Sunday, April 22, 2007

Wall Street Journal Article - Why you Should Spy on Yourself

Why You Should Spy on Yourself
April 21, 2007

More people are running background checks. On themselves.

Used to be, the best way to pry into someone's past was to hire a gumshoe. However, today everyone from prospective employers to identity thieves -- and even first dates -- can do surprisingly sophisticated searches, looking for skeletons in your closet.

Schools, too, are dialing up their snooping. Wharton and Columbia Business schools are using investigators to weed out fibs and padded resumes. Harvard recently added a former professional screener to its undergraduate admissions staff.

In the past few years, 47 states, including Connecticut, Missouri, Nevada and Pennsylvania, have released records from some courts online, with case files ranging from gun possession to littering violations.

Specialist companies like ChoicePoint Inc. and Reed Elsevier PLC's LexisNexis Group quickly mine and sell information like this to companies for a fee.


Here are some resources for finding out beforehand what a background screen by a prospective employer, college admissions officer or others might reveal about you:

The Company Records Kept Contact Information Experian, TransUnion, Equifax Your credit history, Social Security Number and other personal info Free annual credit report from major bureaus required by federal law available at 1-877-322-8228 or annualcreditreport.com1.
ChoicePoint Inc. Information from government public records and some courts on real estate, liens, bankruptcies, professional licenses, death filings Free annual report from choicetrust.com2.

Pre-employment self-check from ChoiceTrust starting at $24.95 for national criminal file from some courts, or $49.95 for search that includes employment or education verification.

LexisNexis Social Security Number, date-of-birth, titles, liens, judgments, criminal data from some courts, address history For a free copy of information contained in a background screening report, call 877-913-6245 or email compliance@wxpscreening. lexisnexis.com3. Also sells Accurint Person Report for $8 (call 888-332-8244) that compiles information from public and private databases under your name.

ReputationDefender.com4 Scans the Internet for defamatory or offensive material about you. Helps get it removed or suppressed. Services begin at $10 a month.

Just Googling yourself isn't sufficient to spot problems. As a result, an array of new services have cropped up in recent months that claim to help you pre-emptively check if your personal and financial data are inaccurate or exposed to abuse.

Some services from identity-theft-protection firms TrustedID Inc. and MyPublicInfo Inc. check for unauthorized use of your Social Security number, a growing problem as undocumented immigrants and others seek employment or benefits such as medical care.

Recently, "one woman had 250 W-4s submitted to the IRS under her name and Social Security number," says Troy Allen of Kroll Fraud Solutions, a Marsh & McLennan Cos. unit that helps victims of identity theft restore their good names.

LexisNexis and ChoicePoint have also rolled out consumer versions of their services, including a personal-records profile and pre-employment self-check. The services cost from less than $10 to about $50.

One of the latest entrants, ReputationDefender Inc., recently began marketing an online service that claims it can sometimes help remove or bury negative or embarrassing Web postings. (Think of everything from lampshade-on-head photos to unflattering blog entries lurking online

It's impossible to know how many errors are contained in background checks. However, a 2004 study by U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that 79% of consumer-credit reports contained at least one mistake.

A factual error in a criminal-background check nearly cost Bobby McMeekin Jr., 27 years old, a better job as a supervisor at a bank call center when it turned up a felony drunk-driving conviction that didn't belong to him. "You can't have any kind of a conviction to work in a bank right now," the Lubbock, Texas, resident says.

The problem: The screening agency had confused Mr. McMeekin with a convicted man who shared his surname. After pulling the conviction records himself, Mr. McMeekin got a letter from the court to prove it, and got the job.

Because of concerns about everything from terrorism and illegal immigration to workplace violence, background checks have become commonplace. The percentage of employers who say they routinely check references and screen candidates has jumped to about 96% from 51% about a decade ago, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Most employers hire a background-screening agency like ChoicePoint to do their sleuthing, for which federal law requires that they get your written consent. You can refuse, but you'll probably lose your shot at the job.

The first step in running a background check on yourself: Order your credit report. These are from major credit-reporting agencies Equifax, TransUnion and Experian and can be obtained from or 1-877-322-8228.

Check for unauthorized credit-card accounts and loans, bad addresses and unfamiliar names that could be evidence of identity theft. Notify the agencies and creditors if anything seems amiss.

The good news: Background reports prepared by agencies like these are regulated by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. As a result, you're supposed to be notified of the reason if a negative report results in a missed opportunity, giving you a chance to correct mistakes.
You can also check if anyone else has been using your Social Security number by reviewing your annual Social Security earnings statement that you should receive in the mail. Or get a copy at www.ssa.gov6.

Mysterious earnings could be evidence that someone else is working under your Social Security number.

StolenIDSearch.com7, a new free service from TrustedID, lets you find out whether your Social Security or credit-card numbers are among some 2.3 million compromised pieces of identification in its database, which it obtains from organizations that compile lists of numbers recovered in fraud investigations.

