How can I find out what information exists about me online?

What sorts of data collection sites are out there and why should I worry?

Spokeo is billed as a people search engine and its home page pitches it as a way to reconnect with people, but if its collection of data is something you don’t want your name to be part of, you can fill out the form on the site’s opt out page.
Spokeo is billed as a people search engine and its home page pitches it as a way to reconnect with people, but if its collection of data is something you don’t want your name to be part of, you can fill out the form on the site’s opt out page.
Screen capture by HowStuffWorks staff

The World Wide Web is a very large place. Some information about you might be on what some refer to as the surface Web, made up of Web pages to which other sites link and that can therefore be found by search engines like Google. But unlike typical search engines, data brokers glean much of the information they collect from what some people call the deep Web. The deep Web consists of Web pages and searchable databases below the surface, many of which no one links to and are not indexed by search engines, but that actually make up the vast majority of Internet real estate. Some even make manual efforts to get official records on people. They can then aggregate your personal data into a detailed profile and display it online in one convenient location.

People-finder sites are often divided into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary sites gather your information from primary sources, such as public records from government entities, utilities and the like. Some sites that are considered primary as of 2013 include Intelius, LexisNexis, PeopleFinders, Spoke, WhitePages, BeenVerified and DOBSearch. Secondary sites tend to get information from the primary sites and from other online locations, including other secondary sites and social networks. Some of these include Spokeo, Pipl, Radaris, Mylife, Wink, LookUp, PeekYou, Waatp,, Yatedo and 123People. There is, of course, some overlap between these categories.

A couple of popular, user-friendly and sometimes eerily accurate people search sites are Spokeo and Pipl. Spokeo allows you to search by name, e-mail, phone, username or mailing address. Results will show up as blips on a map and you can drill down to your chosen person and get to a profile that displays tons of personal information, as well as a wide variety of social, blogging, shopping, photo, music and other sites at which the person has an account. Even though it can't get to anything you've marked private, it will let the searcher know that you have private accounts. And apparently once someone does a search, it will continue to search and aggregate any new information it finds associated with that information. Searching is free, but access to more detailed information is provided for a subscription fee.

Pipl allows you to search by name, e-mail, username, phone number and location, and is reportedly one of the more accurate of the people search sites. You can pick the person you are looking for out of the list of returned hits. It returns a few personal details along with links to other sites that contain possibly related information, including other people search sites, social networking profiles and photographs. Like Spokeo, it's very easy to use. Searches are free, since they make revenue via ads and sponsored links.

These are only the tip of the iceberg, as there are hundreds of similar sites, with varying degrees of user-friendliness and accuracy, some affiliated with each other and some free agents.

The fact that entities are accumulating this type of data and making it readily available is obviously a big privacy concern. It makes things like stalking and identity theft easier. Plus, there's the issue of inaccurate data. There are many people with the same or similar names, or who have lived at the same addresses at different times. That and many other things can lead to the wrong information being connected to your profile on these sites. This may become a problem if you are interviewing for jobs or otherwise trying to make a good impression online. Many recruiters and hiring managers do online searches of people they are considering for jobs.

Most of the inaccurate information is probably innocuous, but it is not unknown for a site to do something like connect a criminal record with the wrong person. Not to mention that these sites might make it easier for your professional associates to find that unflattering drunken vacation photo a friend posted of you. For reasons of online privacy, safety and reputation, you may want to stay abreast of what private information is out there and make an effort to clean house.