There are a plethora of websites that claim to have your best interest at heart. They say that they will alert you when new information about you, your home or business address, phone number, tax exempt or social security number is used and which telemarketers are brokering your information. Two of the largest website that operate in the privacy protection gambit are LifeLock and Reputation.com; both charge a fee for their services but if you know how to use a search engine you can remove some or all of your digital footprint on your own.
If you have ever typed your name into a search engine chances are you know that you are going to get varying results depending on which one you use. Google is one of the most used and most abused search engines for online information tracking; that becomes an even bigger danger when you use websites that are Google-associated like Gmail, YouTube and Google+. The cross-linking of your information and who can access micobits of it increases each time you allow Google to automatically push notifications, log in data to other sites and your global location. The same thing applies to Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter.
ORM, online reputation management, is a fancy phrase for privacy protection. If you don’t use your real name online then that reduces your chances of having your identity stolen but even if you operate under an alias or pen-name, if someone gets access to your email account and you are getting spending notifications from Paypal, Bitcoin or Dwolla at the very least your real name is going to be used in the emails. That could start a chain reaction if someone is looking to dig up dirt on you or to establish that you owe child support, back taxes, are having an affair and which social networking websites you are using with your other name or names.
How can you remove your digital footprint? It’s easier to not exist at all online than to try to have data removed but if you have had altercations on Facebook, been stalked on Twitter or have a jealous ex-boyfriend that wants revenge you are going to have to start with the most basic of things. Websites like Classmates, Facebook, LinkedIn, Ancestry and Whisper all store massive amounts of information but you also have to consider the “blind hunt” websites that claim to have phone numbers, addresses, tax information, employment records and other sensitive data about individuals that can be accessed for a per-name fee or a flat per month fee.
I searched my name and three of the “blind hunt” websites came up with results; curious to see exactly what they knew about me I paid $5.99 for a single search of my name. The information that they provided me with was completely inaccurate, they didn’t even get my year of birth correct let alone where I was born, where I live or any known online contacts. One thing that they did provide that was “accurate” was the city that my IP address is in. I am in Pittsburgh but my IP address, when traced, goes to a suburb outside the city limits. If you have someone IP address you can use any number of websites to see where the address originates but there’s no guarantee that it is going to be accurate. That’s when I knew that this specific site was completely bogus. The second site claimed they had information on me so I paid the $7.99 for a single name search. The last name was not the same as mine, the home address was in Atlanta and the cell phone number was incorrect (it wasn’t even in the same area code that I am in). The third website was the most impressive; they charged $14.99 for “guaranteed results”. Their definition of that phrase is that they will deliver information, there’s no mention of it actually being correct or valid.
Even though LifeLock comes with a guarantee that they will monitor your name online and pay if there is any fraudulent use or identity theft, once it happens it’s a time consuming process to correct and LifeLock protects their name and reputation with confidentiality agreements so if you are the victim of identity theft and they pay you, you won’t be able to talk about it. Reputation.com charges $9.99 for their Pro Plan which prevents your name and information from being sold online and “eliminates personal information” from the internet. That means to effectively do the job you are going to have to delete all of your social networking accounts, anything you have ever tagged on photo websites, all of your online contacts and all email accounts (personal and business associated). LifeLock has several plans that can be paid for monthly or yearly.
One of the biggest scams going is the “forced creation” push of personal information. Websites that offer online reputation management will actually create accounts in the persons name once they sign up for their free trial or opt for a one month plan. They use the found information as a scare tactic and basically say, “Look what we found out about you after one day! Imagine what we could find and remove in a year!”. They send you the link to a website (after already knowing your name, address, phone number and age) and when you visit the site you will see a basic profile with your name, location and whatever “private” information you provided to them. Just like the telemarketing game, if you have a lead sheet with 100 names on it, you can count on 10% of those people not being able to say no to someone when they are given a sales pitch. These businesses operate the same way; while completely unethical they have millions of customers.