Still, that database represents just a fraction of the estimated 150 million identities that have been compromised in data breaches in the U.S., including from hacking incidents and records thefts. In one of the latest incidents, the Agriculture Department recently learned that thousands of participants in department programs had had their Social Security numbers posted in a public database. The department Friday said it had removed the numbers.
IdentitySweep.com8, a product of MyPublicInfo, charges $4.95 a month to monitor public records to see if your Social Security number turns up attached to someone else's name. For $6.95 a month, you also get identity-theft insurance, which promises to reimburse as much as $25,000 in expenses connected with recovering from an incident.

Under a 2004 federal law, consumers are entitled to a free annual public-records search from Acxiom Corp., ChoicePoint, LexisNexis and other reporting agencies. The records include lien searches, bankruptcy judgments, real-estate ownership records, insurance information, professional licenses and other government data.

The companies warn that they can't always correct the information supplied -- you have to contact the sources to do that. For a free report, go to for information. Contact LexisNexis at 1-877-913-6245. And Acxiom, which provides material to people only when a background search has also been ordered by a corporate client, is at 1-888-3ACXIOM.
ChoicePoint also sells a consumer version of its more extensive background reports for prices ranging from $9.95 to $49.95. The premium-priced report includes a county and national criminal file search, and employment or education verification.

MyPublicInfo.com10 provides a similar Public Information Profile for $79.95. Criminal records aren't comprehensive because some state and local courts may not be included. Kroll's background-screening division sells self-checks for $50 to $100.

For $8, LexisNexis sells its Accurint Person Report, which compiles information from public and private databases under your name, including motor-vehicle registration information.
Among the toughest problems to fix can be unflattering online postings.

Even just a few years ago, no one would have worried about it. But the fact is, they can linger in cyberspace forever. ReputationDefender.com11 is designed to scour the Web for unflattering material about you, then will try to either have it removed or make it show up less prominently in search results.

Sue Scheff runs a Florida referral service for parents with troubled teenagers. But when a woman posted hundreds of defamatory statements on the Web about Ms. Scheff, she successfully sued for $11.3 million. She then hired ReputationDefender, which managed to bury most of the worst postings by generating more activity for positive mentions of Ms.
Scheff's business. "It was a lifesaver," she says.

Another option, particularly for someone with a high income and/or a high-profile position, would be to hire a private investigator or a professional screening firm, such as Kroll or LexisNexis Screening Solutions, to do the work. Executive-level type screenings from Kroll begin at $3,000.

The National Association of Professional Background Screeners, a trade organization, has a list of members on its Web site at www.napbs.com12.

Some are private eyes who can go to courts in jurisdictions where you have lived and pull the files. They can also help you get your medical records from the insurance industry, and interview friends and associates.

All of the providers say they require some proof of identity before releasing the reports.
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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

New York Times Article - A Call for Manners in the World of Nasty Blogs

April 9, 2007

A Call for Manners in the World of Nasty Blogs

Correction Appended

Is it too late to bring civility to the Web?

The conversational free-for-all on the Internet known as the blogosphere can be a prickly and unpleasant place. Now, a few high-profile figures in high-tech are proposing a blogger code of conduct to clean up the quality of online discourse.

Last week, Tim O’Reilly, a conference promoter and book publisher who is credited with coining the term Web 2.0, began working with Jimmy Wales, creator of the communal online encyclopedia Wikipedia, to create a set of guidelines to shape online discussion and debate.

Chief among the recommendations is that bloggers consider banning anonymous comments left by visitors to their pages and be able to delete threatening or libelous comments without facing cries of censorship.

A recent outbreak of antagonism among several prominent bloggers “gives us an opportunity to change the level of expectations that people have about what’s acceptable online,” said Mr. O’Reilly, who posted the preliminary recommendations last week on his company blog ( Mr. Wales then put the proposed guidelines on his company’s site (, and is now soliciting comments in the hope of creating consensus around what constitutes civil behavior online.

Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Wales talk about creating several sets of guidelines for conduct and seals of approval represented by logos. For example, anonymous writing might be acceptable in one set; in another, it would be discouraged. Under a third set of guidelines, bloggers would pledge to get a second source for any gossip or breaking news they write about.

Bloggers could then pick a set of principles and post the corresponding badge on their page, to indicate to readers what kind of behavior and dialogue they will engage in and tolerate. The whole system would be voluntary, relying on the community to police itself.

“If it’s a carefully constructed set of principles, it could carry a lot of weight even if not everyone agrees,” Mr. Wales said.
The code of conduct already has some early supporters, including David Weinberger, a well-known blogger ( and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. “The aim of the code is not to homogenize the Web, but to make clearer the informal rules that are already in place anyway,” he said.

