By James Pearson
A local radio station approached me about a month ago to discuss identity protection and cleanup services to protect your privacy. I was not familiar with these services then, but I soon realized their direct relation to data breaches and identity theft. Intrigued by this connection, I delved deeper into the subject and made some surprising discoveries.
I have personally experienced a couple of incidents where either someone else’s identity or incorrect online information has caused adverse consequences for me in financial or other transactions. Additionally, we have worked with a few clients who have had their identities stolen over the years. These experiences have motivated me to delve deeper into the issue, which is the focus of this article.
My intention with the article is not to show you how to disappear completely, become disconnected, and live off the grid but how to protect your privacy. However, we can learn a lot from those who have erased their identities, cleaned up their online presence, or dropped off the grid. The side effect of this process that we will discuss is that it can help you not only clean up your confidential information but also improve your online reputation, avoid some of the online pitfalls, and reduce your chances for ransomware, data breaches, and security risks.
The first question we need to answer is why we should care about the information out there. Of course, you could throw your hands up and say, “What’s out there is out there, and the bad guys already have it,” and you are correct. Through no fault of your own, plenty of data breaches have already exposed the most common information such as name, address, phone number, email, date of birth, etc.
The Equifax and Yahoo! data breaches are perfect examples. Despite both happening years ago, much of your data is publicly available because of these and other similar data breaches. But here is why you should worry: first, your personal information can be and is continually being exploited by the bad guys for targeting you better, using phishing emails, ransomware, other fraud, and identity theft.
A few years ago, on a Black Friday morning, I received a series of threatening phone calls and voice messages from a local businessperson. They thought I was a customer who owed them a significant amount of money. I was confused as to why they thought it was me. After some quick investigation, I realized that my landline phone number, which we rarely used and had for over seven years at that time, was still listed on some websites as the person this business owner was looking for. This incorrect data resulted in me having to contact the police department to stop the calls and threats.
Finally, some folks want a say in what information is floating around on the Internet. This process puts you in touch with what is already out there quickly and lets you decide how much control you want over that info and how to rein it in if things have gotten a little out of hand over time.
So, let us dive in and see what it takes to ghost the bad guys.
Conduct a Digital Audit
Before taking any action to protect your online privacy, conduct a digital audit. This involves searching the Internet to find out what personal information about you is available online. It is like excavating your online footprint and is like the process anyone looking for you would begin with.
Start with Google, the granddaddy of search engines, search for your name and your current city and state. You will find that many websites have published basic information such as your name, address, and phone number.
I recommend that during this process, you be conscious of your actions as well. Use your web browser’s Private or Incognito modes. Using a browser other than Google’s Chrome may also be advantageous, as Google is known for mining our data. Firefox, without any extensions (which can also compromise privacy), is an excellent place to start. There are also more privacy-oriented search engines, such as DuckDuckGo, which also has a privacy-focused browser.
Another critical step is to check out data brokers such as www.truepeoplesearch.com. These companies collect, aggregate, and resell your data. This site also has a lot of information available for free, while many of the data brokers and sites you will find will tease you with some basics and then ask you to pay for more details.
When you conduct a digital audit, you can discover the accessible information and its location. During this process, you might be surprised, amazed, or even shocked to find an abundance of information that is freely available and accessible to anyone without a paywall.
Set Your Privacy Tolerance
Now, list the websites and information you found during your audit; it is time to decide. You need to define your privacy tolerance at this point. Was the data you found incorrect? If so, you may consider getting it corrected as part of this process. If accurate, then the decision must be made whether you want that information in the wild or attempt to limit where it is, in which case you should begin the data removal process that we are going to discuss.
When setting your tolerance level for sensitive data, it is important to remember that if you decide to clean it up and remove it, you will need to change your behavior in the future to prevent the data from leaking out again. If the information is mostly correct, up-to-date, and accessible to the public, you may have a high tolerance level. However, if the information is incorrect and causes issues, it may be worth the effort to remove it altogether.
