15 June 2012

Steal My Identity and Rob Me, Please

Recently I came upon a tree whose owner had left his entire family open to identity theft. Every living person on the tree has a lot of detail and is viewable by any Ancestry.com (.co.uk, .au, .ca, etc.) member. Ancestry.com has a privacy curtain in place. Anyone who is listed with a birth date within the last hundred years and who does not have a death event will be listed as living. Only the tree's owner and the people he/she invites to the tree and specifically gives the ability to view living people on his/her tree will be able to see those profiles.
So how do I know these people aren't all dead? How did they get around the privacy curtain? Everyone in this tree has a death "fact" at the bottom of their timeline. Instead of a "place of death" some of them have the word "LIVING" (or "living" or "Living"). Ancestry's privacy system expects the user to be smart enough to leave off a death event for anyone still breathing. George Carlin was right, "Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that."
I considered sending the owner a message but I don't think a message from a stranger would have much of an impact since he obviously didn't care about his family's privacy in the first place. Instead I left a comment. I'm hoping that he has invited some of his family to the tree and they will see the comment. Hopefully they will 1) smack him and 2) convince him to change their profiles.
Despite the privacy curtain many people won't add information about living people to their online tree. They know that the best way to protect the living is to not put their information online at all. In the age of Facebook that seems laughable but even Facebook has it's privacy walls. I'm always surprised when people don't use them. Someone will post a ridiculous/strange/idiotic comment on a public Facebook page and out of curiosity I'll check their profile. Many times they have no privacy settings at all! Granted, some of them are spammers/scammers. Those can be pretty easy to spot, i.e. their "favorites" include the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears or the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys or every sport and every sports team in every league under the sun. But for those non-spammy [No, it's not a word but you knew what I meant didn't you?] profiles...I can see where they work, the names of all their children and pets, and what they had for breakfast. I can also see that they'll be picking up little Jimmy from school because he has a dental appointment. And look, there's a picture of Jimmy playing on the school soccer team with the name of the school in the background. Get the idea? Or maybe your status mentions waiting for a flight at X airport for a well deserved vacation. Hope your home security is better than your internet security.
Privacy settings are there for your protection. Use them.

UPDATE: First, apologies for not crediting Steph. She gave me the heads up about the tree with public profiles of living people. Second, it took a number of emails to Ancestry but the profiles are now private.

UPDATE 4 Jan 2013: The profiles of living people on this tree are, once again, viewable by the public. The tree owner has entered "living" as a place of death for all living people in his generation and his parents' generation. There really should be some sort of IQ test given before you're allowed to post your family's information on the internet. 

PREVIOUS POST: Wynne or Lose
NEXT POST: On the Hunt


  1. Hi Loretta - I'm a bit confused by the first paragraph. If Ancestry.com has a privacy curtain in place, how is it you could see the details of this individual's family members? What have they done to expose this information? Could it happen unwittingly? Thanks

    1. Hi Lois,
      I tried to make it as clear as I could, even edited the post after it went up because of someone's question. Guess it's still not clear :-P Go to a profile on your Ancestry tree. Scroll down the timeline. Does this person have a death "event", hopefully AFTER birth, marriage, and maybe some census and/or military records? The death "event" or "fact" is what makes their profile visible to other Ancestry members (IF their tree is public). If the person's birth date is less then 100 years ago and no death date Ancestry members will only see the word PRIVATE. The person I referenced had entered a death event/fact for EVERYONE on their tree. The fact that he typed the word "Living" where the county/state/country should go doesn't negate the death event/fact. Ancestry's code only recognizes that there is a death event/fact and automatically makes the profile public.

  2. Oh,my gosh! Thanks for taking the time to explain.

  3. Ancestry recently added a radio button for "Living" or "Deceased" which you can click on through the "Edit this person" link on each profile and on the "add relative" screen. If you're manually adding people to your tree, the default setting is whatever the status is of person from whose profile you are adding the relative unless or until you add birth dates (and sometimes it glitches, so double check). So if you've found third cousin's obit and you are using it to add his wife and kids' names to your tree without birth dates, make sure to double check that radio button on each person, especially if you've already marked him as deceased. If a birth date has been added and it's less than 100 years ago, the setting can be manually changed to deceased without adding any additional death information. Though God knows why anyone would do this on anyone they know is alive.

  4. “They know that the best way to protect the living is to not put their information online at all.” Yes. It could be one of the ways to protect an individual’s identity. People nowadays need to be extra cautious when it comes to divulging personal information either online or in engaging in any other transactions. Remember to always log out of any online accounts. Also, it would help to shred receipts, bills or financial statements to prevent them from reaching other people’s hands.

    Annie Valdez