Technically Speaking

Be wary of free dark web scans

Ohh the dark web, so scary so...dark? What do you think of when you read “dark web?” I always picture some guy sitting in a room illuminated only by a computer screen with lines of code slowly scrolling past, but I guess I can blame Hollywood for that. In reality, the dark web is a series of websites that require either special encryption software (like the Tor web browser for instance) to access, or are unindexed, meaning you need to know the specific Internet Protocol (IP) address of the website to access it.

The dark web is not to be confused with the “deep web,” which is just the information that Google can’t find, like web pages within larger sites where links to them are broken or non existent. The dark web is a subsection of the deep web dedicated to the illegal sale of guns, drugs, even services like hacking and human trafficking, all paid for using untraceable cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. However, much of it is also scam artists or law enforcement honey pots set up to catch unskilled users of the dark web. In my opinion, it’s something to be avoided, and thankfully it’s not like a bad neighborhood you accidentally took a wrong turn through. You have to deliberately seek it out. That being said, if there was any stolen information about your identity, there’s a good chance it would be on the dark web.

So, in light of the Equifax hack, competing credit bureau Experian has launched a new service that will scan the dark web for your email address for signs of it appearing there. I see a commercial for this service several times a day on CNN and other news networks where the primary demographic might be older, less technologically-aware people. For many, this ad campaign may be the first ever mention of the dark web they have heard. It’s all very ominous, so of course it made me a little suspicious. Pretty much any time I see an ad that relies on scare tactics like that it really gets my hackles up. So I thought I would check it out so you don’t have to.

First, there’s something you need to know about the three major credit-reporting bureaus Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Unless you personally are a bank or a landlord, you are not their customer. They make their money from the people running the credit reports on you. So if one of these companies sees an opportunity to make money off of Average Joe, they are going to take it, one way is pouncing upon the scare created by the Equifax hack.

The first thing I did was set up a fake email address for this test. I was met by a page with a single field for entering my email address and a message that said that by clicking “Start Scan” I was agreeing to the Terms of Use Agreement and receipt of the Privacy Policy and Ad Targeting Policy. I was also agreeing that I was allowing Experian to contact me about Experian’s IdentityWorks™ product, “or other products that may be of interest to me.” Ohh boy, I sure can’t wait to find out what those products might be.

So, first thing I did was open the Terms of Use it said I was agreeing to and copy and paste them in Microsoft Word for better searching and, holy smokes it’s 17,563 words long across 40 pages, landing it squarely in the novella category. Well, I’m certainly not going to read through this so what makes you think your worried grandmother is going to to? So, using Word, I  searched for some of the more annoying terms I’ve seen in other Terms of Use Policies and sure enough, the gang’s all here. There’s an anti-arbitration clause preventing you for ever being able to sue Experian, the permission to allow Experian to track and collect certain information about you, ohh and that Experian “receives compensation for the marketing of credit opportunities or other products or services available through third parties.” Entering your email into this field will mean you are opening up your inbox to “advertisements or offers for available credit cards, loan options, financial products or services, or credit-related products or services and other offers to customers.” Basically, you’re trading a small amount of peace of mind for Experian to sell you out and if you don’t like it, well too bad because you agreed to never sue them. And then, the pièce de résistance, way down on the last page, hidden among “Miscellaneous,” is the mention that the contract between you and Experian can only be broken by them, and even if they do break the contract you are still unable to sue them as “...the provisions set forth in these terms and conditions, as well as any other terms and conditions that, by their nature, should survive termination, ‘shall survive.’” This means “well past the point of the inevitable heat death of the universe.” So, fun right? All that and a bag of chips, as we used to say back in the 90s for reasons I can’t remember.

So, now you see why I made up a fake email address for this. I entered said fake email address and was met by a screen informing me that thousands of pages and millions of information nodes were now being scanned for my email address. Apparently all that scanning only takes about 15 seconds though; how efficient.

Expecting a grand finale, all I got was a message to watch my email for the result and it could take up to 24 hours for it to appear. It took about 30 seconds and the whole point was to prove to them that my email address was a valid one. Kind of like how anytime you sign up for something new online and they ask you to verify it through a link in your email. The email contained a link to view my report, which itself said that my email address was not found in the dark web. This also included an advertisement informing me that, while the email search was free, if I was willing to sign up for their $9.99 a month (with the first 30 days free of course), they would also scan for my social security number, phone numbers, driver’s license, medical IDs, bank accounts, credit and debit cards, and my passport.

Look, these are all things I would hate to find out are lurking on the dark web, but I sure as heck am not going to provide all of that information to a company that just told me (in so many words) that they are going to blatantly sell my information themselves. This is not a free service by any stretch of the word, it seems borderline criminal.

They say right there that you can “Opt out at any time” but only after you have given them a credit card to start your free trial. Though, what you’re opting out of is them charging you for the service. All your information that you already gave up? They are going to keep it. That information “shall survive.”

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