How to keep your personal information private

Guestpost by Jeanne Valjean on Mar 20th

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.)

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About Jeanne Valjean

Jeanne Valjean has previously written for Offbeat Home under (what else) another name. She lives an offbeat, but private, life in an undisclosed location. Her heart no longer pounds with fear when the phone rings.