Protecting Privacy in the Information Age

My dad, like many folks, likes to fly under the radar. Outside of work, he doesn’t own a computer, has no personal e-mail, never had a cell phone in his life. So forget about seeing his profile on Linked In or Facebook. I remember doing a White Pages search for other people with our last name a few years ago, and found that my father’s name came up with his year of birth and current age, and home phone number. When I told him about it, he was completely taken aback: “How did they get that information?”

Welcome to the Information Age, Dad. You can find more than just phone numbers and addresses, if you leave an imprint on the World Wide Web.

It’s been the age of Google for the better part of a decade, and the search engine name became a verb — you can “google” anything. If you google my name, you’ll find that I’ve got profiles on Facebook, Linked In and Twitter, run a blog called Rainy-Day Saver that has a lot of posts, and wrote a book called Images of America: Belleville. You’ll see where I’ve worked, what schools I attended and what my husband and I put on our wedding registry. There are also articles I’ve written for other publications and comments on more than a few personal finance blogs.

For folks of the same mindset as my dad, having all of this information out there is a nightmare. They’ve done all they can to keep unused credit card applications out of the hands of garbage pickers, shredding every piece of mail with their name, address and other sensitive information that comes their way.

But how do you protect the information you’re NOT willing to share with the entire world? There are a few methods you can employ, both on the Internet and offline.

Shred it all away. Buy a shredder for your home, and use it to destroy paperwork with any personal information on it. I use it for junk mail and old bills and papers.

Have an unlisted phone number. This has been a way to protect your privacy for decades, and is still valid today.

Be careful when making online purchases. Only buy from websites you trust, and make sure they encrypt your information. I prefer the use of PayPal, when possible.

Don’t sign up for social networks. This is the easiest way to keep your name off the internet. If you do join, use an alias or change your settings so that only friends and family can view your profile.

Quit using Internet Explorer. This tip comes from CNET, which recommends avoiding use of IE because it’s the most popular browser (and therefore, a bigger target for data thieves) and because of Microsoft’s poor security record. Even the German government is currently recommending its citizens not use IE until a major security flaw is patched. I use Firefox on my PC, and I enjoy the fact that the browser doesn’t crash a million times a day.

Don’t share your passwords/PINs/account numbers. Don’t write them down and don’t give them to anyone — especially bank account and credit card numbers.

How much information is too put to put out there? Are there other ways to protect your privacy?

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