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Wednesday, May 8, 2024

How to Erase Yourself (and the Seniors You Love) From the Internet

Identity theft, scamming, personal data exposure: a lot of information about you is online and can be used against you. Here’s how to best protect yourself and the ones you love.

Your online activity can be used against you. Whether a data breach revealed your social security number and birthday, or a social media site has the names and ages of your children and grandchildren, unscrupulous people can find out a lot about you by looking online. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to phishing and scams that use personal information to steal money. But no one is immune. This financial columnist got scammed for $50,000. It can happen to anyone.

There’s even a name for companies that collect your information and sell it: data brokers. While you can’t fully remove yourself from every corner of the web, there’s plenty you can do to make you hard enough to find that a scammer or thief will go elsewhere to ply their “trade”. While you’re at it, you might want to help Mom or Dad do the same.

Removing Online Information by Yourself

If you have lots of time on your hands and a deep desire to go to hundreds (likely) of sites to request information be deleted, it can be done. There are several steps to take, such as cleaning websites that host your information, closing websites you own and wiping your information from forums. Then you’ll need to run your information through various search engines and opt out of data brokers. You can find detailed instructions here.
Before you begin, make sure that your social media sites are set to “private”. This will prevent a continual leak of information.

Start With Google 

The first test is to google yourself and see where information is coming up. Check for your address, driver’s license number or any other information you don’t want available. Then add a phone number or your address to your name and do another search. The good news? Google just put out a form so that you can request certain information be removed, including fake photos, medical records, financial information, and your address. 

The bad news? To truly remove the information, you have to go beyond Google, which is merely an aggregator, to the source sites and ask that they erase your information. And you need to contact the main data brokers, to request they no longer share or keep your information there, too. Find a list at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that can also help stem the flow of spam and junk mail.

It’s a lot of work. “You can do it yourself, it’s just a very time-consuming exercise because you have to go to individual websites and follow the rules about how to remove yourself from the websites,” said Rahul Telang, professor of information systems at Carnegie Mellon University.

Use a Third-Party Service

If you’re starting to realize that this could be a monumental task you’d rather not dig into yourself, never fear. There are services that specialize in cleaning up your online presence. Although not even they can remove every bit of information about you online, they will likely be faster and more adept than you are at finding and eliminating the things you want erased. Like most things in life, you just have to be ready to pay the price. Here are several popular options:

  • DeleteMe charges $129 per year for one person. DeleteMe says an average of 2,389 pieces of information are found about every client.
  • Kanary offers a free version, and charges $105 annually for a single person, and $150 for a family plan for up to three people. The company claims a removal success rate of over 70% for users.
  • OneRep will take care of one person for $99.96 per year, or up to six people for $180. The company boasts 5 million deleted records in 2021 alone. 

Before you sign up for a service, read the terms to see exactly what you’ll be getting. You’ll want to know the price, what’s included, and how often the company keeps you apprised of what they’ve found and how it’s been dealt with. Check if a free trial is available. Another tip: If you use a credit monitoring service, check to see if it includes a data removal service.

As artificial intelligence allows scammers to become ever more sophisticated, removing your data from the internet can put one more barrier in their way. As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”