404 because of excessive traffic to it.

What your special report doesn't mention: the primary purpose of FamilyTreeNow.com is to use your personal information to make them money. Most of the buttons have Google Adsense (and other) links that lead to sites which provide "complete reports" for a fee of around $25. The FamilyTreeNow,com site gets a commission for each click or each sale that they generate at those sites. The other purpose is to collect your email address to grow these sites' email lists, so they can spam you with advertising.

While FamilyTreeNow,com makes it more convenient to find personal information, most of that information is publicly available from government sites such as Wisconsin's CCAP for court records or county tax records. Which is of course where they mine that information from.
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