Here’s one way you can help reduce your chances of identity theft: remove your personal information from the internet.
And chances are, you have more personal information posted online than you think.
According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), consumers registered 1.4 million identity theft complaints in 2021, all part of a year where consumers reported losing $5.8 billion to fraud overall—a 70% increase over the year prior.
What fuels all this theft and fraud? Access to personal information.
Scammers and thieves can get a hold of personal information in several ways, such as through phishing attacks that lure you into handing it over, malware that steals it from your devices, by purchasing your information on dark web marketplaces, or as a result of information leaked in data breaches, just to name a few.
However, scammers and thieves have other resources to help them commit theft and fraud—data broker sites, places where personal information is posted online for practically anyone to see. Which makes removing your info from them so important, from both an identity and privacy standpoint.
What are data broker sites?
Think of data broker sites as huge repositories of personal information. Search your name and address online and you’ll see. You’ll likely find dozens of sites that turn up information about you, some of which offer a few pieces for free and others that offer far more information for a price.
Data brokers collect and then aggregate personal information from several sources, including:
- Your public records posted online.
- Information from social media accounts you keep public.
- The websites you visit and the smartphone apps you use.
- Along with retailers, who share information associated with your loyalty cards.
Data brokers also buy personal information from other data brokers. As a result, some data brokers have thousands of pieces of data for billions of individuals worldwide.
What could that look like? A broker may know how much you paid for your home, your education level, where you’ve lived over the years and who your lived with, your driving record, and possibly your political leanings. A broker may also know your favorite flavor of ice cream and your preferred over-the-counter allergy medicine thanks to information from loyalty cards. Further, they may also have health-related information from fitness apps. The amount of personal information can run that broadly, and that deeply.
With information at this potential level of detail, it’s no wonder that data brokers rake in an estimated at $200 billion U.S. dollars worldwide every year.
Who uses the personal information found on data broker sites?
On the legitimate side, it’s used by advertisers to create targeted ad campaigns. With information sold by data brokers, they can generate lists based on highly specific criteria, such as shopping histories, personal interests, and even political leanings as mentioned above. Likely without you being aware of it—and likely with no way to contest that information if it’s incorrect.
Other legitimate uses include using these sites for background checks. Law enforcement, reporters, and employers will use data brokers as a starting point for research because the leg work has largely been done for them. Namely, data brokers have aggregated a person’s information already, which is an otherwise time-consuming process.
If this seems a little shady, it’s still legal. As of now, the U.S. has no federal laws that regulate data brokers or require data them to remove personal information if requested. A few states, such as Nevada, Vermont, and California, have legislation in place aimed at protecting consumers. Meanwhile, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union has stricter rules about what information can be collected and what can be done with it. Still, the data broker economy thrives.
On the darker side, scammers and thieves use personal information for identity theft and fraud. With enough personal information gathered from enough sources, they can create a high-fidelity profile of their victims. One that gives them enough information to open new accounts in their name.
So, from the standpoint of both privacy and identity, cleaning up your personal information online makes a great deal of sense.
How to remove your personal information from the internet
Let’s review some ways you can remove your personal information from data brokers and other sources on the internet.
1. Request to remove data from data broker sites
The process starts with finding the sites that have your information. From there, you can request to have it removed. Yet as mentioned above, there are dozens and dozens of these sites. Knowing where to start is a challenge in of itself, as is manually making the requests once you have identified the sites that post and sell information about you.
Our Personal Data Cleanup can do the work for you. Personal Data Cleanup scans some of the riskiest data broker sites and shows you which ones are selling your personal info. It also provides guidance on how you can remove your data from those sites and can even manage the removal for you depending on your plan. It also monitors those sites, so if your info gets posted again, you can request its removal again.
2. Limit the data Google collects
As of September 2022, Google accounts for just over 92% of search engine market share worldwide. Aside from being a search engine, Google offers a myriad of other services and applications, such as Gmail and Google Maps. While Google offers plenty of tools for productivity, travel, work, and play for free, they still come at a cost—the gathering and analysis of your personal information.
You can limit the data Google associates with you by removing your name from Google search results with a removal request. This will disable anyone online from getting any results if they search your name. (Note that this will not remove your information from the original sites and sources where it’s posted.) Moreover, Google collects all your browsing data continuously. You have the option to turn on “Auto Delete” in your privacy settings to ensure that the data is deleted regularly and help limit the amount of time your sensitive data stays vulnerable.
You can also occasionally delete your cookies or use your browser in incognito mode to prevent websites from being tracked back to you. Go to your Google Chrome settings to clear your browser and cookie history.
3. Delete old social media accounts and make the ones you keep private
As discussed above, data brokers can collect information from public social media profiles. You can minimize your presence on social media to the bare minimum. Make a list of the ones you use or have used in the past. If there are old accounts that you no longer use or websites that have gone by the wayside like Myspace or Tumblr, you may want to deactivate them or consider deleting them entirely.
For social media platforms that you still may use regularly, like Facebook and Instagram, consider adjusting your privacy settings to ensure that your personal information on these social media platforms is the bare minimum. For example, on Facebook you can lock your profile, while on Instagram you can stay private.
4. Remove personal info from other websites and blogs
If you’ve ever published articles, written blogs, or created any content online, it might be a good time to consider taking it down if it is no longer serving a purpose. Depending on what you’ve posted, you may have shared personal details about your life. Additionally, you might be mentioned by other people in various social media posts, articles, or blogs. It is worth reaching out to these people to request them to take down posts with sensitive information.
Social media and online articles that host your personal information are often used when businesses or hackers are doing “internet scrapes” to find better ways to use your targeted information. Asking your friends or third-party sites to remove that information can help protect your privacy.
5. Delete unused phone apps and restrict the settings for the ones you use
Another way you can tidy up your digital footprint online involves deleting all the unnecessary phone apps that you no longer need or use. Even when apps are not open or in use, they may be able to track personal information such as your real-time location and even your payment details if you have a paid subscription to the app.
Some apps even sell this data as it can be extremely advantageous to other companies, which they use to target certain consumer segments and profiles for advertising. Try to share as little information with apps as possible if you’re looking to minimize your online footprint, and provide them access to your photos, contacts, and location only on as-needed basis and only when the app is in use. Your phone’s app and location services settings will give you the tools to do it.
Online protection software can keep your personal information more private and secure
In addition to the steps above, comprehensive online protection software can keep you more private and minimize your risk of cybercrime. It can include:
- An unlimited VPN can create a private internet connection that makes your personal information much more difficult to collect and track.
- Identity monitoring can track several pieces of personal information and alert you if it’s found on the dark web.
- Identity theft coverage & restoration can help should the unfortunate happen, which covers you with $1 million for legal feels, travel expenses, and stolen funds reimbursement, plus provides further assistance from a licensed recovery pro to repair your identity and credit.
- Other features like safe browsing can help you avoid dangerous links, bad downloads, malicious websites, and more when you’re online—all of which scammers and thieves can use to steal personal info.
So while it may seem like all this rampant collecting and selling of personal information is out of your hands, there’s plenty you can do to take control. With the steps outlined above and strong online protection software at your back, you can keep your personal information more private and secure.
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