From sensitive banking information to photos you wish hadn’t been posted to the web, you probably have stuff online you wouldn’t want others to find.
Erasing some of your personal data from the internet could lower the chances of someone finding and using it for nefarious purposes.
If you’re ready to take steps to help protect your identity, here are some tips and examples of how to remove personal information from the internet.
How can my personal information land on the internet?
When fraudsters have your information, it could lead to serious trouble. Once they obtain your full name and other personal details, they could use these together to steal your identity, wreak havoc on your finances, send phishing attempts, or even stalk you in person.
Examples of personal information include:
- Details such as full name, physical address, telephone number, and education history.
- Bank account numbers and login information.
- Account credentials, such as user names and passwords, for websites.
- Health information or health insurance details.
- Identification numbers, such as a passport number, Social Security number, or tax identification number.
Here are four ways thieves may get your personal information.
These occur when unauthorized individuals break into databases to steal and release personally identifying information, or PII, on hard-to-find websites, usually on the dark web.
The targeted information may include names, Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, medical and financial records, and email addresses and passwords.
These companies collect and sell all the data they can legally get their hands on, such as names, date of birth, telephone numbers, addresses, land records, marriage records, criminal history, social media profiles, and more. They consolidate this data from dozens of different public records, then compile it online.
You can typically look at basic details for free or pay to get a more in-depth report.
Social media and blogs
Your social media accounts may contain all the pieces a criminals needs to commit identity theft, such as your full name, where you live and work, photos of you and your family, vacation plans, and your favorite bands and hobbies. For instance, your dog’s name is PII if it’s the answer to one of your online security questions.
Removing social profiles and blogs makes it harder for fraudsters to use that information.
Internet service providers and various companies can use technology called “cookies” to track your web browsing history, usually using this information to create targeted advertisements.
However, hackers could also get their hands on your search and browsing history and use it to scam you, embarrass you, or get into your financial accounts.
Removing your personal information from the internet
It’s a process to remove your personal information from the internet, so be patient and don’t expect to complete it in one day. Take a systematic approach, tackling one technique every week or so.
Keep these caveats in mind: It may be impossible to permanently delete all of your info from the web. And after you remove any profiles and information, you might not surface in search results, which could put off future employers and potential love interests. But the time, effort, and absence from the web can help you protect your information and finances.
Delete your social media accounts
Make a list of the social media accounts you keep — such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Think back to sites such as Live Journal and MySpace, too.
Visit each website, find the account settings, and look for the option to deactivate or remove the account. Depending on how much information you want to keep private, you can also delete your online banking and credit card accounts, and even your email accounts.
If you’re having trouble, try Googling “how to delete X profile/account,” and you should find instructions for removing it. If you’re unable to close the account, replace the stored account information (such as your name and email address) with something that’s unintelligible (such as a string of random numbers and letters).
Ask data-collection websites to delete your information
If you want to scrub yourself from these databases, start by searching for yourself on websites such as Spokeo* and PeopleFinder*. Then contact the data broker and ask about opting out.
The process is different for each site, and it may take some time to complete the steps for each one.
For a fee, services such as DeleteMe* can save you some of that time by removing you from data brokers and other search results.
Close or delete any blogs or personal sites
Personal blogs may contain intimate details about your daily life, family, jobs, health information and financial situation — which is information a fraudster could use to scam you or access your accounts. If you publish a blog, be mindful of the details you’re sharing.
If someone else has posted sensitive information about you on their website or blog, then you can contact the webmaster of the site and ask them to remove the information.
Use the domain look-up feature on WhoIs.com* to find out the webmaster’s information. If the website refuses to remove your info, then you can send a legal request to Google* and ask to have it removed.
Remove all unnecessary apps from your phone or tablet
Many mobile apps on your smartphone and tablet collect personal details such as your name, email address, spending habits, and geographical location. This information can be hacked, leaked or stolen, and if it ends up in the hands of scammer, your finances could be at risk.
If you then determine you don’t want the app to have your info, then look for how to remove all your info and delete the app. You may have to contact the app provider and ask them to remove your information.
Also, it’s smart to go through your apps regularly and check out the privacy settings.
For instance, one app may request access to your microphone. While this could make sense for an app such as Skype, a maps app might not need it.
While you’re checking these apps regularly, remove the ones you’re not using to free up space and lower your risk of information exposure.
Keep in mind that uninstalling an app from your device doesn’t necessarily mean your personal information is deleted by the app developer. Again, check the privacy and account settings to determine how to fully delete your account.
Use a do-not-track feature
While browsing the web, you’ve probably noticed disclaimers about “cookies,” which is technology that tracks your web browsing habits. If you don’t want that information tracked and stored, then consider running security software that contains features to block online tracking.
You should also understand the limitations of your browser and any do-not-track feature. For example, Google’s Incognito feature on the Chrome browser won’t save your browsing history, cookies and site data, and any information you’ve entered in forms.
However, your browsing activity might still be visible to the websites you visit, your employer or school (if you’re on their networks), or your internet service provider.
Sweep out your computer data
There’s a trove of personal information stored on your browser history, including the websites you visit (including financial institutions), passwords, and cached images and files. If a hacker gains access to your device, they may be able to use that information, but it’s easy enough to clean much of it out. Regularly clear your browser history, delete cookies and install and use security software that includes online privacy features.
Remove outdated search results
Search engine results can expose a lot of info about you, through data broker websites, social media pages, news stories and even cached images. But you can ask Google to exclude any results containing your personal information by submitting a removal request form. It’s not 100% guaranteed, but Google will try to exclude your data from its results, making it much less likely that you’ll be found via search engines.
Final word on removing personal information from the internet
Removing your personal information from the internet will only go so far in privacy protection. You should also use encryption software, or a VPN, when transferring files, and install internet security and antivirus software on your computer, smartphone and tablet.
Although the process will take some time and effort, the peace of mind of increased privacy will be worthwhile.
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