How to keep your personal information private

March 20 | Guest post by Jeanne Valjean
By: Angelo DeSantisCC BY 2.0
Have you ever Googled yourself and found your name, birthdate, phone number, home address, and family members' names listed on a people search website? [Or even an Offbeat Empire blog comment?] Go on, try it.

If you have utility, internet, or cable bills in your name, they will lead to your home address. If you file a police report or go to court as either a plaintiff or defendant, you may get calls from personal injury lawyers; those records are public. If you own your residence in your own name, anyone can search property records to discover where you live.

I have been located via school records, utility bills, online retailers, magazine subscriptions, charities, friends' phone bills, and even tagged pictures. Hopefully, most of you will never face the level of harassment I've received, but taking basic privacy measures can also deter marketers, identity thieves, and other people you don't want to meet. Here's how…

Stop giving away your information

Your information is valuable. That is why Facebook and Google make fortunes from ad sales, and that is why data brokers, marketers, etc. want it. It is MUCH easier to keep your information out of a database in the first place than it is to successfully demand its removal.

How to get off people-search sites

Last year, this Reddit post listed the largest data brokers and how to remove your information. The poster is a lawyer with Abine — their DeleteMe service will remove your information for a fee.

SafeShepherd will also remove your information. Their premium membership is cheaper than Abine, and the basic membership is free.

If you are serious about removing as much information as possible from the internet, I strongly recommend Hiding from the Internet: Eliminating Personal Online Information by Michael Bazzell (an FBI agent specializing in cybercrime). This book is by far the most economical and thorough way to remove your information.

How to protect your phone number

I no longer give my actual phone number to anyone I don't know well. Instead, I give out a Google Voice number. If the wrong person gets it, I can quickly change it and give it to the few people who truly need to reach me.

If you are receiving unwanted calls (and don't have Android like Ariel does), I use and recommend Trapcall, which works with any cell phone. It's easy to use and very effective.

How to hide your home address

In 2009, I stopped accepting mail at home because my letter carrier was harassing me. Instead, I had everything sent to my work address, ten miles from the carrier's route.

Consider PO boxes, private mailboxes, and other alternate addresses. Are you active in your church or with a charity? Are you friendly with a local business owner? They might accept your mail if you ask nicely.

Since utility accounts are always associated with the physical address where they are used, having the bill sent to a PO box won't separate your name from your address. My utilities are in a housemate's name, but I eventually plan to put them under a nom de plume or business name.

If you must receive a delivery at home (e.g. large furniture), you might consider giving the delivery company an alternate name (and don't forget to sign the other name).

Look up your address on Google Street View. Does the picture show you, your kids, your vehicle? You can ask Google to blur the image.

What your online presence reveals about you

Consider having a separate email address for social media only — one that will not identify you. Employers, nosy neighbors, and stalkers who Google your "official" email address will then have a harder time finding whatever you've posted on the internet.

For added security, get a notsharingmy.info email address, associate it with your social media accounts, and forward it to an email account that does not identify you. (When I need a disposable email address — e.g. a onetime website registration — I use GuerrillaMail.com.)

If you share photos online, you may want to strip the EXIF data first, since it reveals exactly where and when the picture was taken. Resourceful stalkers know and use this.

Preventing other privacy leaks

Shred anything in your trash that is readable. Identity thieves, private investigators, nosy neighbors, and stalkers can learn a lot from what you throw away. Non-shreddable items like pill bottles can be tossed in a public trash can.

Anyone with a valid credit card can run your credit report. They will know where you've applied for an apartment, how much money you owe on your student loans, etc. Creepy, huh? I placed a freeze on my credit — no one can see my credit report or apply for credit in my name unless I contact a credit bureau and unfreeze it.

Is your vehicle registered to your home address? There are corrupt people with access to DMV records. Consider registering your vehicle to an alternate address if possible.

If you do not have a passport, get one. Like most people, I used to use my driver's license for ID — until a creepy security guard at a music club took a little too much interest in the home address on my license! Since my passport shows no address, it's the only form of ID I will show anyone who is not a traffic cop.

Further Reading

(I am not affiliated with any of these authors or with any of the services mentioned.)

  1. First and foremost, I am really glad that the author was able to do all of things and be so resourceful and smart to keep herself safe and hope that her heart never pounds in fear again. Thanks for sharing these methods.

    I didn't even know that you could have utilities in an alternate name. I always thought that billing stuff has to be your real name (or a business).

    I have been nervous before to leave my ID for a pool table or something when I am obviously by myself. I love the idea of using the passport. Usually I keep it protected since it's such a pain to replace, but obviously I am going about it the wrong way! You could probably leave the driver's license in your glove box or something so that it's not on your person in case of a purse snatching or something. If you get pulled over without the license (driving a friend's car or something) in my state it's a $7.50 ticket that the cop can choose not to give you, so it wouldn't be a big deal.

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    • Danielle, you absolutely can put utilities in another name. They can be in a business name, or under an alternate name of your choice. However, you may have to put down a deposit in lieu of a credit check (it will be returned to you or applied to your account after a year if you have paid on time).

      If you aren't moving anytime soon, you can always call the utility and "correct" the information they have on file (Frank Ahearn details this in "How to Disappear")…just make sure to write down the "corrected" information you give them. Your utility company doesn't care what your real name is, as long as you pay your bills on time.

      If you are a US citizen and don't want to carry a passport around, you might want to apply for a passport card (they can be used for land or sea entries to Canada, Mexico, and some Caribbean countries). They are wallet-sized. Some people with privacy concerns do leave their licenses in their cars, but I never do this because vehicle theft is too common where I live.

