How To Protect Your Personal Information Online

August 31, 2023

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    How Easy Is It To Find Your Personal Information Online?

    You wouldn’t knowingly hand over your tax return, ID, or Social Security number (SSN) to a stranger — yet every day, millions of Americans post their personal information on social networking sites or use it to sign up for online services that have questionable security practices. 

    And once your personal and financial information is online — whether on a public website or a company’s private server — it can be accessed by scammers, hackers, stalkers, and almost anyone else. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center [*]: 

    In the first half of 2023, there were nearly 1,400 data breaches, putting this year on track for a 30–40% increase from 2022. 

    While you don’t have complete control over how your personal data is stored and used, you can limit what information is available to cybercriminals. 

    In this guide, we’ll explain how your personal information can be easily found online, and review 10 security measures that can help prevent your data from ending up in the hands of hackers and scammers. 

    How Much of Your Personal Information Is Online? 

    Personal data is the foundation of the internet. Any time you post, sign up for an account, or download an app, your personal information is collected and stored. While that information is often meant to be secure and private, data breaches have exposed personal information from over 156 million victims since the start of 2023 alone [*].

    Once leaked, your data can be used for purposes ranging from targeted advertising to phishing scams and other cyberattacks. 

    Here’s a quick snapshot of the types of personal information that can readily be found online:

    • Personal information on your social media profiles. Social networking sites ask you for a significant amount of personal information when you first sign up, including your full name, location, phone number, email address, and job title. 
    • Private information leaked in data breaches. If a service or company you use is targeted in a data breach, scammers could access personal information in your file — including passwords, credentials, financial information, or even your Social Security number (SSN). 
    • Contact information collected by data brokers. Data brokers collect publicly available personal information and sell it to marketers, advertisers, and regulatory agencies for legitimate purposes. But sometimes, scammers get ahold of the information, which can put you at risk of identity theft.
    • Location data from your phone and mobile devices. Cybercriminals may be able to track where you live by checking tagged Instagram photos, hacking your IP address, or even seeing that you “like” your local bank’s Facebook page. 
    • Hacked data and passwords sold on the Dark Web. Hackers buy, sell, and trade stolen personal information on the Dark Web. To find out if you’re at risk of being hacked or scammed, you can use a Dark Web scanner to see if any of your data has been leaked. 
    • Browsing and shopping history from ad trackers. Websites use technology to track your online shopping habits and past purchases; they then use this data to serve you targeted ads.
    • Retail loyalty and rewards programs. When you enroll in a retail store’s loyalty or rewards program, that information will be added to your digital footprint. It might contain details like your preferred shopping locations and stored payment information. 

    The bottom line: Unless you don’t use the internet, your personal information is available to anyone looking for it. An all-in-one digital security provider like Identity Guard can monitor your sensitive data and alert you if it's been compromised or used by a scammer. Learn more about how Identity Guard can keep you safe online.

    10 Ways To Protect Your Personal Information Online

    1. Secure your accounts with strong passwords
    2. Enable 2FA for important accounts
    3. Update your social media privacy settings
    4. Limit what information Google displays about you
    5. Delete apps and accounts that you no longer use
    6. Request that data brokers remove your information
    7. Secure your devices with digital security tools
    8. Don’t skip software or operating system updates
    9. Avoid using public Wi-Fi networks
    10. Monitor your sensitive information

    Limiting what information is available about you online and securing your accounts are some of the best methods to protect your personal information online. Here are 10 ways to prevent scammers from learning too much about you:

    1. Secure your online accounts with strong passwords

    Major data breaches over the past few years have exposed millions of passwords — meaning almost everyone who uses internet services is at risk of being hacked. Securing your online accounts with strong and unique passwords can help prevent scammers from taking them over or accessing your sensitive information and using it to steal your identity. 

    How to secure your online accounts:

    • Check if your passwords have been leaked to the Dark Web. Identity Guard’s free Dark Web scanner searches hacker forums to see if your passwords were leaked in a recent data breach. Use this as a starting point to identify which accounts are most at risk and need to be updated right away. 
    • Use strong, long, and unique passwords for each account. Ideally, each password should be at least 10 characters long and comprise a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. Don’t use common combinations (i.e. “123”) or repeat passwords (or even close variations) across accounts. 
    • Store your passwords in a secure password manager. These tools store your passwords in a single, secure location so that you don’t have to worry about remembering each one. The password manager that’s included with your Identity Guard membership can even warn you if your credentials are too weak or were leaked in a breach. 

