Ancestry DNA tests: How accurate, how secure and how private?

An Arizona-based genealogist dishes what you need to know before digging into your family history using DNA tests.

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DNA tests are popular, but here are some things you should know before you spit into a tube

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“Hey, I had a couple of questions,” Rich Crandall says as he calls his birth mother, whom he found after taking a DNA test. Mark Henle/azcentral.com

DNA test results can help you fill out some of the branches on your family tree.(Photo: Getty Images)

Tracing your family tree? Here are some tips from genealogist Phyllis Lewellen of Chino Valley, who has been working on her family history for about 30 years. DNA test results can help you fill out some of the branches of your family tree.

Question: Will my DNA test tell me which country my ancestors came from?

Answer: No. DNA traces to geographic areas, not to specific countries or states. For example, it can link DNA to eastern Europe or Scandinavia, but it can’t tell you if your ancestors were born in Germany, or Arkansas, for that matter. But records can help pinpoint those locations.

Q: What else will the ancestry test show me?

A:  You will get a list of relatives who have tested with that same company and a general estimate of how you are related (such as first or second cousin, distant cousin).These lists can be lengthy. 

Q: Once I do a DNA test, can everyone see my results and any other information on the company’s website?

A: You can mark your information private or public. A public setting would show your ethnic information, the family tree you build and your contact information. People can’t see your personal information unless you give them permission.

Q: What does the DNA testing company do with my information?

A: The companies all say they keep your raw DNA data secure. Read the company’s policy prior to testing to be sure you are comfortable with it.

Q: Which of the three big testing companies is best: Ancestry.com, 23AndMe.com or FamilyTreeDNA.com?

A: They all give you ethnic breakdowns, but their methodologies vary so you will may get different results from different companies.

Each offers different add-on tests, such as a health report.

The basic test kits are affordable, well under $100. Many companies are offering deals around the holidays. Some are going for as low as $49.

Q: What if my relatives use a DNA test site different from the one I used? If I want to find them, do I need to do all three?

A: GEDmatch.com is a free website where people can upload their DNA test results at no cost. It will match the results from the major testing companies, meaning people don’t have to do all three tests to cast the widest search net.

Q: What if I find a genetic match to someone I’ve never heard of? What’s the best way to approach them?

A: Go directly to that person. If you’re an adoptee and you reach out to, say, your birth mother’s sister, she may have no idea of what happened with an adoption. You don’t want to stir discord in a family you’re just discovering.

Keep your overture to the matched person neutral, such as “My DNA test shows we’re related. I’m trying to figure out how.” Don’t bombard them with a surprise announcement.

Q: Why do I need records if the DNA test gives me names?

A: DNA only goes so far; you need records to prove connections.

For example, Hispanic heritage often shows up as Native American. But a paper trail, such as birth certificates or census records, can clarify that.

Genealogical resources abound online (a fun one is FindAGrave.com) but don’t overlook archives and family documents, such as draft-registration cards, city directories and birth certificates.

“Genealogical proof” of an ancestor is quickly becoming a combination of document research backed up by DNA confirmation.

Q: Anything else to know about Ancestry.com, 23AndMe.com or FamilyTreeDNA.com?

A: Don’t fall for myths such as DNA testing does women no good since we all get more DNA from our fathers than mothers. That’s nonsense. 

Be ready for the ups and the downs. Everybody has the equivalent of a horse thief in the family.

— Mary Jo Pitzl

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