People from all walks of life willingly share their information on Facebook and other social media sites. The Department of Motor Vehicles in some states sells your Social Security number and other identifying data to anyone who is willing to pay for it. Is there anything you can do to protect yourself?
There's an old saying that "the horse is already out of the barn." When it comes to protecting your privacy online, this may indeed be the case. Perhaps it's unrealistic to think that monitoring your personal information is worth the trouble.
On the other hand, having your identity stolen -- or worse yet, the personal identifying information about your clients -- can cost you much more than the inconvenience of having to delete your information from public databases.
In previous columns, I have written about data being posted on sites such as ZabaSearch.com and Intellius.com. These two sites provide information such as year of birth, address and personal phone numbers. Removing yourself from the searches on these sites is a major production.
For example, this is how the removal works from the ZabaSearch site:
"As a courtesy we can 'opt out' your specific information from the ZabaSearch People Search service. What this means is that your name as it appears in a particular record and the associated identifying information such as your address and phone number will be suppressed if you request this in the manner described below.
"However, please note that any time your identifying information appears in a public record in a manner which is different from the record you opted out, it will again appear in our system. There also are many other public records search services which are not owned by ZabaSearch and your request that we opt out your information will not prevent your information from appearing on these other services."
Removal from their searches takes four to six weeks and you must fax your personal identifying information to them. Even if you do this, however, it does not remove you from the original lists. In other words, you can opt out and still appear under a slightly different variation of your original listing.
Compounding the problem, other sites that provide an even more sophisticated version of the ZabaSearch data are cropping up. To illustrate, I recently received a Facebook message alerting me to take specific steps to remove my contact information from a site called Spokeo.com.
When I went online, they had my correct age, three of the addresses of the properties I have owned, my phone number, family names, and much more. If you're willing to shell out $15, you could also get my exact birth date, my income, the value of my property, and just about any other details that you would need to steal my identity.
What was truly amazing was that they even had the home addresses and home phone numbers for the U.S. president, the vice president and the speaker of the House. If this personal information is out there for the three most important political leaders in our country, how can you protect yourself when even their data is available?
Like ZabaSearch, you can remove yourself from the Spokeo list. Unfortunately, the process is not simple. Because they had four different postings for me, I had to enter two different e-mail addresses, as they limited my access. After making the four corrections, I was blocked from removing anything else.
(To remove yourself, enter your name and then click on the button that says, "See it all." Once you do so, copy that URL in your browser and open a new browser window to www.Spokeo.com/privacy. Paste the URL into that site and follow the instructions from there.)
What can you do to further protect yourself from this public release of information? Here are some additional tips.
1. Remove yourself from the ZabaSearch, Intellius and Spokeo databases using the guidelines in today's column.
2. Remove your birth date and other personally identifying information from all public sites, including your Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. Use your business numbers and a P.O. Box for correspondence. Password-protect any personal posts, videos, and especially any pictures of minors.
3. Change your passwords regularly and use a site such as One Password to keep track of your various passwords while making it easy for you to use them.
4. Avoid all games on Facebook and most free Google apps. The reason? Facebook and Google partially pay for all those great services they provide by selling user data to other companies or using it for their own purposes. (This practice is called data mining.)
5. Install spyware and adware programs on your computer to protect yourself from sites that install tracking cookies to learn even more about your Web surfing habits.
6. Create multiple e-mail accounts. Keep your business e-mail exclusively for your business clients. Create at least one other e-mail account with either Gmail or Hotmail. Use this address for all those sites that you know will spam you if you give them your contact information. These separate accounts cost nothing and also protect your personal and business e-mail from being compromised.
7. Use your extra computer. Many agents have more than one computer. If you're concerned about your online banking or stock trades, set up your old computer and use it only for financial transactions. Do not use it for e-mail or for surfing on the Web.
While there is no way to completely guarantee your privacy, taking the steps outlined above will reduce your exposure to those who would compromise your privacy and your security.
By Bernice Ross