FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Jamie Garwood was shocked to see herself on a website she’d never heard of. In this digital age, it’s easy to find addresses and phone numbers online, but this was different. This site linked her personal information with her vehicle’s VIN.
“It was really alarming. You know where I live, you know my phone number, you know what kind of car I drive,” she said.
Garwood was Googling herself to try to find an article she’d written years ago and vin.place came up as the second Google link.
“It’s a huge invasion of privacy and personal safety issue,” she said.
The site states it’s a “vehicle records database” and connects people’s personal information, like name, address and phone number, to a VIN. A VIN is the unique vehicle identification number on every vehicle. The site gives specs of the vehicle, but no crash reports like Carfax or other similar sites. Searching is also free without giving any of your own information to get the search results.
The Better Business Bureau of Northern Indiana CEO Marjorie Stephens immediately called the website glaring.
“It’s just not on the up-and-up,” Stephens said.
There’s barely any information on the site about who runs it and the only “contact us” page requires providing your name and email address.
“Why can’t we find more information on this company? It’s just like a big black hole,” she said.
The biggest concern for Stephens is where the website is based.
“Panama. That’s three red flags. You have to give me a real good reason why they’re based in Panama and why they want to work with U.S. citizens,” Stephens said.
Vin.place lists “do’s and don’ts” on the site, saying people should use it to keep informed about neighbors, know what’s on the Internet about themselves and to connect with an old friend. Stephens and Garwood both said those reasons don’t justify the site.
“Why would anyone go to Carfax to find a lost loved one. It doesn’t make sense,” Garwood said.
The site then tells users to not use the information to screen employees, stalk or spy on someone, or steal someone’s identity.
“That to me tells me that’s exactly what they want to do,” Stephens said. “It’s almost like they are grasping at straws and putting things together so they can sound American and it’s creepy.”
The website doesn’t always work either. 15 Finds Out searched the VINs of 24 vehicles in the WANE-TV parking lot and only three had hits. Two of the three were for the correct owner, but one was for the woman who originally bought the car and not the current owner.
Not everyone who was searched by name had a correct result either. Stephens wasn’t on the site, but her daughter was.
The website states all the information it provides is public record and it gets its information from car dealerships and insurance companies.
“No. Absolutely not. We protect our customers’ information to the highest degree,” Greg O’Daniel, owner of O’Daniel Automotive Group, said.
15 Finds Out called dealerships throughout Fort Wayne and all said they don’t sell or distribute customer information to third parties. While they will work with direct mail companies, VIN numbers wouldn’t be part of the information needed for mailers, they said. The insurance companies that responded to 15 Finds Out’s interview requests also said they don’t sell customer information. But, O’Daniel wasn’t surprised to see the vin.place results.
“Think of the number of people that provide services when you have a new car. There’s the vendor, the BMV, any extra services like satellite radio, extended warranties. All that with is out there with your VIN number. You are at the mercy of their process if that gets shared with anyone else,” O’Daniel said.
O’Daniel’s information came back on vin.place, but it was for a vehicle he never owned.
“I took [the vehicle] on vacation one time with satellite radio, but I’ve never owned it. So all that information out there is not always correct,” he said.
In an email, Sirius XM told 15 Finds Out it does not “sell or give away customer data for any third party use.” The Indiana BMV does sell driver data for market research, but federal and state laws regulate how it can be used and not resold.
Vin.place has an opt out page for people to request to be removed from the site, but Stephens recommends not doing that because you have to give your name and email address in the form.
“They’re trying to get information,” she said. “Now they’ve got your email and could send you a link to open. It could be a virus. That’s the catch. Why do we need to give them information when we know so very little about them?”
15 Finds Out used the form to request an interview with vin.place and never received a response. We also did the opt out form and never got a confirmation email that the information was removed.
Stephens recommends filing a consumer complaint with the Attorney General’s office to be removed from that or any other unwanted website.
Garwood has now purchased a new vehicle and this time she said the dealership had her sign a privacy statement saying it won’t sell her information. Her lender also sent her an ‘opt out’ form to keep her information from being redistributed.