Anybody who requests a background or credit check on you -- or provides them to others -- has a ton of sensitive information about you that (a) may not be accurate and (b) is highly vulnerable to spills. That includes data brokers, credit bureaus, banks, insurance companies, cell carriers, and your employer.
Report vendors have morphed into one-stop data-mining shops, selling everything from credit scores to criminal records. A 2004 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that 80 percent of all credit reports contained errors and that one in four were serious enough to keep you from obtaining credit or getting a job.
Not surprisingly, report vendors' track records for protecting this information is abysmal (of course, Uncle Sam's record isn't too hot, either). According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, nearly 160 million Americans have had sensitive personal information exposed by data breaches since January 2005.
What to do? Find out what information is out there by requesting a free copy of your credit report. Correct any mistakes and opt out whenever possible. Most data brokers now give you the option of removing your name from their marketing lists (although not credit or background checks); privacy policies on their Web sites usually spell out how. In September, ReputationDefender is launching its MyPrivacy service, which will remove you from some brokers' lists for a small fee.
The moral of this story: Keep your friends close and your data brokers closer.