Protecting your personal information is harder than ever, especially when most depend on the internet for personal banking, shopping, socially and professionally networking, and conducting business. Aside from the convenience of it all, your digital footprint is vast. And by putting your personal information out on the web, you’re increasing your vulnerability to identity theft. 

The Federal Trade Commission recommends ways to reduce your risk to cybercriminals as follows:

  1. Be aware of those who you share your information with.
  2. House and dispose of your personal information appropriately, especially if it includes your social security number.
  3. Before you decide to share your personal information, ask questions.
  4. Maintain appropriate security on your personal and electronic devices.

But let’s not just focus on how your personal information lands on the internet, but also how you can work to retroactively remove personal information from the internet.

How does my personal information end up on the internet?

When cybercriminals or fraudsters dig for your full name and other personal details, they can easily piece together information to steal your identity, take advantage of your financial information, send social engineering attempts, or even stalk you face-to-face. 

What kind of personal information could that include?

  • Personal identification such as full name, address, phone number, or education history.
  • Bank account information and login information.
  • Website credentials, such as usernames and passwords.
  • HIPAA-compromised data, such as health information or health insurance details.
  • Social Security number, passport, or tax identification number.

But how do cybercriminals obtain your personal, sensitive information? They are clever and execute tactics based on the basic information gathered about you.

Data breaches

When a cybercriminal targets information such as names, Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, medical and financial records, email addresses, and passwords, they’ll often do so via a data breach.

Data breaches occur when unsanctioned individuals disrupt databases with the intention to steal and disperse personally identifying information, or PII, on the dark web.

Data brokers

Data brokers often collect and sell data on an individual, such as names, social media profile, date of birth, phone number, address, marriage records, land records, criminal history, and so much more. They consolidate this data from dozens of different public records, then compile it online.

This information can typically be seen for a basic fee or people have the ability to pay for a more in-depth report. And if you’re worth it, cybercriminals may just aim for the report.

Social media and blogs

Social media is a fabulous opportunity to network with friends old and new, but it also provides a tremendous level of access for social engineers and cybercriminals. Be careful about the information you make public. Cybercriminals will access that information which helps them commit identity theft. Social media accounts almost always contain sensitive information such as:

  • Your full name
  • Where you work
  • Where you live
  • Images or your family
  • Information about upcoming vacation plans, your favorite bands, or hobbies. 

Web-browsing habits

Have you noticed that the more and more sites you visit, you’re being asked to acknowledge “cookies”? Cookies are a kind of technology for internet service providers and various companies to track your web browsing history. They’ll usually leverage information like this to create targeted advertisements across different platforms for you. 

The caveat? Hackers could also access your search and browsing history and use it to scam you.

Erasing the info

To completely remove your digital footprint would require a tremendous amount of tedious work, but if you’re looking to limit your personal information online here are a few ways to cover your digital footprint:

  • Deactivate any accounts you no longer use.
  • Upgrade the privacy settings in your browser so it doesn’t track your location or activity. 
  • Take a look at your mobile app. Review any permissions granted to your mobile apps and delete any you no longer need. 
  • Limit the public information you provide on a social media platform.
  • Notify data farming sites (such as PeopleFinder or Spokeo) you’d like to opt-out.

How else can you limit personal information online?

Remove any old or irrelevant apps

Unfortunately, there are several sites or apps that have been created to collect personal information about you, such as your name, geographical proximity, email address, shopping, and spending preferences. This information can be hacked, leaked, or stolen. 

Sound like you could be at risk? Check the Terms of Use and Privacy Notice to determine what is collected, why it is collected, and how it may be secured, stored, and shared. 

Also, go through your apps regularly and check out the privacy settings. One app may request access to your microphone. While this could make sense for a video conferencing app, a maps app might not need it, so be sure to examine what possible extraneous information you could be providing within your downloaded apps. 

Something to note – just because you uninstall an app from your personal or mobile device, doesn’t guarantee your personal information is completely deleted by the app developer just because you’ve gone through the motions of uninstalling. You’ll want to check the account settings to determine how to completely delete your account.

Sweep your data

Have you checked your browser history lately? There’s likely a heap of personal information about you, cached images, passwords entered, and sites visited. If you’re worried about a hacker gaining access, clear your browser history, delete cookies and install security software.

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