Veterinarians find their personal contact information listed online

Directory-maker acknowledges misstep

October 17, 2013 (published)
By Edie Lau

Veterinarians are finding their home addresses and personal phone numbers published online in a directory amassed largely from government licensing data.

The publication of some veterinarians' private information was unintentional, according to managers at TopVets, which has compiled a listing with 53,000 entries.

Marketing Manager Alexis Jarossy said the database is derived from hundreds of sources, chiefly licensing records from states and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Veterinarians require a license from the state or states in which they practice, and a DEA license to use and prescribe controlled drugs.

Jarossy said the directory went online this summer and that TopVets learned about two weeks ago by email from a veterinarian that the posting contained personal information. Since then, a few others have contacted the company with the same concern, she said.

The company revised those entries, Jarossy said, and began this week filtering out residential information from the entire database.

“This entire week has been dedicated to getting this fixed,” she said Wednesday. “We are not meaning to be malicious to publish any sort of private information at all.”

The situation highlights how easily privacy may be unwittingly breached in the age of electronic data. Anthony Dickerson, TopVets service account management team supervisor, said the company hired a contractor to collect the information on veterinarians.

“We ended up getting about 60 percent of all vets that have a (state) license,” he said. “Some states have license (information) out there on their websites; anyone can access that information. Other states have it where it’s not listed anywhere, and if you needed to obtain that information, you’d have to call a number and ask about a specific vet. For vets in those states, we tend not to have that information.”

Some veterinarians whose personal information was listed on discovered it the hard way. A veterinarian in Ohio related this experience to the VIN News Service:

“We found out when someone called my husband, also a vet, on his private cell phone number around 11 at night for a non-emergency call. His cell phone isn’t linked to our emergency answering service, so this was particularly odd. That made me suspicious, since he’s never given out this number, so I ended up Googling him to see how this came to be, and there we both were: home address, phone number, etc.”

The veterinarian said it took repeated requests to TopVets by telephone and email to correct both listings.

“I have no idea why it was such a hassle…” she said by email. “The first time I contacted them, my information was removed immediately by the customer services rep but nothing was done with my husband’s info even though I requested they remove that also. I then emailed them instead, and they added the clinic info but never removed our home address or his cell phone. He had two separate listings instead of just one office listing. I called the first rep again and left a voice mail, but the guy I spoke to (later) said I didn’t get a reply from her because she hasn’t been in the office (for a week). ...

“Overall, I think it probably took me more than an hour and at least three phone calls and three or four emails to get this finally settled.”

The veterinarian spoke on condition of anonymity because she is protective of her privacy. “Everyone I’ve spoken to (at TopVets) has been polite and apologetic, which I appreciate, but I feel a bit violated that they put all of my information on the Web in the first place,” she said. “I try to keep a low profile, and I don’t engage in things like Facebook even though sometimes I think it would be convenient to do so, because I don’t like the way it potentially lets strangers or people from your past best forgotten back into your life.”

Changing or removing listings hasn’t been uniformly difficult for veterinarians. One practitioner whose home address and phone number showed up on the directory told the VIN News Service that the information was removed the day after she submitted a request by email.

While names in TopVets’ directory may originate largely from licensing information, elements in a listing may not come directly from licensing agencies. In Ohio, for example, the Veterinary Medical Licensing Board withholds telephone numbers from the information it provides in response to public-records requests, said Licensing Coordinator Joseph McClain.

That’s because the agency does not know if it’s an appropriate number to share, McClain explained. “They could have their home number on there or their cell number. I don’t feel comfortable myself, as far as releasing that number … I know I would be furious if I got a call from somebody (unknown) on my cell phone,” he said.

Although the board does not release telephone numbers, McClain said, it's possible that other Ohio state agencies with access to licensing records do. Someone making a public-records request through a different department may be able to obtain telephone numbers, he said.

Licensing data requests are not uncommon. McClain said several organizations and companies request updated rosters from his agency every month.

TopVets, besides compiling a general directory of veterinarians, is in the business of providing online booking services and detailed profile listings to veterinarians for a fee.

Dickerson described TopVets as a “sister company” to PetCareRx, an online veterinary pharmacy operated by a privately held corporation. PetCareRx recently drew criticism by some veterinarians for making automated online recommendations of drugs to pet owners and soliciting prescription authorizations from veterinarians.

Editor’s note: Responding to concerns from veterinarians, TopVets General Manager Pallavi Sharma said Thursday that the company would remove telephone numbers and addresses from the website temporarily. The information was still posted at the time this article was published, but was removed subsequently

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