    💡 Related: How To Check If Someone Is Using Your Identity

    2. Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) for important accounts

    Two-factor authentication is an additional security layer that helps protect your most important accounts — such as your online banking profile, email, and social media accounts. 

    With 2FA enabled, you’ll be required to enter a secondary authentication method along with your passwords. For example, a one-time-use code will be sent to your phone or email account. This makes it much harder for hackers to break into your accounts, as they’ll need these codes (or physical access to your device) in addition to your password.

    Pro tip: Use an authenticator app like Authy or Google Authenticator rather than SMS. Scammers can use a SIM swap scam to take over your phone number and bypass basic 2FA. An authenticator app isn’t tied to your phone number, making your accounts even more secure.

    💡 Related: How To Spot Fake Apps: App Size, Permissions, Source

    3. Update your social media privacy settings

    Social media accounts contain troves of personal data that can be exploited and used to target you with scams. Unfortunately, the default privacy settings on most social media platforms aren’t secure enough to protect you. 

    Here’s how to tighten your profile’s security settings on most major social media platforms:

    💡 Related: How To Avoid Social Media Identity Theft

    4. Limit what information Google displays about you in search results

    With a quick Google search, someone could find your personal details including your current and past addresses, phone numbers, employment information, and email address. 

    The good news is that you can request that search engines not display any of your personally identifiable information (PII) that is available. This won’t delete the information from the websites where it’s posted, but it will ensure that your PII doesn’t show up in search results. 

    How to remove personal information from Google search results:

    • Start a personal information removal request. To initiate the removal request, you’ll be asked what type of information you want removed, why you want it removed, and if you’ve already contacted the website owner to have the data wiped. You will also have to provide the URLs for web pages that display the content you want removed.
    • Wait for approval. Once the request has been submitted, Google will review your request and decide whether to approve or deny the request. You might also be asked to provide more information in order for Google to make a final decision. 

    💡 Related: Is Your Google Account Hacked? How To Tell & What To Do

    5. Delete apps and accounts that you no longer use

    Unused apps and dormant accounts are easy targets for hackers, as you’re less likely to notice if they’ve been hacked. Some apps also require strict permissions — such as access to your contacts or the ability to send emails or text messages on your behalf. 

    Make it a habit to regularly delete unused or old accounts to ensure that your information can’t be leaked in a hack or cyberattack. 

    6. Request that data brokers remove your personal information

    If a data broker sells your information to hackers, they could target you with scams and phishing attempts. It’s your right to request that these services remove your personal information. However, with hundreds of data brokers located in the United States alone, requesting removal from each one can be a continuous and labor-intensive endeavor. 

    How to remove your information from data broker sites:

    • Go to the data broker website and submit a removal request. Search the data broker list on PrivacyRights.org to find out how to manually request the removal of your information from individual data broker sites such as BeenVerified and Acxiom. You’ll most likely need to visit each website and submit an opt-out request (you might find it by clicking on Do Not Sell My Personal Information). It may take a few days for your information to be removed.
    • Use a third-party removal site. A faster, easier, and more reliable way to remove your information from data broker websites is to sign up for a third-party service that does it for you. Identity Guard, for instance, will submit opt-out requests on your behalf for up to 20 data brokers.

    💡 Related: How To Find Out If Your Information Is On the Dark Web

    7. Secure your devices with digital security tools

    A hacked account or device can leak your most sensitive personal information online. Protect your devices with security software that blocks malware, warns you of phishing attacks, and hides your online activity whenever you’re using public Wi-Fi networks. 

    Identity Guard includes a secure password manager with every plan, along with Safe Browsing tools that can keep your accounts safe from hackers. 

    💡 Related: Do I Need Identity Theft Protection? What You Need To Know

    8. Don’t skip software or operating system updates

    Hackers take advantage of known vulnerabilities in outdated software and operating systems in order to steal your personal information. Make sure you’ve enabled auto-updates so that your apps and devices are always up to date. For added safety, consider a cybersecurity provider that includes antivirus software and other security firewalls. 

    9. Avoid using public Wi-Fi networks

    Public Wi-Fi networks are notoriously easy to hack. Scammers set up legitimate-looking networks in public places, such as coffee shops and airports. But any information you enter while logged in to these accounts — including your account passwords and credit card numbers — go straight to scammers. 