Cleaning Up to Protect Your Privacy
Let us say you want to start by cleaning up your online presence. This is the easiest and quickest way to begin. Start by deleting old, unused accounts, particularly those you no longer need. For instance, accounts you created for a single purchase or to download a product. Even if you no longer use them, these accounts can still be hacked, exposing your information. Therefore, the first thing to do is to delete and clean up your accounts. Here are a few examples of accounts you should consider deleting. Unused social media accounts are like open windows inviting cybercriminals into your virtual home. Delete those old profiles and adjust the privacy settings on your active accounts. Let us make it difficult for the bad guys to find us. Go back and clean up the accounts that you no longer use. Do you still have a Myspace account lying around? Go back and request that it be closed and deleted.
Next up, secure your email accounts, as identity thieves and scammers target them. Your email addresses and passwords are hugely valuable as they can lead to unlocking other accounts, so cleaning up any old or unused email accounts is essential. You may find email accounts that no longer exist or contain incorrect information during your digital audit. While you may not be able to get rid of all of them, it is essential to delete as many old email accounts as possible. Cybercriminals can use old email accounts to access personal information, so closing these doors and keeping your virtual castle secure is crucial. Remember, a clean online profile is the best defense against intruders.
To manage your privacy, avoid giving personal info unnecessarily. Unsubscribe from unwanted emails/newsletters and check if you have an account with that site. Unsubscribe and avoid subscribing again.
Cancel shopping loyalty programs as well as any survey programs. As with most of these things, if they are free or too good to be true, then they are, and if there is no cost for the service, then YOU are the product. Not signing up for these kinds of things and removing them is a big part of the process of ghosting the bad guys.
Removing Your Data
Locate the “remove me” or “don’t sell my data” forms on each website you discovered in your audit to have your data removed or corrected. This is usually the official way to get it done, and the website must comply within a specific time. For instance, if you want to remove your data from truepeoplesearch.com, you can find their removal forms and process at truepeoplesearch.com/removal.
But do not just fill out the form and forget about it. Following up may be necessary to to ensure your data is successfully removed.
Consider enlisting the help of data removal and monitoring services. These experts specialize in removing and protecting your personal information from the clutches of cybercriminals. There are several services that will do data removal and cleanup for you and provide monitoring in the future.
The following are some of the most frequently used services. It is important to note that this is not a direct endorsement, and it is advisable to thoroughly research each company before using their services. However, one noteworthy aspect is that these services offer DIY guides for removing your personal information from numerous websites to protect your privacy, which can be found on their blogs or websites. These services operate similarly to credit monitoring services by automatically monitoring for any modifications and notifying you so they can be addressed and resolved.
OneRep Homepage: https://onerep.com/
Privacy Bee: https://privacybee.com/
Brand Yourself: https://brandyourself.com/
Your Ethereal Lifestyle
So, you have spent considerable time, even months, cleaning up your old accounts, correcting your data, and ensuring that it is removed to your satisfaction and privacy tolerance. You have even subscribed to a service to facilitate this process. What happens next?
Going forward, you need to do two things: monitor your data regularly and modify your online behavior. Here are a couple of quick tips to help you achieve this.
- Be conscious of cybersecurity when releasing data, filling out forms, and clicking on links.
- Be mindful of everything you share and your behavior on social media.
- Use VPN software: protect your connection, especially in public places, and anonymize your information.
- Minimize or eliminate social media use.
- Check privacy settings for the social media platforms you choose to keep.
- Use private and Incognito browsing modes and consider a secure web browser like DuckDuckGo.
- Remove unnecessary software applications and extensions from your computer.
- Pay with cash whenever possible.
- Avoid online purchases.
It is unnecessary to completely disconnect from the Internet and avoid social media to protect your privacy. However, regularly reviewing your online presence can help protect you from various threats, including phishing scams, ransomware, and identity theft. You can use manual and automated methods to remove outdated or private data from unwanted platforms. It is also a good idea to limit the disclosure of personal details and seek the help of professional data removal and monitoring services when needed. Adjusting your behavior online, such as using VPNs, minimizing social media use, opting for incognito browsing, and being mindful of what information you share, also help. The goal is maintaining a minimal digital footprint and securing your digital identity from cybercriminals. With careful management and a proactive approach, you can effectively protect your privacy and stay safe online.
In addition to our ongoing initiatives, we are thrilled to announce our upcoming learn@lunch session: “How to Ghost the Bad Guys & Protect Your Privacy” on January 25th at 12 pm noon. Register for this informative session via the following link: Register Here or contact.