En español | Ever google somebody and find hints of a sketchy past? You're not alone. Just be aware that the revelations you discover online might not be true.
On Monday, the Department of Justice sued a company whose website offers free and for-a-fee background checks and which allegedly implied, often falsely, that people being searched had sex offenses or other crimes on their records. MyLife.com Inc. is accused of deceiving consumers by saying such details could be disclosed only if people bought premium subscriptions.
Consumers paid millions
U.S. consumers “have paid millions of dollars” to the company for subscriptions, according to the civil lawsuit, filed against the privately held firm and its founder and CEO, Jeffrey Tinsley.
If you search for someone on MyLife.com, it may turn up, at no cost, his or her exact date of birth, associates, city of residence, previous cities of residence and estimated net worth. It's exactly the type of personal information that cybercrooks like to get their mitts on as they zero in on targets, and worrisome in an age when people feel their digital privacy is under attack.
Hundreds of complaints
Even if the subject of a search on MyLife.com had no history of sexual, other criminal or traffic offenses, MyLife.com's website displayed a “teaser background report” that suggested the person “had arrest or criminal records, sexual offenses, potential bankruptcies, liens, or legal judgments,” the lawsuit says. “Hundreds of consumers have complained about Defendants’ business practices,” the complaint says, noting that people were misled about the benefits of a MyLife.com subscription and did not realize they would have to pay upfront for the full length of a subscription.
Subscriptions varied. A one-month subscription for $19.95 gave people one “detailed background report” per month. Annual subscriptions were among others offered.
The suit was filed on behalf of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a consumer protection agency. Seena Gressin, an FTC attorney, in a blog post about the case wrote: “If you're looking for a job, an apartment, or a loan, there's a good chance that someone will be looking at you closely. They may search your name online or order a background report."
They're looking for red flags, Gressin said, and MyLife.com promoted its reports to employers, landlords and others to persuade them to subscribe.
Minor traffic citations misrepresented
"If the person had no criminal, traffic, or sex offender records, the report typically suggested the person had such records,” Gressin said. In many cases the people being searched had only minor traffic citations, so the reports were deceptive and in violation of the FTC Act.
The suit was filed in federal court in Los Angeles, where the Delaware corporation has its main place of business. The firm also has an office in a London suburb, its website says.
The suit alleges that MyLife.com did not have any procedures to assure the accuracy of its background reports and to verify subscribers’ identities. It alleges that until 2019, a subscriber who wished to cancel or disable the automatic renewal of a subscription was required to call MyLife's customer-service line. Many people could not reach an agent and had subscriptions renewed against their will; others who tried to cancel “were similarly frustrated, being met with a sales pitch to renew rather than assistance in cancelling."
The suit asks a judge to enter a permanent injunction to prevent future violations of the FTC Act and other relevant statutes by the company, and that MyLife pay civil penalties and give relief to injured consumers. It says Tinsley, the CEO, directs the firm's billing, marketing, advertising and subscriptions and knows that MyLife “continues to use certain business practices” it agreed to stop to settle previous lawsuits.
AARP's efforts to reach someone at the firm for comment about the suit on Tuesday were unsuccessful, yielding only an email saying: “This note is to inform you that we have received your technical support inquiry and will respond within 24-72 hours."