Suit alleges firm soils reputations, then seeks money to improve them
Last fall, Brion Finlay of Brooklyn Park was contemplating new employment opportunities. As part of that process, the 42-year-old Googled himself. Near the top of the results page was a profile on the website of a company called MyLife.
“And it just said, I have a criminal record,” he recalled. “I'm thinking, ‘What is this?’ I don't have a criminal record. This worries me."
Finlay thought the allegation could prompt someone to pass over him for a job or business opportunity. He took some screenshots.
“There it says in big red letters, ‘Brion does have arrest or criminal records. Check full background report to see possible arrest records we have found on Brion,’” Finlay said.
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A lot of lawyer friends told Finlay it wasn’t worth his time to go after MyLife. But one attorney, his pal Dave Madgett in Wayzata, disagreed. Madgett said he’s sued MyLife a few times and reached confidential settlements.
Finlay is now Madgett’s lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against MyLife. The lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis alleges MyLife defames consumers and violates consumer protection laws. The suit seeks compensation for damage to reputation and invasion of privacy.
Madgett said MyLife taps public databases to create reports it hopes to sell to consumers.
“But what they do, in order to bait the sale as well, is they post as defamatory and as outrageous statements as possible in order to get the hook in the consumer,” he said.
Madgett said MyLife is engaged in cyber-extortion, unjustly disparaging Finlay and many other people, hoping they will pay money to change their profiles.
“The site actually says he [Finlay] does have criminal records," Madgett said. "‘Does’ is capitalized, and bolded, in an effort to draw the user’s attention. That right there, we think, constitutes defamation.”
Madgett said Finlay has traffic tickets. Such tickets are not considered criminal under Minnesota law, he said, but MyLife spins them as criminal records.
Crucial to the lawsuit is Madgett's contention that Los Angeles-based MyLife is effectively a consumer reporting agency and has failed to comply with requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. That law requires organizations to assure maximum possible accuracy of information they pass on about people for employment, credit and other important decisions. Also, access to that information must be limited to employers, lenders and other people with a permitted purpose.
Madgett contends that MyLife permits people to view its background reports even if they refuse to certify they’re not using the reports for employment purposes. MyLife’s website says users can “learn the truth about neighbors, home service providers, dates, even so called friends and more — to keep yourself safe.”
MyLife did not return calls seeking comment in time for this report. But disclaimers on its website say its information may not be accurate and should not be used in employment, credit, housing or any other decisions covered by the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Still, Madgett alleges the company encourages the use of its site in just such matters. He cites a promotional video on MyLife's website. It shows a series of people dejected or pleased by their purported online reputations.
“Hey, who are you?” asks the voice-over. “What's your online reputation? A bad reputation can hurt you personally and professionally, when you need to better your career, when you're dating or when you want to improve your life in so many other ways.”
The company says registering for a free membership gives a person basic control of a reputation profile. A paid membership provides increased control. MyLife claims it has personal information and what it calls reputation scores for hundreds of millions of Americans.
Over the years, the Federal Trade Commission has received many complaints about MyLife and other online information brokers. The federal agency has taken action against some, and would not discuss any possible investigation of MyLife. But Tiffany George, an attorney in the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said much depends on an organization’s conduct.
“If they are not conducting themselves as a consumer reporting agency, they're not required to ensure the accuracy of the information,” she said.
Ben Winters, a legal fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said not much can be done to police entities that aggregate public data in a way that intrudes on people’s privacy.
"There needs to be other regulations about these tools that scrape the internet for information," he said. "There are not enough privacy protections. We definitely need a comprehensive federal privacy bill, as well as state bills that are allowed to go above that."
The Better Business Bureau has received nearly 14,000 complaints about MyLife in the past three years. The bureau investigated MyLife’s business practices after consumers alleged the company refused to remove personal information or demanded payment to do so.
"MyLife was saying, 'OK, fine, we'll pull your public information down, but you've got to pay us to remove the data or join to get a premier membership," said Steve McFarland, CEO of the Better Business Bureau in Los Angeles. He said MyLife has not been very cooperative in addressing demands to make it easier for consumers to remove or correct information.
"That's been a struggle," he said. "That's not something that I think that the firm is interested in doing, because that is the way that they make money — that is, to charge memberships and fees for you having the ability to manipulate your information by becoming a member."
The Better Business Bureau gives MyLife a rating of D.