How Data Brokers Sell Your Identity & Personal Information
June 2024
How Data Brokers Sell Your Identity & Personal Information

Do you know who’s selling your data? That can be a difficult question to answer.

Credit reporting bureaus are data brokers, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Tech companies, credit card companies, marketing agencies and more mine data for their own use, which also makes them a data broker.

There are hundreds of other data brokers you wouldn’t recognize by name. There are even brokers who keep records of the prescriptions you take so they can sell those profiles to insurance companies. This is just one of many ways how data brokers sell your identity.

Unfortunately, consumers don’t have much control over their data or personally identifiable information (PII), what’s collected, or who views the information. Data broker practices have a veil of secrecy, yet broker files can have a significant impact on your credit, employment, and even your ability to get life insurance.

But what is a data broker, and how do their actions impact you?

What Does a Data Broker Do?

A data broker collects and aggregates valuable personal information with the intent to sell it to interested parties. This can include marketing companies, advertisers, people searching your name on the internet, and even insurance companies.

Data brokers get their hands on your information in a variety of ways using both legal and illegal methods. They can simply obtain public information, such as government records or get valuable facts from loyalty card programs, surveys, and social media. Mobile apps also impart personal information that’s valuable to data brokers.

Even your online browsing habits are a popular target for data brokers. Search new 4WD vehicles one afternoon, and like magic, 4WD ads start popping up on your laptop. Your name isn’t attached to these files, but your device’s IP address is.

Targeted advertising and marketing are just two potential purchasers of your data profile. Others include government agencies. This is yet another reason why it’s important to protect your privacy online.

How a Data Broker Uses Your Information

Some brokers offer personal profiles directly to consumers, and they contain a shocking amount of information. You may have seen these “people search” websites—they got that name because consumers use them to track down people for a variety of reasons.

Enter a name you know into a people search site or try doing a search about yourself. The site might spit out a ton of information including all the previous residents at your current address, your estimated income, relatives you’re connected to, and more.

People search sites are built on public records including court documents, voter registration forms, and reams of other public data. These sites generally offer an initial set of services for free with the promise of more in-depth information if you sign up for a free trial—which will likely ask you additional details about yourself—collecting more of your PII in the process.

Anyone with a computer—including identity thieves—can collect information to impersonate you. With a quick call to your bank, thieves can answer key questions about you to reset passcodes and take over your financial accounts.

Cyberstalkers and blackmailers can also access this information on people search sites. Most sites make users check a box stating they won’t use the data for illegal purposes, but it’s an honor system—it’s not guaranteed.

How Much Does a Data Broker Make?

It depends on the data broker. For example, Mastercard made $4.1 billion in 2019 from selling aggregated credit card transaction information.

It’s hard to quantify how much individual data brokers make, as they tend to operate more anonymously. ZipRecruiter reports that annual salaries for company data brokers range from $18,500 to $156,000. It’s estimated that the entire data broker industry generates over $200 billion in revenue every year.

Are Data Brokers Illegal?

Unfortunately, they’re not—and for the most part, neither are their practices. Think of how often you accept a terms of service when you’re online, using a service, or even charging up your credit card.

Often those terms include giving permission for your data to be collected and used however a company or website or credit card (or whoever) sees fit. Data brokers selling your personal information can be difficult to stop once you’ve given them permission.

Why Does it Matter?

In addition to possibly impacting your physical safety by sharing your physical location or increasing what you pay for medical services because of that image you posted with a beer in your hand, the information culled by a data broker results in a crafted profile that could control vital elements in your life such as your medical history or even your home title. It’s sometimes referred to as a consumer score—buyers add it to your credit score to create a more nuanced profile of you.

The Fair Credit Billing Act of 1970 gives consumers the right to view credit reports and amend incorrect information, but data brokers are largely unregulated except in Vermont where brokers are required to register with the state.

The bottom line is that without regulation, there’s no guarantee that the information kept by data brokers is accurate, let alone safe.

Why You Should Opt-Out

It’s safe to assume your data can be misused by a data broker, so you should be proactive to remove it whenever possible. Some brokers offer “opt-out” buttons that delete your data from their database, and many websites now have a “Do Not Sell My Personal Information” option.

That’s not to say that brokers always make it easy to find those buttons or links. In some instances, you’ll find “opt-out” instructions boldly displayed on the front page of the company’s website. Otherwise, you’ll have to dig through their privacy policy for details. Google, for example, makes it relatively easy to delete your personal data from Google servers.

PII monitoring and protection is another way to protect yourself, and you may want to consider dark web identity monitoring to ensure your data hasn’t fallen into the wrong hands. Having instant monitoring can take the guesswork out of keeping an eye on your data and give you peace of mind.

If you are interested in removing your personal information from data brokers, IDShield’s Licensed Private Investigators are available to help you opt-out and protect your privacy—and their data. Learn more about what an IDShield identity theft protection plan can do for you.