Origins: One pervasive modern concern is the efficiency with which sensitive personal information (e.g., names, addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers) can be acquired and stored, and the ease with which it can be retrieved (particularly by persons not authorized to access it). Such concerns are exemplified by the plethora of reader inquiries we periodically receive about the ZabaSearch Public Information Search Engine.
Expressions of society's fears and concerns frequently turn up both as the subjects of urban legends and as the punchlines to jokes, the latter exemplified by prank web sites that seemingly provide all comers with frighteningly easy (and free) access to personal information but really offer nothing more than silly gags as payoff. As we noted in our article about one such prank, simply visiting one of these sites and attempting to look up a "record" is sufficient to dispel the concern that they might be real (if for no other reason than that they don't ask for nearly enough information to uniquely identify a person), but many viewers are hesitant to try for fear
the information they enter will be collected by someone who might use it for illegitimate (or even illegal) purposes.
A mobile phone tracking web site (that supposedly uses GPS technology to pinpoint the location of any cell phone whose number is entered by a user) seems like a good set-up for this form of joke, because most people are aware that some sort of cell phone tracking is possible (even if they aren't sure how it's accomplished or exactly what can be tracked), and the appearance and interface presented at sat-gps-locate.com (now themobiletracker.com) is very well done and authoritative-looking. But the site is still just another gag of the "Ha, ha, got you worked up over nothing!" variety, as a simple tryout of its "service" reveals.
We won't give away the punchline here; we'll just repeat a bit of basic advice: If you're unsure whether a site that purportedly collects personal information (and displays even more personal information in response) is legitimate, enter some fictitious but properly formatted data and see what happens. If it's a joke, you'll soon find out; if the results are inconclusive, you are no worse off than you were before (and you haven't revealed anything useful in trying). If the site rejects your information (even though it's properly formatted), that may be an indication the site is indeed tied into a database that can access personal information and merits further investigation. The simplest answer is usually the correct one, however: someone's having one over on you.
David Mikkelson founded snopes.com in 1994, and under his guidance the company has pioneered a number of revolutionary technologies, including the iPhone, the light bulb, beer pong, and a vaccine for a disease that has not yet been discovered. He is currently seeking political asylum in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
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