    It’s best to avoid using public Wi-Fi. If you need to get online while away from home or work, use a mobile hotspot while logging in to services. Alternatively, you can use a virtual private network (VPN) to encrypt your data and hide it from hackers. 

    10. Monitor your sensitive information with identity theft protection

    While you can take steps to protect your personal information online, it’s impossible to prevent everyone from accessing your sensitive data. That’s where identity theft protection providers come in. 

    Identity Guard monitors your most sensitive personal information, including online and financial accounts, and alerts you in near real-time of suspicious activity or fraud. 

    Here’s what you get with Identity Guard: 

    • Award-winning identity theft protection. Identity Guard monitors your SSN, contact details, passport or driver’s license number, and more for signs of fraud — and alerts you in near-real time if your identity is compromised. 
    • Dark Web monitoring and alerts. Identity Guard also scans recent data breaches to alert you if you’ve been impacted. 
    • Three-bureau credit monitoring and fraud protection. If fraudsters try to open new accounts, take out loans in your name, or access your bank account, Identity Guard will alert you quickly and help you shut down scammers before they can do much damage. 
    • Safe Browsing tools to shield your data from cybercriminals. Identity Guard can warn you of fake websites and protect your passwords from hackers. 
    • Up to $1 million in identity theft insurance. Every adult member on an Identity Guard plan is covered for up to $1 million in eligible losses due to identity theft — such as stolen funds, lost wages, and lawyer fees.

    💪 Don’t get stuck dealing with identity theft or fraud alone. If the worst should happen, Identity Guard’s U.S.-based White Glove Fraud Resolution Specialists are available to help you recover your identity, hacked accounts, and leaked data. Save up to 33% when you sign up for Identity Guard today.

    Don’t Forget About Protecting Your Identity in Real Life

    Securing your information online is important, but don’t neglect identity protection in your everyday life. 

    Here are some ways to safeguard your sensitive data against thieves who might be after it:

    • Keep your wallet or purse safe. Know what IDs and other documents you’re carrying with you, and try to keep them to a minimum in case your wallet or purse is lost or stolen. A lost ID is all it takes to have your identity stolen. 
    • Shred documents with sensitive information. When you receive documents containing sensitive information, shred the papers before you throw them away. Otherwise, anyone could sort through your trash and recover personal information. 
    • Collect your mail as soon as possible. Don’t leave your mail sitting in the mailbox for too long. If you’ve received mail that includes sensitive information, such as a bank statement or medical bill, someone could steal your mail and use it for malicious purposes.
    • Don’t give out personal information over the phone. Never disclose personal information via phone, even if you’re in the privacy of your own home. If you’re asked to verify sensitive data in a phone call, ask if there is a more secure way to share it.
    • Beware of “shoulder surfers” when in public places. Be aware of your surroundings when you’re out in public. So-called “shoulder surfers” might try to glance at your phone or laptop screen — or peek at your credit card, which could compromise your information.
    • Remove labels from prescriptions before throwing them away. Before you throw out a prescription bottle, peel off the label or use a marker to hide your name and address (as well as your doctor’s name). Information found on prescription bottles and leaflets can be used for medical identity theft and fraud.
    • Lock your phone and other devices. Lock your phone, tablet, and computer with a passcode to prevent anyone else from gaining access. This makes it harder for cybercriminals to break into your devices if they get stolen. 

    The Bottom Line: Your Personal Information Can Put You at Risk

    The unfortunate truth is that it’s impossible to keep all of your personal information safe online. Instead, securing your accounts and removing as much information as possible will give you the best chance of avoiding scams.

    For added security, consider Identity Guard’s all-in-one safety solution. Identity Guard monitors and proactively protects your most sensitive information from hackers and scammers, alerts you if you’ve become a victim, and helps you recover from fraud. 

    Don’t let identity thieves steal your life. Save 33% when you sign up for Identity Guard today.

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    1. Financial identity theft and fraud
    2. Medical identity theft
    3. Child identity theft
    4. Elder fraud and estate identity theft
    5. “Friendly” or familial identity theft
    6. Employment identity theft
    7. Criminal identity theft
    8. Tax identity theft
    9. Unemployment and government benefits identity theft
    10. Synthetic identity theft
    11. Identity cloning
    12. Account takeovers (social media, email, etc.)
    13. Social Security number identity theft
    14. Biometric ID theft
    15. Crypto account takeovers