How to Keep Your Information Off Online Directories

Privacy is dead. Or even if it’s still hanging on by life support, privacy is severely compromised in the Internet age. At the start of 2011, Facebook boasted over 500 million users, and the number climbs every day. While the ease of communication that online communities like Facebook and Twitter deliver is undoubtedly appealing, what many consumers fail to realize is that while they’re happily connecting with friends online, sharing pictures, birthday wishes, and other glimpses of their private lives, data brokers like WhitePages and Spokeo are diligently gathering this information in order to compile online directories and create and sell aggregate consumer profiles.

On Spokeo.com, a simple name search can turn up photographs, a home address, phone numbers, email addresses, hobbies, and even a picture of your front door. Social networks, where users provide information such as birthdates and political views, are goldmines for gathering such information.

These aggregate profiles claim to create a comprehensive picture of who you are, including where you live, who you are dating, and even what political party you support. As if this weren’t troubling enough, a closer look at Spokeo's privacy policy indicates that there is no guarantee of the accuracy of the information that they provide to others.

Spokeo has already been sued by consumers who claim that the website is distributing inaccurate information about them. Two lawsuits, Purcell v. Spokeo and Robins v. Spokeo, are currently pending in federal court in the Central District of California. But even information that is accurate can be embarrassing and damaging. Your boss may not appreciate your ranting about a co-worker on Facebook, and a future employer may think twice about hiring you after a Google search reveals provocative pictures that are publicly available via your Facebook account.

 8 Ways to Protect Your Online Image

With your personal information just a keystroke away, protecting your online reputation is more crucial now then ever. The following are 8 ways to ensure that you’re doing all you can to guard your personal information.

1) Opt-out of websites like Spokeo.

Websites such as Spokeo that create aggregate data profiles on consumers actually do give consumers the ability to opt-out and erase their online profile. There is no guarantee that the data broker won’t create another profile on you, but periodically removing yourself from such directories takes just a few minutes and it is well worth your time. The six major people databases in America are 123people.com, MyLife.com, Spokeo.com, USSearch.com, WhitePages.com, and PeopleFinder.com. Opting-out of each will significantly increase your online privacy.

2) Don’t over-share information.

This seems like a no-brainer, but every day many seemingly smart people lose relationships and even jobs because they voluntarily shared less-than-flattering information about themselves. Unless you have bulletproof privacy settings, remove information and pictures that you wouldn’t want an employer or in-law to see. In a best-case scenario, this information is merely an embarrassment, but at worst, it can come at the price of a friendship or job. If your online friends are posting embarrassing pictures or comments about you, ask them to stop and remove them.

3) Err against providing sensitive information on social media sites.

Your home address, phone number, and full date of birth are examples of sensitive information that do not belong on your social networking profile. Data brokers and even identity thieves are looking to take advantage of this information, should you choose to make it publicly available. Providing such information compromises your privacy and possibly even your physical safety.

4) Take advantage of Facebook's privacy settings.

Facebook gives users a lot of control over who can see information that is shared. Twitter also allows users to control who can see their online activity. Setting your account to private can mean the difference between remaining seemingly anonymous in Google searches and having your postings and pictures show up at the top of the search results page.

5) Consider abandoning your farm.

Games like Farmville and Scrabble are accessible via Facebook, but what many gamers don’t realize is that these applications have their own privacy policies which are typically less protective then Facebook's privacy policy. While Facebook promises not to sell your information to marketers, this doesn’t guarantee that Zynga, the parent company of Farmville, offers the same protections. In addition, most of the applications available on Facebook require that users grant permission to access personal information, so be wary of more than just games as well.

6) Conduct a name search on search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing to identify unflattering or incorrect information being published online about you, and contact webmasters directly to have it removed.

If you find false or embarrassing information about yourself online, contact the webmaster of the site where it is located and request that the information be removed. Search engine results are a reflection of publicly available content. Getting Google or Yahoo to remove publicly available information is nearly impossible, especially if the information is accurate. This means that going directly to the source of the information is your best option.

7) Consider hiring a professional.

Many people with a full-time job or a family can’t fathom taking the time out of their busy schedules to clean up their online image. For a small fee, you can hire a skilled professional to do the grunt work.

For $99, Reputation.com offers MyPrivacy, a service that identifies and removes information about you from the web and commercial databases. For the same price, Abine.com offers a similar service called AlwaysOn. Abine will also remove specific search results and web content for a rate of $250 per item, though they caution that publicly available information like arrest records may be impossible to remove. Both companies offer anti-cookie software, which can prevent websites from tracking your online activity and stop them from collecting more of your personal data.

8) Close social networking accounts that you no longer use.

Finally, if you have an old Twitter, MySpace, or Friendster account that you’ve abandoned, delete it. Keeping such an account open is akin to needlessly leaking personal information about your life.