According to research, 79% of Americans don’t feel secure with the way companies are handling their personal information online. And for good reason.
The quantity of data breaches is rising dramatically and many consumers have had their personal information compromised as a result. But beyond criminal data breaches and hacks, there are dozens of data brokers in the US that harvest your personal information online and then sell it on to other companies, meaning it can easily fall into the wrong hands.
That’s why it’s time to take back control of your digital privacy. How do you do this? You delete yourself off the internet. In this guide we’ll show you how to remove your information from the internet and why it’s important to keep your personal data off the web.
Why it’s important to remove personal information from internet
An alarming amount of personal information can be found online for virtually any US citizen. Even if you’ve never willingly shared anything, all kinds of information from your home address to the names of your relatives can still be found online.
Why is this such a risk?
Well, apart from the unease we feel knowing that our home address and even our children’s names are just a few clicks away, having your personal identifiable information (PII) publicly available creates a huge amount of risk. Your PII can be used to stalk you, to scam you or in the worst case – to steal your identity.
Phone scams & spam calls
Annoying spam calls and phone scams are just one of the consequences of having your personal information compromised. Not only are the calls annoying, but they also pose a big risk. While most of us can spot a scam call, all it takes is for you to let your guard down once and the scammer could steal your social security number or bank account details.
Invasion of privacy
Another risk associated with not removing your information from the internet is being more vulnerable to stalkers. A stalker can be someone who is actively looking for information to hurt your reputation or someone who just wants to know what you’re doing and when. And it’s not always someone who has malevolent intentions. Employers also frequently search for information online about job candidates before making hiring decisions.
If your personal information falls into the wrong hands, it can also lead to identity theft. Once your identity has been compromised by a scammer, they could use it to make online purchases, apply for loans and credit cards, or claim unemployment benefits. Dealing with the aftermath of this can be a costly and extremely stressful process, and it can take a long time for the impact of this on your credit rating to be resolved.
Fake social media profiles
If your personal information is publicly available – and especially if you’re a public figure, influencer or a business owner — someone can easily create a fake profile on social media pretending to be you. Often the aim is to try and scam your followers into buying something or simply to harm your reputation.
How to remove your information from the internet
The first step towards taking back control of your digital privacy is to remove all the information that is already out there.
1. Delete yourself from social media
While this may be considered a drastic step by some people, if you really want to remove personal information from the internet then you need to start at the place where you leave the biggest digital footprint.
Delete both current and old profiles. First delete your current accounts like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. Then, once you’ve done that think about all the old social media platforms you used to be active on. Just because you haven’t thought about Myspace in 15 years doesn’t mean your account has been deleted.
When you log into each platform, choose to delete your account instead of deactivating it. By deleting all the content along with your profile, you’ll minimize the risk of someone accessing your personal information. Most platforms will delete your information within 30 days of the removal request.
If you can’t bring yourself to delete all your social media accounts, then the next best option is to delete as many as possible. For example, keep Instagram and LinkedIn if they’re the platforms you get the most value from. But you can then delete Twitter if perhaps you only use it to follow celebrities, or likewise delete Facebook if you feel you can live without it.
2. Delete your online shopping accounts
If you’re a prolific online shopper (and who isn’t these days), it’s likely that your information is scattered across numerous e-commerce databases. Go through all of the shopping sites you’ve used in the past and delete your profile from each of them.
Often these companies want to hold onto your personal information and will therefore make it difficult to delete your profile. So if you can’t find an option to delete your profile on a particular site, message customer services and request that they delete your profile.
And don’t worry, just because you’ve deleted your profile doesn’t mean that you can no longer shop with each company. Most e-commerce sites still allow you to complete purchases without having an account. You’ll just need to enter all your details manually each time you complete a purchase.
3. Delete yourself from data brokers
Data brokers are businesses that legally collect personal data on individuals from online sources, and then sell this data onto other businesses.
These companies collect and store a staggering amount of personal identifiable information on all of us. This includes our age, name, address, phone number, previous addresses, criminal records, property values, and names of relatives just to name a few examples.
Removing yourself from these databases is an essential step to deleting yourself from the internet.
In order to delete yourself from data brokers, you need to delete your profile from each individual database (and there are a lot of them). You can do this by using our free DIY opt-out guides. However, this can be extremely time consuming and tedious as there are so many different data broker sites. For those who don’t have hours to spare each month to do this, you can join DeleteMe and let us do it for you.
4. Remove your information directly from websites
Before you can delete yourself from the internet, you first need to find out all the places where your personal information appears online.
An easy way to do this is simply to Google yourself using the incognito mode. Try searching for your name, your email address, your home address and your phone number to see what comes up. Then repeat the same process with other search engines like Bing and Yahoo.
