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The publicity of your phone book listing hasn't changed, but its ease of access has changed dramatically. Should you care? What are the implications?

I googled my home phone number and it came back with my name, address and phone listed under an area I live near. Not wanting my info on the web, I contacted the directory listing service it appeared under and according to them the phone company sold them my private information. And, there's really nothing they could do. Isn't there any law to protect us against selling private information?

First, we need to understand if your information is really private. I'm guessing it's not.

Then we need to understand whether or not you gave the utility company implicit permission to sell your information. I'm guessing you did.

And you're not alone.

Are you listed in your local phone directory?

If so, the information you allow to be printed there is publicly available, both in that physical phone directory and wherever the phone company chooses to reprint it. And that includes online.

"Are you listed in your local phone directory?"

With most search engines now indexing most on-line phone directories, it's not at all unusual for a search on your information to return that information from such a directory.

And as you've seen, once you're in one directory, the phone companies often sell that information to other directory services who also publish their information online. So now, as the result of a) having a phone, and b) being listed in a phone book, you now might well appear in multiple places on the internet.

Why is this so scary to people? I mean, you were in the phone book that anyone could pick up - why is this so different?

Two reasons I can think of:

  • Phone books are (typically) local in reach. Meaning that it's difficult (though not impossible) to access a phone book from one region while you're in another. Getting a New York City phone book in Lagos, Nigeria is much more difficult than getting one in New York City itself.

  • Phone books are difficult to search. They're organized to be searched by name, period. The internet, on the other hand, can be searched any number of ways, including by name, by address and of course by phone number. From anywhere on the planet.

So while the publicity of information hasn't really changed, the ease with which it can be used has changed dramatically, and that's kinda scary.

Is it legal?

I Am Not A Lawyer

With that out of the way, I'll guess yes - at least if your phone number isn't "unlisted".

When you got your phone in part of the paperwork you likely agreed to have your phone number published in the phone book. So your phone company got your permission to put it in their books, and on their web directory.

You likely also agreed to their privacy policy, which again likely included their right to resell your information.

You don't remember that? Neither do I. But if you look at the paperwork, or the privacy policy reminder you may get from time to time, I'm betting its spelled out in there.

And if you're fortunate, also in there will be the steps required to "opt out".

But there's a problem with opting out at this point: it's too late. Your information is already out there. Even if you were able to remove it from one directory or another, it's still out there in who-knows-how-many others, and in archives and other locations. There's simply no way to pull it back from all the places it could be.

If this really is an issue for you, then I have only one suggestion: change your phone number, and make it unlisted from the start. An unlisted number shouldn't be showing up in random directories all over the internet.

And much like your email address, make sure you take care when providing your phone number online. If you post it in a public forum, for example, you may well find that post - and a trail back to you - in a search engine someday.

Article C3680 - March 20, 2009

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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Recent Comments

I'm guessing you may have done this on purpose...Two of the three ads at the top of your reply to this individual contradict what you stated in your article. These two ads are for services to give us access to unpublished, and yes, even unlisted phone numbers. I have to assume changing your phone number and having your new one unlisted may not keep you out of public domain. Also, many, if not all, phone companies charge a MONTYLY fee for having your number unlisted. As Shawn suggests, I'm for letting the phone companies and others publish it incorrectly.

To be clear, I don't choose the ads, so what shows up isn't "on purpose". Google provides the ads, and they pick what to display based on the topic being discussed on the page.
- Leo

Posted by: Claude Holloway at March 24, 2009 1:42 PM

If you just set your phone to reject anonymous callers, you'll eliminate 99% of all unwanted calls (most of them don't want you calling them back, so they block their own caller id!). As for not listing your own number -- don't you have any old friends who've lost touch?

Posted by: Mark B at March 25, 2009 5:56 AM

One does not need their address published. When I moved over 20 years ago, I change my phone number and instructed the phone company to keep my address private. Unlike an unlisted phone number, there was no charge for keeping just the address private. My long lost friends can find my name and number, but they needed to call to find my address. However, in today's internet world, someone has published my phone number with my address. I assume they did some cross referencing with other records. They do list 3 other addresses for me as well. The other addresses were previously used by me or another family member.

Posted by: Cecil at March 28, 2009 4:17 AM

Another new phone book arrived recently which lists phone numbers in the county. My mother who was recently widowed appears in the listings by her first name not my Dad's. She has never been listed this way. I started checking and found many other widows in our town listed by their first names who were not before. Can the company who put out this book legally change the way people are listed? I'm not sure where they got the information. I'm afraid that it puts these women out there as targets for scam artists and other predators who will now know they are most likely single and may be living alone. I'm planning on calling the company on Monday, but wondered if this practice is legal. Thanks

I'm not a lawyer and can't tell you what is or is not legal. But I'd expect it to be OK that they do that, unless you specifically request and pay for an unlisted number.

Posted by: Sally O'Rielly at January 1, 2011 6:55 PM

I don't get it. I changed my phone number and told the phne company I wanted it unlisted, and the next day I got a call from the person that I changed my number from!! I called the phone company and they lied to me,something about going thru a cycle, bull. What am I paying for? That can't be legal for them to collect for something your not receiving, there's got to be something we can do?

Posted by: Tami Tuttle at November 13, 2011 7:06 AM
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