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Private info hard to protect in the Information Age

June 08, 2008|By ERIN JULIUS

WASHINGTON COUNTY - A woman who, on the advice of an attorney, took steps 25 years ago to ensure her phone number and address were unlisted found out recently that her phone number was among thousands included by mistake in the latest edition of the Washington County Phone Book.

Then, she discovered that, in an unrelated matter, her address is readily available on the Internet. Her unlisted phone number is not included in the WhitePages.com listing, but her home address is. A click on "Listing detail" beneath her address takes one to a map that shows how to get to her home.

Phone numbers and addresses that appear online come from several sources, a spokeswoman for WhitePages.com, of which www.411.com is a property, said Tuesday.

On its Web site, WhitePages.com describes itself as an online People Search destination with more than 180 million U.S. adults searchable in its databases.

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Those who go to the site can get free contact information for people, including home and work phone numbers and addresses. There are reverse searches that can be done by phone number or address.

All of that information, and more, comes from a variety of places, WhitePages.com spokeswoman Jill Reed said.

WhitePages.com's residential listings come from such sources as public record data, third-party proprietary information and local telephone directories, Reed said.

Verizon is not one of WhitePages.com's providers, Reed said in an e-mail.

"That said, it is possible that Verizon and WhitePages.com share a common 'third party data source,'" she said.

A spokesman for Verizon said Tuesday that his company has no affiliation with www.411.com.

Harry Mitchell, Verizon's director of public relations, said it was highly unlikely that the listings found online came from the information that Verizon inadvertently provided to Ogden Directories Inc.

The phone numbers and addresses of people whose numbers were supposed to be unlisted or unpublished were included in the 2008-09 Washington County Phone Book, also known as the EZ To Use Big Book.

The number of unlisted names, addresses and phone numbers that inadvertently were published in the directory first was thought to be about 12,500, but Verizon has lowered that estimate to 11,000.

The Maryland Public Service Commission met Thursday with Verizon officials at the commission's office in Baltimore to find out how the information inadvertently was provided to the phone book's publisher.

Although WhitePages.com does not knowingly publish home phone numbers of people who specifically have requested that their phone numbers not be published or listed by their local phone companies, an unlisted number could appear through another valid data source, Reed said in an e-mail Tuesday.

For instance, people who have participated in a product offer, an online newsletter or a warranty program might find that their information has been provided to online Web sites such as www.411.com, Reed said.

The proliferation of information online and elsewhere is "a sign of our time (and) how hard it is to keep private what one wants to keep private," said another woman who said she lives alone in Hagerstown.

The woman said she was dismayed to discover her unlisted phone number and address were in the latest edition of the Washington County Phone Book, and then to find out that her address, although not her phone number, was listed online.

"What am I supposed to do, move and change my phone number?" the woman said.

While www.411.com offers instructions on how to have a listing removed, that might not be enough.

"Just because you take stuff down doesn't mean it's gone," said Dallas Kincaid, operations manager for Xecu.net, an Internet services provider based in Frederick, Md.

Entire Web sites are devoted to storing old versions of other Web sites, he said.

The woman who made sure her phone number and address were unlisted on the advice of her attorney two decades ago said she is unsure what to do. She said she was more concerned that her address readily is available than that her phone number accidentally was provided by Verizon to the phone book publisher.

Her ex-husband was abusive, and, as recently as two years ago, tried to contact her at work. At one point, years ago, she had to take out protective orders against him, she said.

The sharing of information online is a slippery slope, she said.

"You don't want information falling into the hands of the one person who can make your life a mess," she said.

Removing an online listing

To remove a residential listing from www.411.com, follow these instructions, which are available on the information provider's Web site.

· Search for the listing on the Web site.

· If your search includes multiple results, click on "Listing Details" of the listing to be removed.

· Scroll down to the "privacy options" box and click, "Is this you? Remove your listing."

A company spokeswoman said the listings would be removed within three to five business days of the company receiving a removal request.

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