If you find your name or other personal data mentioned on a website, you should send a formal request to the website, asking them to remove your information. To find out who to contact, you can either try the details provided on the website or search for them using the whois.com tool.
If your sensitive information such as SSN or bank account information is available online and the website doesn’t respond to your request, you can also ask Google to help. They might not be able to remove it from the site directly, but they can make sure it doesn’t appear in search results.
5. Delete yourself from old forum posts, comments, and discussions
If you’ve been an avid commenter on forums, blogs and other sites, this task is your most challenging one when it comes to deleting yourself from the internet.
The first step is to delete any profiles you may have created on sites like Reddit, Yahoo, Quora etc. This doesn’t usually delete the actual comments you’ve made, but removes your connection to them.
However, if you’ve shared sensitive information in the comments themselves, or left comments without creating a profile that could be deleted, you also need to get rid of these. Unfortunately, the only way you can do this is to find the specific comments and ask the site owner to remove them.
6. Request Google updates specific search results
If you’ve recently had your information removed from a website, it may still take some time before it disappears from search results as well. This happens because the old information is still cached on Google’s servers.
Luckily, Google offers a Remove Outdated content tool which allows you to request for an update to its servers. The process is simple. Just click “New request”, enter the URL that needs to be updated, follow the steps and submit your request.
7. Delete your email accounts
Deleting your email address is the last step of removing yourself from the internet. Just make sure you don’t do this before you’ve closed all your other accounts and checked all the other steps mentioned above because often an email verification is required to complete them.
However, the reality is that this step isn’t possible for everyone. After all, living completely without an email is not very easy in today’s modern digital society. In case removing your email isn’t an option, you should look into the privacy settings of your email provider and make sure you set them in the strictest option available with regards to tracking your data.
Also, the chances are you have a number of old email accounts that you no longer use, such as college accounts or ones you used as a teenager. Hunt these out and delete these accounts.
How to keep your data off the internet
Now you should have a clear idea on how exactly to remove your personal information from the internet. However, deleting your existing data from the internet is only half the task. You also want to take steps to prevent new personal data getting on the internet.
Even if you never went online again, individuals and businesses could still post your information on the internet. And frankly, it’s almost impossible to stay offline for a whole week, let alone the rest of your life. Therefore, you need to take persistent and consistent steps to keep your personal data secure over the long run.
1. Monitor data broker sites regularly
It’s not enough to just delete your information from data broker websites once. Data brokers are notorious for re-listing your information even after you’ve deleted it and therefore you need to monitor their databases continuously. You need to opt-out from each data broker site every three months or use a service like DeleteMe to do it for you.
2. Use privacy focused browsers & incognito mode
Some search engines protect your privacy better than others. For example, DuckDuckGo is a great privacy focused browser that protects you from being tracked online. You can download it as a browser or as an extension to your existing browser. With a privacy-focused browser and using the incognito mode you’re able to minimize your digital footprint whenever you go online.
3. Use a VPN
A Virtual private network (VPN) connection establishes a secure private connection between your device and the internet. This means that your internet service provider cannot track what you’re doing online. It also protects you when accessing the internet over public WiFi networks, meaning that hackers are unable to intercept the data your device is transmitting over the internet.
There are plenty of free VPNs to choose from. But you should carefully read into their privacy policies and customer reviews, to ensure you know how these companies track your data. Paid VPNs generally provide more robust security and privacy standards. Also – ensure you choose a “no log” VPN, which means the VPN provider doesn’t keep a log of your internet activity when using the service.
4. Give as little information about yourself as you can
Last but not least, try to avoid sharing any personal data whenever possible. One simple way to do this is to clear your browser history, cache and cookies as often as you can. Another way is to simply avoid registering with sites that require your personal details. However, this can often be very difficult to avoid. But there are ways around this. For example, if a site requires you to give out an email address when signing up, you can use a masked email from Blur which can help avoid your personal data being compromised.
There are many reasons why you should remove personal information from the internet and take control of what is being shared online.
By removing your online data you minimize the risk of identity theft, lower the chances of getting harassed by spam and scam callers and protect your information from stalkers and identity theft.
However, it’s important to remember that deleting existing personal data from the internet is not enough to protect your digital privacy. If you don’t focus on preventing new information from getting online, your personal information will likely keep reappearing.
In order to keep your information safe in the long run, you need to regularly monitor data broker sites and minimize the digital footprint you leave behind each time you go online.
Will Simonds runs Senior Marketing Operations at DeleteMe, and is a steadfast privacy advocate who has a resolute dedication to online privacy solutions and helping people regain their privacy.
Since joining DeleteMe in 2015, Will has worked in a number of different roles.
From launching the DeleteMe affiliate program, creating and maintaining hundreds of opt-out guides, fine-tuning DeleteMe’s customer communications and improving website conversion efficiency, Will lives and breathes DeleteMe.
Will earned his BBA from Endicott College.