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It’s one of the taboos of our time, but plenty of us are guilty of it. In fact, 41 percent of Americans are brave enough to admit they plug their own names into search engines frequently. But did you ever wonder who else is studying your online footprint? Here’s a hint: it’s not just old flames and curious colleagues. Identity thieves have their eyes on your digital presence, too — and identity theft has been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic.
Online criminals have a plethora of weapons in their arsenal, from phishing emails to password hacking. But first they have to know you exist — and the more they know about you, the easier it is to bait you. It doesn’t take something as dramatic as a security breach at a major company to dig up the dirt on you, though. Scammers usually start with the plain old internet; it’s the path of least resistance.
How can cyber criminals use your digital footprint against you?
A quick search of your name alone generates links to dozens of what cybersecurity experts call “people search engines,” kind of like the internet versions of telephone books. Plenty of these sites don’t even require a membership to access things like your home address, email address, phone number, birth date, and relatives. The information isn’t always 100 percent accurate, but scammers can find more than enough leads.
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Your social media accounts are bound to be top search results, too, offering all sorts of personal information: your workplace, hobbies and even your pet’s name, an all-too-common security question. And popular real estate sites wouldn’t be far behind, sometimes divulging the details of your property ownership in painstaking detail.
Hackers are hungry for intimate information like this. It’s easy for them to connect the dots until a full profile of your life materializes — and from there, they can more easily guess your passwords, impersonate you in an attempt to take over your accounts or send you malicious links disguised as friendly emails.
Once hackers get their sticky fingers on your most personal details, all hell can break loose. There are a lot of things you can and should do manually to clean up your digital footprint, but that takes some time. The easiest first step is to install powerful cybersecurity software that helps keep you safe from incoming threats in the meantime.
Best practices for cleaning up your digital footprint on your own
Cybersecurity software is powerful. There’s no denying it. But there are manual steps you can take to make yourself way less visible online — or close to invisible, if you prefer.
The first step is to unsubscribe from every people search engine possible...and there are many of them. It’s like opting out of the telephone book if dozens of companies published different ones — so yes, it’s a little more laborious, but worth it. Here’s a pretty extensive list of them along with removal instructions.
A few more tips:
Delete email addresses you no longer use.
Delete or severely limit the privacy of your social media accounts.
Contact web administrators of any sites, including those that have published news articles or blog posts that reveal your personal details. Ask them politely to remove your personal information for privacy reasons.
Contact “data brokers,” the repositories that hold your data and feed it to people search engines, and request to be removed.
Unsubscribe from newsletters that collect and share your information.
Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to surf the web.
Routinely delete all cookies and cached information from every web browser you use so sites won’t track you.
Opt out of social sign-in and use unique passwords instead (managed by a password manager) and an anonymous email account.
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