According to The Atlantic, lead generation companies online are increasingly collecting the sensitive information of web users, then compiling lists that are disseminated to scammers around the world.
Generally speaking, every single search that a person has ever made from their smartphone or computer is tracked and logged for future use by companies offering fraudulent services, such as low-interest payday loans.
This data is then sold to lead generators who provide consumer data to similar companies, which then results in an endless barrage of phone calls, e-mails, and letters from whichever person or company purchases the data.
These lead generators can sort data by age, race, gender, income level, and a host of other demographics. While Google doesn’t sell ad space to companies that provide sketchy financial services like payday loans, scammers are finding ways to circumvent these rules by posting links to third-party sites that lead users back to fraudulent pages.
Over 12 billion searches are conducted per month in the U.S., which means lead generators have no trouble aggregating relevant information to determine which terms will attract the most search queries. Experts say that this is a slippery slope, and allowing disreputable parties to access confidential information can potentially ruin a person’s life.
“I find the entire online ecosystem that is designed to track consumers and then to place them in boxes … too opaque and too under-regulated,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer-program director at the consumer-advocacy group U.S. PIRG.
“So I think the entire online marketing, and advertising, and lead-generation system is a consumer protection problem of both deception, and unfairness, and maybe abuse as well.”
The abuse Mierzwinski refers to can be found on a daily basis all over the world. According to the Oswego Patch, an Illinois couple is being ordered to pay $6.4 million back to victims of a payday scam in which they harassed people over the phone to collect supposed unpaid debts.
The couple operated under several different aliases, such as Payday Loan Recovery Group and Second Chance Financial, to coerce random people into paying debts that they had never even accrued, by threatening them with potential arrest and jail time.
In extreme cases, scammers skip the process of using consumer information to sell them products and services and simply steal their identity. Web users are urged to remain vigilant in who they give personal information to and avoid advertisements that promise “free money” or “zero interest.”