Did you know that your salary and employment information may be up for sale? As horrific as it may sound, it's true--and (marginally) legal. Credit bureau Equifax, through an employment verification subsidiary known as The Work Number, has acquired a massive database of employment and salary records--and selling that information to debt collectors, financial service companies and others.
Companies sign up for The Work Number because it gives them an easy way to outsource employment verification of former workers. Firms hate taking these calls, which usually come when a former employee is applying for a new job, because they are a costly distraction for human resources departments and open the firm up to lawsuits if someone says something disparaging about the former employee. So they contract with The WorkNumber, which automates the process. In exchange, firms upload their human resources data to The Work Number, which was part of an independent St.Louis-based firm named TALX until it was acquired by Equifax in 2007 for $1.4 billion.The information gleaned from The Work Number contains detailed employment information for some 190 million people--roughly one-third of all American adults. What's in there? Detailed paystub data, information on your health care providers, and whether you've filed for unemployment, among other things. Its customers include much of the Fortune 500, several government agencies and many schools. They pay Equifax for tapping into their data, and Equifax in turn sells it. One New Jersey woman was horrified to discover that a debt collector had asked for her information--after being led to believe that no one can access it without getting a passcode.
The Work Number offers consumers some benefits. It provides an easy way for prospective landlords to verify an applicant's income, for example. Consumers tell the Work Number they want a one-time access code, which they then give to a landlord so he or she can verify that the potential tenant can really afford the apartment.
But The Work Number serves dual purposes. It’s also a massive database that Equifax monetizes in a variety of ways, despite the reassuring-sounding messages found all over TheWorkNumber.com.
Back in 2009, Equifax CEO Richard Smith told NYSE Magazine that The Work Number helps collection agencies prioritize whom to go after. However, an Equifax spokesman told NBC News earlier today that Smith had misspoke, saying that information is not sold to debt collectors. Hmmm--I'm more inclined to believe the CEO here.
Needless to say, privacy experts are horrified.
Larry Ponemon is a privacy expert who operates The Ponemon Institute, a consulting firm. He said he’d never heard of companies selling employer data to debt collectors.Paging Richard Cordray ...
"Are you joking? Oh my god, I'm shocked," Ponemon said when the business was described to him. "This is unbelievably scary. I consider payroll information very sensitive and private." In studies he's conducted, salary data is always among the information consumers say is most private.
"If the public knew about this, there would be such outrage," he said. "It's just ... really depressing."
Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, had heard of The Work Number, but only because some consumers have complained to his agency that the data in its database is inaccurate. Some workers find that when they try to use the information for employment verification, their titles are outdated or otherwise misrepresent their work history, which can be embarrassing for a job applicant.
When told that the data is sold to third parties, he said he was under the impression the data was not shared.
"I think it is something that would be offensive to many people. One typically considers salary information to be shared by your employer just with IRS," he said.