As people’s lives move online, controlling how much personal information leaks into the public domain becomes increasingly important — and difficult.
Experts recommend the preliminary step of simply typing your name into one of the many general search engines like Google, Bing, or Yahoo, or people-finding sites such as ZabaSearch.com, Spokeo.com or Honestly.com.
To get a more complete picture, run searches of your address, phone number and other identify data and don’t stop at the first few pages of search results.
Going beyond basic DIY checks, companies like privacy software start-up Abine run quarterly reports detailing your online information for $100 a year.
These steps inform about personal exposure: this is what employers, lenders, health insurance providers and acquaintances may turn up.
But despite the standard wisdom that “once it’s online, it’s out there forever,” there are options for damage control, though doing it yourself may prove time consuming.
Check social networks like Facebook and delete anything that might be of value, like a full birth date or home address, make sure the personal details are available only to friends, and delete or deactivate those accounts no longer in use.
Ask friends to remove posts or pictures that you don’t want out there. If there is something posted by an online publisher or data broker, though, removing it may be tricky, especially if it’s truthful and not illegal.
It never hurts to try, though, and these companies that buy and sell data might consider a request if it comes with an explanation. But since they are in the business of sharing, the offensive piece might be in more than one database, and each one needs to be contacted individually, so it could be quite a mess to unravel.
If this effort proves futile, it may be possible to create good content about yourself, through a blog or social profile, that will push the problematic information further down on search results. Out of sight, out of mind, hopefully.
If the content is illegal or defamatory, meaning it is both false and damaging, consult an attorney.
If this seems too much to manage, there are professionals who can help. Reputation.com identifies and removes personal information from the web’s commercial databases for $100 a year, and offers a remedy to prevent tracking and data collection using cookies.
Previously mentioned Abine, provider of a free anti-cookie program called Taco, also sells products such as DeleteMe to remove specific pieces of content. Some data removal from top databases may cost $75, while wiping a specific search engine result may run $10 to $50 an entry.
Other companies offering simiiar services include MetalRabbitMedia.com and Trackur.com.
Setting up a Google alert for your name is a good way to keep track going forward. So is customizing Facebook settings to prevent photo tagging, and occasionally searching for images associated with your name to monitor pictures others may put out there.