10 Ways to Protect Personal Identifiable Information Online
The Internet is a vast hub of information – including your own personal information. As we browse the web, use social media, and create online accounts, websites and companies collect users’ personal data along the way. In this article, figure out how to hide Internet activity and protect your personally identifiable information online, whether you’re online all day or just browsing casually.
Search for yourself online
Searching for yourself online will give you a great understanding of your current online presence. What do sites know about you? What social media sites come up when you search your name? A quick self-search provides answers to these questions.
Start by searching multiple search engines for your name, as each search engine can show different results. Type your name in quotes and see what comes up. You can also add your general location, like “John Doe” Atlanta if you’re from Atlanta, Georgia. Try searching your social media handles to see if your accounts come up.
As you browse the results, press Ctrl or Cmd before clicking on a website to open it in a new tab. This will allow you to investigate without losing track of your original search results. Once you’ve performed a thorough search, you’ll have an idea of how much of your personally identifying information websites have.
Opt out of databases
If you find your name and personal identifiable information (PII) listed on a site where you’d like it removed – for example, on a database site like Whitepages – check for their Opt Out link. Typically, these links are found on the bottom of the page. Removing your information from sites where it’s readily available is one of the best – and simplest – ways to protect your personal information online.
If you're unable to find the Opt Out link, open a new tab. Using the same search engine, type “opt out” + the name of the site on which you found the information, like opt out whitepages.com. Follow their steps for opting out. Within 24 hours, your name and information should be dropped from the database, and within a few weeks, the link in the search engine should drop out of the results.
Optimize your social media privacy settings
Protecting your online accounts is one of the best ways to secure your personal information online. If one of the links you’ve found is a social media link, like Facebook, go to that account’s settings and find the privacy settings. Edit the options to optimize your social media accounts’ privacy settings. You don’t have to disappear off social media entirely; just make sure your accounts are set to private and that you aren’t sharing any personal information online.
If you really want to protect your personal information, consider talking to your friends about tagging you in posts or mentioning you on social media. Even if your account is private, your friends’ accounts might not be; pictures or information from their accounts could still turn up online.
Keep your real phone number private
Another way to protect your personal information online is to use a Google Voice number. This doesn't cost anything, and Google provides an app that installs on your phone. When someone calls this number, your mobile phone will ring. You can also dial out as that number via the app so your Google Voice number will show up on their caller ID and not your real number.
There are other options you can set within the app, but this is a great way to protect your actual phone number. Furthermore, if you're someone who changes phone numbers on a regular basis, this is a great option, as you won’t have to update your friends each time you get a new number.
You can decide to give everyone your Google Voice number or choose to only give it to third parties. If the phone calls to that number become overwhelming, you can simply get a new Google Voice number.
Use a throwaway email address
Using rewards programs and creating accounts for online stores is handy, but it also means that you have to give out your email address. As some companies sell user data to advertisers, this isn’t ideal. Therefore, a throwaway email address is a great option.
Create a non-personal Gmail account and use it for mailing lists. When you sign up for coupons, become a rewards member, or create an account online, provide the disposable email address instead of your personal address. As a bonus, this method will also reduce the number of spam emails in your inbox.
Only enter information on HTTPS sites
HTTPS is the updated, secure version of HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol). Because it’s encrypted through the transport layer, websites encrypted with HTTPS are significantly more secure. Before you enter any personal information into a website or forum, check to see if it’s secure.
To know whether a site is HTTPS, look before the “www” in the URL. If it’s https://www, the site is secure; if it’s just http://www, it’s not secured with HTTPS. You can also check for a small lock in your address bar.
Avoid using free WiFi
Free WiFi networks, though convenient, are not the safest choice for browsing online. Free WiFi networks are less secure than your private home network, making your device more vulnerable to hacking incidents or other online attacks. Therefore, someone could theoretically spy on your device and glean your information from a connection to a free WiFi network.
Invest in identity theft protection
Identity theft is a serious threat. Though keeping your personal information offline helps lessen the risk of having your identity stolen, investing in identity theft protection can help you prevent attacks further. Some identity theft protection programs even scan the dark web for your information.
Find an identity theft program, like Norton 360’s LifeLock, that provides tech protection and credit bureau monitoring. If your identity is stolen, you’ll also receive insurance coverage. These prevention programs keep an eye on your information and make sure that no criminal activity is detected.
Use two-factor authentication on important accounts
2FA, or two-factor authentication, helps protect your accounts from unauthorized access. Enabling 2FA sends a code to your device each time you access your account to complete the login process. Someone else attempting to log into your accounts will then need a code that only you receive. 2FA protects your accounts, which, in turn, protects all the personal information you have attached to your accounts.
Keep security software up to date
One of the best ways to protect yourself and your information against malware attacks, viruses, and other damaging files is to keep your security software up to date. This means regularly updating your computer or device’s system settings. Make sure you also update your antivirus software, as this is the first line of defense against malicious software entering your system.
Protecting your personal information online
If you want to know how to protect your personal information online, these ten ways are the answer. Make sure to stay diligent and review your security settings every few months. Search for yourself online periodically, too, to know what websites still have your information even as you enact these changes.
From time to time, complete a checkup of your online privacy and make sure that as you surf the web, you know the basics of online safety. Using Incognito Mode or a private browser, like Tor browser, can help keep your information private. Search engines gather more information than we realize, but protecting your personal information through these ten ways is a great step to take in fighting back.