Two minutes. That’s all it takes to perform a Google search on yourself—or anyone you choose—and obtain a virtual encyclopedia of personal data. If you are on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Bumble, today anyone with a computer cannot only discover but sell your Personally Identifiable Information (PII), including your address, birthday, and phone number and the names of your children, relatives, and spouse. Additional time spent searching can reveal real estate holdings and what you paid for them, deed transfers, charitable donations, your wedding announcement, college athletic stats, even a video of your child’s school talent show.
Like an octopus’s tentacles, the internet’s reach is wide. And like an elephant, its memory is long, making it easy to unearth a staggering amount of information most of us would prefer remained private. Not only can this information be viewed, it can be used against you. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect against dangerous intrusions into your personal life.
Use social media wisely
Before sharing pictures of a reunion, vacation, or family event, make sure what you choose to share is suitable for public viewing. Every picture tells a story, so before sharing digitally, be certain the story is one you want to tell. Given the public, digital nature of social media, posts can quickly be shared or reposted without the original poster’s knowledge or consent. To ensure that the information you’re sharing is restricted to only people you know, check your privacy settings on a regular basis.
If your profile is public, posting vacation or travel plans—even sharing that you are dining out at a restaurant—alerts other users to where you are, and where you are not. Why make it easy for burglars to schedule a break in? When traveling, embrace being unplugged; refrain from providing information about your whereabouts.
What’s more, given the increasingly blurry lines between personal and professional networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, identifying information used on one profile can be used to easily piece together parts of your identity you had planned to keep private. If you use the same photo for a dating profile as you do for your LinkedIn page or work bio, for example, a quick reverse image search can identify your full name and place of work, and even reveal information about your co-workers. Reverse searches can also be done on phone numbers, which is why some people wisely use available apps to create an extra “disposable” telephone number that cannot be traced back to them for use on dating apps, social media sites, or other databases.
Though smartphone apps have made dating, shopping, and getting around town far more convenient, these apps also make us more vulnerable to those who may have nefarious intent. Use only trusted ride sites and before getting in a vehicle always ask the driver to name who they are picking up—never volunteer your name first. If riding alone during off-hours, send pictures of your driver and his or her car’s stats to a trusted friend, and message them once you’ve safely arrived at your destination. Have someone else present when you invite a task worker or delivery person into your home; if possible, greet the delivery person outside your home or in the lobby of your apartment building. Above all, use reputable services and common sense. That chatty rideshare driver and passengers you meet on a ride to the airport might be doing a lot more than making polite conversation; they could be making note of where you live, where you’re going, and how long you’ll be gone, which can turn your home into an unprotected target.
Secure your data
In much the same way as you secure physical valuables, your data and account information should be secured. Use a strong, six-digit passcode on your phone, and strong, complex passwords on your computer and digital accounts. Enable two-factor authentication on your accounts as an extra layer of security. Make sure your Wi-Fi settings are secure and partition your Wi-Fi network to allow houseguests and contractors access to the Internet while restricting access to your data.
Protect your passwords
Whether it’s via email, the cloud, or an app, many “hacks” are the result of weak, shared, or reused passwords. Keep your passwords private. If your password was ever part of a major breach, remember that means it’s potentially available to those who know how to find it, allowing them access to your personal, even financial, data. Never reuse passwords.
Whether you tweet, “like” a friend’s Facebook page, post about a vacation or outing, or even write an email, every keystroke tells a long and lasting story. Until you take control of your online profile, you’re vulnerable to hackers, identity thieves, and others who may want to profit from your information. Take steps to safeguard your data and information.