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Keep Yourself Safe, Search Yourself

Have you ever searched for yourself on the internet? It can be a shocking experience. There’s a lot more information out there than you probably want easily available. Address, phone numbers, financial records—even who your grandma is—can all be found with a quick search. Fraudsters can use these sites to fill in missing information when trying to steal your identity.

Who is collecting all this data? There are a lot of people-search sites, sometimes referred to as data brokers, out there. Some started as background check services, while others started out as “friend and family” finders.

Why do these sites exist? It’s all about making money. Some frame themselves as places to run background checks on individuals, aimed at employers or the online dating world. Others claim to be a source to help build a family tree. And some act as a modern-day phonebook. There are legitimate reasons to look up the information they provide, but, like anything else, people use it for illicit reasons.

Who is using this data? Who knows. There are legitimate reasons to run background checks and find people’s past addresses. But we live in a world where a lot of people are up to no good. Stalkers and credit thieves—anyone can get the information they need to fill in any blanks on stolen identities.

What can you do? The first step is to minimize what content you make publicly available. Set social media to private. Don’t submit work, home, or personal information anywhere unless you have to. Most of these sites have the choice to opt-out. Check out Stopdatamining.me for a comprehensive list of data broker sites. None of them make it easy to do. Most will require a valid email address and the removal form is often buried somewhere. Searching the name of the site and “opt-out” usually brings it up. There are services like Deleteme that will clear your data. However, it’s not cheap and only guaranteed to work for a year—and only on U.S.-based sites.

Take an extra step. Create a junk e-mail address to use when removing yourself. These companies survive on mining your personal data, so don’t be shocked if they’re willing to sell your email address too. Going through one by one on dozens of these sites can take up a lot of time, but making yourself a smaller target for fraud is worth it.

Stay on top of it. Once you’ve gone through the process of removing yourself, it’s a good idea to do a check-up every year. If you go back and check on a few sites a month, it’s much less of a hassle, but it has to become routine. Removing yourself once doesn’t mean you’re off for good. These sites use automated systems that continually search and collect information—once you delete yourself, they are going to start all over again building a new profile.

It’s not all bad. Not every site that collects your data is bad for you. The three major credit bureaus collect your data. You need them to do this; without it, you wouldn’t be able to open a new credit card or apply for a loan. Credit bureaus also protect your information so that only you can have access. They charge for their services, but those services are to protect you. You’re entitled to one free report from each bureau every year, as required by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Verifying the information they have on you should be part of your regular self-check-up.

You’re still safe. If anything, the sheer amount of data that is available keeps you safe. Most fraudsters only have pieces of the puzzle. To bother searching for your specific information is unlikely, but it’s still worth it to clean your online presence. If you’re worried about something besides random credit fraud, like stalking, contact your local police. There are always going to be bad people out there and ways for them to find your personal data.

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