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Your privacy, their paycheck

Ann Howe’s phone was ringing frequently, but the calls weren’t for her. They were for someone bearing the last name of Rapp.

Acting on a hunch, Howe, 67, Googled her own phone number to see what came up. Topping the search results she found listings for various Rapps on the directory website 4addresses.com.

“Apparently someone named Rapp had my number once,” Howe said. “But that was years ago. So it looks like somebody has purchased outdated listings and is putting them on websites even though they know the information is old.”

And to be guaranteed removal of her phone number and any other information about her from those sites, she discovered, would likely cost her.

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As far as Howe was concerned, this was a racket. It certainly looks like yet another example of how the Internet can enable digital shakedowns by sites using publicly available information to pry money from privacy-minded consumers.

Howe attempted to follow the instructions to be removed from 4addresses.com. The site steered her to a website called 4privacy.org, run by a company called ZattaFact Inc.

ZattaFact says it manages “over 800 million Web pages and data records.” The company has online listings for all 50 states, along with other digital directories such as Virtualyp.com and 4WhitePages.net. ZattaFact says it makes its information available to more than 86 other sites.

ZattaFact offers a variety of options for people who don’t want to be part of its listings.

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For no charge, you can print out a form from the website and mail it to an address in Jacksonville, Ohio, to remove your street address, phone number and email address from the company’s database.

This option requires submission of a copy of a photo ID, such as a driver’s license, which likely would be a deal breaker for most people.

And even if it wasn’t, submitting your ID is no guarantee that you’ll have your data removed. A close look at ZattaFact’s opt-out form reveals a notice saying that “submitting a removal request does not guarantee that your street address and telephone number will be removed.”

Huh?

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ZattaFact seems more confident about its data-removal abilities for people who agree to pony up some cash. The company offers a variety of such options, ranging in price from 99 cents for partial deletions to $14.99 for “complete removal of your records.”

If you choose to pay, the site will take you to a page for submitting your credit card number or using PayPal. Gone are the weasel words from the free opt-out form about not being able to guarantee removal of your data.

The Better Business Bureau, which gives ZattaFact a grade of F, identifies the owner of the company as Carl Newlen.

I sent an email to ZattaFact asking about the company’s listings and its practice of charging people to protect their privacy. I received a response signed “Carl.”

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He declined to answer my questions. He did say, though, that “I have been reading some of your articles online, and they sing to me! Not really sing, but I am familiar with a lot of the things you have been writing about.”

I emailed again asking where ZattaFact gets its information and, if such info is outdated, why someone should have to pay to rectify the company’s mistake. Carl never responded.

Generally, it’s great that the Internet enables rapid and easy access to public information. For example, it used to be a challenge to check on the licensing status of a doctor or the safety record of a restaurant.

Now such information is available with a few taps of the keys.

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But the relative difficulty of acquiring such information in pre-Internet days served as a privacy safeguard for people who may not have wanted others to know of, say, an arrest or a bankruptcy filing.

Companies such as Mugshots.com have exploited such embarrassment by posting publicly available police booking photos online and then charging about $400 apiece to take them down.

A handful of states have passed laws restricting the way companies can profit off mug shots. California joined their number last month.

“These shakedowns must stop,” state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) said after Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law his legislation prohibiting websites from charging fees to remove California mug shots.

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“We are all accountable for our own behavior, but these businesses aren’t about accountability,” Hill said. “Their practices amount to extortion.”

I’d go a step further. How about a ban on any fee to remove public information from a private site — if it can be shown that the information is erroneous or potentially harmful.

ZattaFact says on its 4privacy.org site that it imposes fees “because your information does have value. By deleting your information we lose its value because our users lose access to it.”

That’s true. But another way of looking at it is that the company is charging a fee to solve a problem of its own making.

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If its information is incorrect, ZattaFact says, you can either update it — which means the company would now have your correct info and could do with it as it pleases — or you can pay to delete it.

ZattaFact is even upfront in acknowledging potentially dangerous situations. Its website specifically includes a question-and-answer about removing the contact information of people who have gotten out of an abusive relationship.

“As callous as this may seem,” the company says, no fees will be waived under such circumstances.

This isn’t just irresponsible and deeply insensitive, it poses a legitimate threat to people’s well-being.

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Good job on mug shots, lawmakers. Now it’s time to do even better.

David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.


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