Genealogy Gone Haywire
|Site||What services offered||Cost|
|Everything from birth records to slave histories. Message boards and newsletter.||$60 a year|
|Comment: If great-grandma filled out a Census form, you can look at it here -- maybe. Users say information is hit-or-miss.|
|Manifests from ships arriving with immigrants from 1892 to 1924.||Free|
|Comment: It's fun to see where relatives came from and where they were going. But you won't find much more than that.|
|Search databases, download free software to manage family tree.||Free|
|Comment: Run by Mormon church, which has the world's largest store of geneaology records -- 2 billion names.|
|Family Tree DNA|
|Sells DNA test kit with swabs that collect cells from your mouth.||$219-$319|
|Comment: Though company disagrees, some geneticists say margin of error is too high.|
|Fed. of Genealogical
|Umbrella organization of 600 local genealogical groups. Lists events around the country.||No fee for individuals|
|Comment: Geared toward genealogical clubs, which can be valuable sources of local information.|
|Similar to Ancestry.com -- except their Census data have an easy-to-use index.||$20 per month or $80 per year|
|Comment: Some call its data unreliable (records are scanned in, but not proofread). Company says it's working on accuracy.|
|Sells some 250,000 items, from books to newspapers on microfilm.||$4 to $40 per item|
|Comment: Customers told us that these are good resources, especially for tough problems.|
|National Genealogy Society|
|Lectures, how-to courses and tours to the motherland.||$50 a year membership|
|Comment: A good starting place, with $35 online course for beginners.|
Ms. Carriles, the woman who is looking for her great-grandparents' bodies, was totally unprepared for what her research turned up. This spring, she posted a query on FamilySearch.org, a site that offers birth, marriage and other records. She asked visitors to the site for information about a relative and got a response from his immediate family. Actually, two responses, she says -- from two daughters who appeared to know nothing of each other. Ms. Carriles says she isn't about to tell. "I'm just doing this for me and my children," she says. "I don't want to offend anyone."
For some, the shock comes in the form of the bill. Besides the sea of genealogy tchotchkes from book bags ("Genealogists Never Die, They Just Lose Their Census") to baby bibs ("I'm the Newest Sprout in Our Family Tree"), the Internet is loaded with fee-based services that experts say sometimes promise more than they deliver. "There's a certain amount of fiction and fairy tales in all of these databases," says Dick Eastman, author of a popular online genealogy newsletter. Even the DNA testing is controversial; some geneticists say it errs about one in 100 times.
Royal Lineages to Adam, of Farmington, Utah, sells a CD-ROM for $59.99 that traces lineages all the way back "to Adam and Eve," assuming you already have mapped your roots to a figure such as George Washington, Charlemagne or Francus, King of the West Franks. Julia Schacht, who compiled the CD, says others have questioned how it's possible to trace roots to the Garden of Eden but that she's done "the best I possibly could with the records I had."
Another service, the now-defunct publisher Halbert's, sold book-style lists of surnames as well as such memorabilia as keychains imprinted with family "coats of arms." But, according to numerous complaints to the local Better Business Bureau, the lists really were little more than telephone directories.
Risk of Identity Theft
There also are privacy issues, including the worry that criminals or marketers will get names or birthdates of living people that are posted in online family trees. At the request of the House Judiciary Committee, the Federal Trade Commission last year reviewed genealogy sites and concluded that some fail to filter such data or warn users about the risks of posting it online. Another concern: Web sites that sell data that members provide. One site, Genealogy.com, packages some of those details into CD-ROMs. Genealogy.com says only one part of the site collects information for resale and that users are clearly warned about that.
"When you put stuff on a genealogy database, you're putting it in the public domain," says Fordham's Prof. Reidenberg, who testified in the Congressional hearing last year.
Still, the genealogy business continues to grow because so many love the hobby. For many families, these searches have led to happy reunions and turned up proud tales that can be passed on to future generations. Some don't even mind the surprises. On RootsWeb.com, there's a Black Sheep message board, where people boast about notorious ancestors like Jesse James and John Wilkes Booth. There are always going to be a few people "you wouldn't necessarily have wanted to go to dinner with," says Bijan Bayne, a Cincinnati author who has been researching the slaves in his family and the people who owned them.
David Gumpert, a marketing executive, wishes he could be so unruffled about his findings. He became interested in his roots after an aunt died, prompting an eight year, $20,000 search during which he learned that another now-deceased relative neglected to help his late aunt escape the Nazis in occupied Belgium. Now, he is having trouble finishing the book he has been writing on his family, worried about how other relatives will take the news. "Every time you turn over a rock, more bugs crawl out," says Mr. Gumpert, of Needham, Mass.
And beware: You may not be so glad to meet every long-lost relative who appears in your e-mail "in" box. Dennice Goudie, who has traced her family back to 17th century France, recently began getting e-mail from a distant step-cousin she had never met. At first, the woman was polite, agreeing to share information about the family. The exchange soon turned into a family feud, as the cousin blasted Ms. Goudie for posting information online without her permission. Says Ms. Goudie: "Ever since then, I've been really careful about checking out my relatives."
Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org
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