There's a good chance that any time you've plugged a name or phone number into a search box online that you've landed on a people search website, such as Whitepages, Pipl, or People Finder.
Sites like these have troves of personal information just waiting to be dug up and if you've ever wanted to know someones past or current address, relatives, jobs, bankruptcies, marriages, divorces, tickets, fines, email addresses, social media usernames, VINs and vehicles, voting records, and in some cases, partial or full SSN, look no further. Some of these sites offer a sliver of information for free, but most are locked behind massive paywalls, sometimes costing upwards of $0.95.
In case you don't see the problem with all of that info being available for less than the cost of a pack of gum, let's briefly list out some downsides.
- Stalking. Someone looking to find you can do so in about 5 minutes worth of searching on Google. Abusive spouses, angry customers/mobs, or even employees are just a few types of people who can abuse this easily obtained information.
- Identity theft. Having access to someone personal information makes it trivial to impersonate them. It's especially easy when you start merging it with data from any of the dozens upon dozens of breaches that happen every other day.
- Account takeovers. Think of all the people who use things like "mothers maiden name", "street you grew up on", "elementary school name", "city you got married in" for account security questions. Having access to this easily researched information makes taking over accounts easier than ever.
- Information used for social engineering attacks. Think about what customer service reps usually ask for when you call into your cell phone carrier or bank to verify your account. First and last name, last four of your SSN, maybe an address. All information that is freely available across the web and some of your most important accounts are "protected" by it.
- Blackmail. Sextortion is becoming more of a problem than ever before and it's most likely not going away. Hotels and Airbnbs with cameras, recording/hacking webcams, or simply being betrayed by a loved one, people are looking to extort others for, typically, money. When criminals have access to addresses, family, and jobs, threatening to release explicit content to these people/places, it's easy to become overwhelmed with stress and fear.
So what can we do about this? Well, there's some good news and some bad news. We'll start with the bad because we should always eat our veggies first.
You can't permanently remove this information from the internet.
Yes, you read that correctly - you can't completely remove all of your information. Much of it comes from public records and is freely available in pieces across the web. It's not until it's aggregated and packaged neatly into a single location does it become scary. But, there's good news.
You can suppress your profiles and remove them from public view.
This won't remove it forever but it will prevent the average person from finding you by searching for your name or phone number.
The best place to start is the Extreme Privacy Workbook from Michael Bazzell. It's an amazing (and free!) workbook with an immense amount of information surrounding data brokers. I recommend reading and acting on all of it (no really, print this entire thing out) but if you only take a single action in the workbook, do this:
The “MOST BANG FOR YOUR BUCK” removals:
Spokeo, Mylife, Radaris, Whitepages, Intelius, BeenVerified, Acxiom, Infotracer, Lexis Nexis, TruePeopleSearch.
These will trickle down to many of the smaller sites mentioned on the following pages. I recommend that people start with these first, wait about one week, and then start to tackle the remaining sites. Helpful note from forum user “Ringo”: When they ask for a photo ID, just upload something random, they usually don’t even look at the picture.
It's easy to feel discouraged when you first look at this workbook due to the sheer amount of brokers but it doesn't need to be done all in one day nor does every broker contain your information. Doing a couple pages a day can knock out the book in a week and being careful with who you share your information with will keep your profiles hidden.
After you've gone through the removals, you'll want to be aware of the type of information you're giving out and why you're being asked for it. If you keep giving out information to anyone or anything that asks for it, you're going to wind up populating these databases and pushing them back into public view.
Very few places need your real name, your real address, or real anything. Does Spotify need your real name and main email address to play your music? Does the big box store need your real name and address and phone number for their rewards card? Do you really need to scribble all of your personally identifiable information on a tear off sheet for a chance to win a sweepstakes?
The answer is no and will always be no. Many places gather this information and ultimately sell it to make a few bucks. When they do that, it quickly makes its way through the wires and ends up in the hands of a data broker. Since most brokers steal from each other, it spreads like wildfire to others.
As long as you aren't lying to the government (no, really, don't do this), there's no law that says you have to tell Staples your real name and address so you can get 5% back in rewards points.
To make things a little simpler, here's the direct links to opt out of each of the big 10 brokers that are listed in this post.
MyLife - Have to email MyLife at firstname.lastname@example.org with your information to be removed. Search yourself first but only give the minimal amount of information during your removal request (Name, Address) so they can remove the correct profile.
Want to join the discussion? Check out this post, and others, over at the CupWire subreddit and leave a comment.