Privacy been violated? Call the PRC

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse lets you file privacy complaints electronically and helps you resolve them. Warning to privacy scofflaws: There's a new sheriff in town.

Odds are your personal privacy gets violated at least once a day. Slimy spammers, rapacious robo-callers, amoral data miners, snoopy employers, cyber stalkers, or plain old Facebook and Google – all of them like to make your business their business, whether or not they have a right to do it. The worst part: Unless they’re breaking the law, there’s nobody you can complain to.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse hopes to change all that. Today the 20-year-old consumer rights organization launched its Online Complaint Center, offering ticked-off consumers an easy way to blow the whistle on privacy violators.

“We want to become the digital Dear Abby for privacy,” says Amber Yoo, PRC’s director of communications.

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By filling out a simple five-screen form, users can register complaints about companies or organizations, government agencies, or individuals who’ve violated their privacy. They can choose to file the complaints anonymously or attach their names to them, and even allow the media to contact them and tell their story.

The PRC will then forward the complaints to the appropriate privacy officers at the organization that committed the violation, or law enforcement and regulatory agencies like the FTC. Given the PRC’s 20-year history and extensive rolodex of privacy wonks, that alone should help speed the process of resolving the complaints, says Yoo.

The PRC is also working on ways to connect aggrieved individuals with attorneys who might be willing to represent them, though they haven’t quite worked out all the kinks in that process, Yoo admits.

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Yoo says the PRC already gets from 10 to 20 complaints each day via phone or email, mostly about things like invasive background checks or aggressive debt collectors. The PRC is hoping that the interactive complaint center will boost that number significantly.

The database that results should also help the PRC identify trends in privacy threats – like, say, a sudden rash of Facebook scams -- and issue alerts to consumers via the media.

At the very least, says Yoo, it’s nice for consumers with a legitimate beef to have somewhere to go, and not to a company or organization that will most likely ignore them.

“I hate to pick on Facebook,” she says, “but they’re a good example because they get a lot of complaints and they can’t respond to each one individually. One of the most important things about this process is getting a response from a human being who sympathizes with you. A lot of our callers are so excited to get a live person on the phone they just want to talk.”

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