      If you have any further questions, ask away and I'll do my best to answer.

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  2. In terms of the pill bottles, I leave mine in a sink full of soap and hot water to soak for a few minutes. Then the labels rub right off. The action of rubbing them destroys them so much they are basically unreadable, but you could then throw those into a public bin if you are still worried about it and reuse the bottles themselves.

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    • You can also return the bottles to your pharmacy – they are legally obligated to get rid of all their personal information in a privacy-protected way, such as shredding on burning. Adding your pill bottles to their pill of SHRED material is usually no big deal!

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      • Good to know! The last time I even saw a prescription pill bottle was years ago, and the label was some kind of plastic that wouldn't come off.

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  3. Thanks for this. I am trying to erase as much as possible, but it's so pervasive.

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    • Jessi, I hope this article helps. The books I listed cover pretty much everything, but if you have an issue they don't address, feel free to ask me and I'll help if I can.

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  4. So… I know this is a little outside the scope of anything most people will have, but… I did, ONE TIME, a while ago, try my hand at one amateur adult film to see if it was something I liked. I learned it wasn't my thing, but shortly thereafter, a certain leak site (please, please don't google that site or afford it any more publicity) published my real name with my stage name. For some actors/actresses, this site has posted everything from home addresses to family members and workplaces- mostly of those people who have tried to fight them. I assume they're using all publicly available material, which is why they're allowed to do this. Supposedly, their servers are in Switzerland or something, which makes it even harder to prosecute in the US.

    Any way you know of to remove info from sites like that? Luckily they only have my name and stage name, but people could easily find more…. and I do kinda have a high-profile day job now. :(

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    • Amber, Frank Ahearn, author of "How to Disappear" (linked below) has handled and written about cases like yours. Your best bet is to read his follow-up book, "The Digital Hit Man" (readily available on Amazon) which details how to get websites to remove your information – or at least make it look like it belongs to someone else with the same name. It may turn out to be a lot of work, but it'll probably be easier than trying to prosecute the offending site.

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  5. Thanks for this. I've been scared of googling myself, for fear of what would turn up, and your article gave me the courage to do it. It turns out that mostly it wasn't so bad, but there were also a few easily corrected big problems in what turns up. I don't feel a need to disappear online, but I am trying to clean up my youthful, thoughtless internet usage and replace it with a professional internet presence. This was very helpful. Thanks!

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  6. This is great info–thanks!! Also, if you ask nicely your bank will usually let you bring a bag of papers to shred for free. They often have a few very large locked bins in the back and contract with an information security company who does the bulk shredding.

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  7. Thank you so much for this! To be honest I've been finding the whole privacy thing terrifying particularly seeing as the rules appear to be somewhat different in the US. This gives me some really tangible tools on how to get a handle on it all and I cannot even begin to tell you how light and happy and relieved that makes me feel! A thousand thank yous!

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    • Jayem, the only thing more terrifying than taking control of your privacy is finding out the hard way that your privacy can easily be compromised. It's mostly a matter of common sense and learning when not to supply your own information.

      If you are outside the US, the third edition of "How to Be Invisible" has a chapter specifically for international readers (the author is an American who has spent most of his life in Spain).

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  8. this post was the final jab i need to finally buy one of these hand powered small shredders.
    http://www.amazon.com/DL-4010M-2-Link-Mini-Hand-Shredder/dp/B007I7X6FO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1363885340&sr=8-1&keywords=hand+shredder

    right now i tear up all the items with our name / address, but i knew that wasn't really good enough.

    one other thing i've done – i never ever use my real birth date (except for legitimate things, like credit cards) when i have to register for something online. Anything online i use the same (fake) date so i know what i put if i need it ever to verify a log in.

    People can apply for items (like credit cards) with just a little bit of information – like your name and birth date, so i don't like it being out there. I used to enter online contests a lot and i started doing it then because i didn't want a bunch of people having access to real info. i also use a shortened version of my name that is gender neutral in any place that i don't trust.

    And, of course, make sure your email password(s) are unique and secure. mine is a 22 character long sentence with numbers and capitalization. if people can hack your email, they can then use that access to reset passwords everywhere else.

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    • Andrea, if you're using a strip shredder, you should be aware that with enough time and patience, your shredded items can be re-assembled (some PIs even pay senior citizens to do this). Frank Ahearn suggests flushing or burning shreds, but I think splitting your shreds into two piles and disposing of them in more than one bag is probably fine. (I use a confetti-cut shredder.)

      I am glad to hear that you are altering your information and using hard-to-crack passwords, which I have done for years. The original draft of this post was more than 3,000 words long, so unfortunately I did have to trim a lot for space!

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    • Slightly off topic but password related: years ago i had an web page account on a server run by a friend, and he upgraded the server. During the process, he wasn't able to transport the account passwords, so to save the hassle of either resetting all the user passwords or setting up temp passwords, he just ran a password cracking program. when the new server was setup and ready to get running, i got a call where he informed me that he'd been running the cracker for about a week, and while most of the accounts he cracked within 2 days, it was still running on mine alone — did i want to give him my password, or just have him setup a temp and reset it when the transfer was done?

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  9. I found my brother's biological parents with ONLY their first names and the knowledge that they had been married (at some point). It only took me 24 hours using the website pipl.com and cross referencing with whitepages and other social media sites. My students are always surprised at how much you can find online…

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