But as with every other electrically charged topic on the Web, finding common ground will be a serious challenge. Some online writers wonder how anyone could persuade even a fraction of the millions of bloggers to embrace one set of standards. Others say that the code smacks of restrictions on free speech.

Mr. Wales and Mr. O’Reilly were inspired to act after a firestorm erupted late last month in the insular community of dedicated technology bloggers. In an online shouting match that was widely reported, Kathy Sierra, a high-tech book author from Boulder County, Colo., and a friend of Mr. O’Reilly, reported getting death threats that stemmed in part from a dispute over whether it was acceptable to delete the impolitic comments left by visitors to someone’s personal Web site.

Distraught over the threats and manipulated photos of her that were posted on other critical sites — including one that depicted her head next to a noose — Ms. Sierra canceled a speaking appearance at a trade show and asked the local police for help in finding the source of the threats. She also said that she was considering giving up blogging altogether.

In an interview, she dismissed the argument that cyberbullying is so common that she should overlook it. “I can’t believe how many people are saying to me, ‘Get a life, this is the Internet,’ ” she said. “If that’s the case, how will we ever recognize a real threat?”

Ms. Sierra said she supported the new efforts to improve civility on the Web. The police investigation into her case is pending.

Menacing behavior is certainly not unique to the Internet. But since the Web offers the option of anonymity with no accountability, online conversations are often more prone to decay into ugliness than those in other media.

Nowadays, those conversations often take place on blogs. At last count, there were 70 million of them, with more than 1.4 million entries being added daily, according to Technorati, a blog-indexing company. For the last decade, these Web journals have offered writers a way to amplify their voices and engage with friends and readers.

But the same factors that make those unfiltered conversations so compelling, and impossible to replicate in the offline world, also allow them to spin out of control.

As many female bloggers can attest, women are often targets. Heather Armstrong, a blogger in Salt Lake City who writes publicly about her family (, stopped accepting unmoderated comments on her blog two years ago after she found that conversations among visitors consistently devolved into vitriol.

Since last October, she has also had to deal with an anonymous blogger who maintains a separate site that parodies her writing and has included photos of Ms. Armstrong’s daughter, copied from her site.

Ms. Armstrong tries not to give the site public attention, but concedes that, “At first, it was really difficult to deal with.”

Women are not the only targets of nastiness. For the last four years, Richard Silverstein has advocated for Israeli-Palestinian peace on a blog ( that he maintains from Seattle.

People who disagree with his politics frequently leave harassing comments on his site. But the situation reached a new low last month, when an anonymous opponent started a blog in Mr. Silverstein’s name that included photos of Mr. Silverstein in a pornographic context.
“I’ve been assaulted and harassed online for four years,” he said. “Most of it I can take in stride. But you just never get used to that level of hatred.”

One public bid to improve the quality of dialogue on the Web came more than a year ago when Mena Trott, a co-founder of the blogging software company Six Apart, proposed elevating civility on the Internet in a speech she gave at a French blog conference. At the event, organizers had placed a large screen on the stage showing instant electronic responses to the speeches from audience members and those who were listening in online.

As Ms. Trott spoke about improving online conduct, a heckler filled the screen with personal insults. Ms Trott recalled “losing it” during the speech.

Ms. Trott has scaled back her public writing and now writes a blog for a limited audience of friends and family. “You can’t force people to be civil, but you can force yourself into a situation where anonymous trolls are not in your life as much,” she said.

The preliminary recommendations posted by Mr. Wales and Mr. O’Reilly are based in part on a code developed by BlogHer, a network for women designed to give them blogging tools and to guide readers to their pages.

“Any community that does not make it clear what they are doing, why they are doing it, and who is welcome to join the conversation is at risk of finding it difficult to help guide the conversation later,” said Lisa Stone, who created the guidelines and the BlogHer network in 2006 with Elisa Camahort and Jory Des Jardins.

A subtext of both sets of rules is that bloggers are responsible for everything that appears on their own pages, including comments left by visitors. They say that bloggers should also have the right to delete such comments if they find them profane or abusive.

That may sound obvious, but many Internet veterans believe that blogs are part of a larger public sphere, and that deleting a visitor’s comment amounts to an assault on their right to free speech. It is too early to gauge support for the proposal, but some online commentators are resisting.

Robert Scoble, a popular technology blogger who stopped blogging for a week in solidarity with Kathy Sierra after her ordeal became public, says the proposed rules “make me feel uncomfortable.” He adds, “As a writer, it makes me feel like I live in Iran.”

Mr. O’Reilly said the guidelines were not about censorship. “That is one of the mistakes a lot of people make — believing that uncensored speech is the most free, when in fact, managed civil dialogue is actually the freer speech,” he said. “Free speech is enhanced by civility.”

Correction: April 11, 2007
A picture caption on Monday with a front-page article about a proposal for a blogger code of conduct misstated a Web site that has developed a set of standards. It is, not