Don't lose your money while finding a friend

Internet: Sometimes, paying a fee to a people-finder service yields nothing more than a set of links to free public records.

September 23, 2004|By Doug Bedell | Doug Bedell,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

He was just trying to contact a long-lost friend, but the process separated Hector Mendez of San Antonio from a chunk of cash and his Internet naivete.

Mendez decided to look up his buddy using one of the dozens of for-fee people-finder services that are common on the Web. He had seen e-mail ads such as: "Locate old classmates, missing family members and loves of your past! Find anyone."

After paying $30, Mendez realized that all he had purchased was a set of links to free public records open to all comers.

"The worst thing was that there wasn't even an address or telephone number to lodge a complaint," Mendez says.

Consumer complaint sites are loaded with similar stories.

"There is a ton of scams like that," says Ed Magedson, editor of RipOffReport.com. "It's absolutely mind-boggling."

Separating the good from the bad is tricky for the inexperienced. Many pitches promise inside information but contain disclaimers buried deep within hard-to-navigate Web pages.

Some services pop up time and again as accurate and reasonably priced.

Many newspapers use Accurint.com, which provides access to public information from hundreds of sources. There is no activation fee or monthly minimum. In most cases, there is no charge for a search that does not produce a result.

A basic person search costs as little as 25 cents, and a comprehensive report including current address, historical addresses, phone numbers, property ownership information, vehicle registrations, driver's licenses and criminal convictions can be ordered for $4.50.

Attorneys and private investigators often use PublicData.com, which requires a minimum yearly subscription of $25. The basic plan allows up to 250 lookups per year on its nationwide collection of court records and criminal convictions from about 40 states.

All of these services require clients to sign documents attesting that they have a legitimate reason for accessing the more revealing databases.

NetDetective.com and Web-Detective.com regularly appear at the top of search engine results. They also generate the most anger on Usenet consumer boards, RipOffReport.com and other complaint sites.

Net Detective says it has sold 750,000 subscriptions to what is essentially a well-organized set of links to free government information. To be fair, the site's fine print says that the $29 service will only "help you find Internet resources quickly."

The rest is fluff such as generic advice on searching records, celebrity addresses and states' lists of unclaimed assets. The site refunds the $29 when consumers complain, but that doesn't stop Net Detective from spamming with offers of questionable products.

Like Net Detective, Web Detective ($30 for a lifetime membership) advertises through spam and affiliate Web sites used to push traffic to the parent corporation. Unlike its counterpart, Web Detective is a jumbled mess to navigate.

More than 20 screens are filled with a hodgepodge of links to free public info. Even its most basic people-locating interface is difficult. It will issue refunds when subscribers complain to its transaction-processing company.

Neither service returned phone calls or answered e-mail inquiries about its offerings.

Make sure you've exhausted free resources before turning to pay services, and don't bite on unsolicited pitches arriving via e-mail. If it arrives as spam, it is most likely a scam.

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