Ask Stacy: Can I Erase Myself From the Web?

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The Internet is a wondrous tool. It can answer virtually any question. It can find the best deal on anything from cars to cat litter. It allows you to maintain contact with virtually everyone you’ve ever met.

Like many tools, however, the Internet can be used for both good and evil. For example, while it allows you to find friends, it allows strangers to find information about you — including information you’d prefer to remain private.

Here’s this week’s reader question:

I’m a big fan of your newsletter! I would love to see an article on an easy way to remove online personal information from people search websites (WhitePages.com, Spokeo.com, etc.). Are cleanup [services] such as Abine.com’s DeleteMe worth it?
— Sylvia

Before we get started, here’s a video we shot recently on a related topic. It’s about protecting yourself from identity theft.

Now, let’s get to Sylvia’s question.

Should you fear what the Internet knows about you?

The Internet is an ocean of information. Floating in it, like plankton, are the details of your life. Swimming in it, like sharks, are data miners, collecting and selling that information.

Recently the European Union’s top court issued a ruling being called the “right to be forgotten.” It allows European citizens to use an online form to petition Google to remove links to information that may be “irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise inappropriate.” According to ZDNet.com, they’ve already had more than 70,000 requests.

Microsoft’s Bing recently announced it will follow suit.

Unfortunately, however, what’s happening in Europe has no effect on this side of the pond. So what’s a concerned person like Sylvia to do?

There are two different issues to address. The first is limiting the personal information about you that’s available for sale. The second is managing your online reputation.

Dealing with data miners

Sylvia is concerned about her personal information available from people-search websites, also known as data miners. These are companies that amass a digital dossier on you by using a combination of public records and the Web.

For a price, a data mining company will sell anyone information about you, including, but not limited to, your phone number, address, a map to your house, your estimated net worth, religion, political party, children’s names, criminal background, the sites you visit and the types of articles you read.

For a quick look at what a typical data miner has waiting, go to ZabaSearch.com and put in your name.

Removing the information that can be removed from people-search sites will require either paying a company to petition data miners to remove it or petitioning them yourself. Most will remove information if requested.

But don’t expect miracles. From a 2012 Wall Street Journal article:

Companies that sell data about individuals online say it is difficult to completely remove people’s information from their sites because personal records are difficult to match. An individual’s middle name may be included in some records and not others, or records for the same person can contain different addresses.

In addition, after information is removed, it sometimes reappears, which means that, in order to keep it out of databases, you’ll have to continually check or continually pay a service.

Here’s a Reddit post explaining how to approach data sites to have your information removed. Here’s a review from Liz Weston of two popular services, DeleteMe and Reputation.com. She basically found both somewhat effective.

Now let’s talk about cleaning up and managing your online reputation.

Step 1: See what’s out there

The obvious first step is to see what others are seeing. Search your name in Google, Google+, Bing, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook and see what comes up. To see what the public sees, be sure you’re logged out of everything first.

Then imagine you’re a hiring manager, potential date or, better yet, the mom of a potential date, and search yourself. Make notes of everything you find.

Step 2: Clean up Facebook

You can learn how to hide or delete something from your Facebook timeline here and posts you’ve shared from your page here. You can also report things to Facebook with this guide.

If other people have posted things about you that might be embarrassing, contact them on Facebook and politely ask them to remove it. Take a screenshot of the offending post or picture to forward with your request. If you don’t get a positive response, you can try reporting a Facebook violation here. The form has checkboxes for “Someone is using my photos or my child’s photos without consent,” and “Someone is threatening to share things I want to keep private.”

For a complete guide to managing Facebook privacy, see Lifehacker’s “The Always Up-to-Date Guide to Managing Your Facebook Privacy.”

Step 3: Clean up Web searches

If you find unpleasant things about yourself via search engines, the first thing to do is go to the source of the information — the site linked to by the search engine. Ask the site that’s posting the information to remove it.

If that doesn’t work, you can contact the search engine. Contact Google here, Google Images here and Bing here. But don’t expect miracles. Search engines aren’t required to remove something from search just because you want them to. You can read about Google’s removal policies here, but generally they’ll remove things like bank account or Social Security numbers, but not non-pornographic images, phone numbers or addresses.

If someone is breaking the law by defaming you, using your content without permission or using your likeness without consent, however, contact Google here.

Step 4: Make bad stuff harder to find by burying it

If you do a search for “Stacy Johnson,” you’ll find links to this website, books I’ve written, my Wikipedia page and lots of articles that carry my byline. If there were pictures of me having too much fun on spring break (thank God there weren’t smartphones back then) you wouldn’t see them. That’s because my name now appears on high-traffic sites that take precedence over older, low-traffic sites, thus effectively burying my past.

This is the best technique for improving your online image: creating newer, flattering stuff to go on top of older, unflattering stuff.

In my line of work, this is obviously easy because my job requires posting searchable stuff online in my name several times a week. But there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same thing.

First, join every high-traffic site you can, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+. Put your name in the search at Namechk.com, and you’ll see more than 157 social media sites you can join.

Be sure you join those sites with the same name someone would use to do a search for you. Otherwise they won’t do you any good.

Next, buy the dot com of your name. (Example: I own StacyJohnson.com.) Then use sites like WordPress or Blogger to create your own blog, either on their site or on your personal domain. Write about things you find interesting or, better yet, things that might impress an employer or date when they search your name.

Be sure and link to all of the social media sites you belong to from your blog.

And that’s how it works. The more you post, the deeper the old stuff gets buried.

Step 5: Monitor yourself

Using a Google Alert with your name will tell you if something new about you has been published on the Web. Use it to stay up-to-date.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

Got a question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

About Stacy

Stacy Johnson founded Money Talks News in 1991. He’s earned a CPA (now inactive), and has also been licensed in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate.You can learn more about him here.

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Comments & discussion

We welcome your opinions, but let’s keep it civil. Like many businesses, we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. In our case, that means those who communicate by name-calling, racism, using words designed to hurt others or generally acting like an uninformed bully. Also, comments that include links to email addresses or commercial websites typically aren't posted. This isn't a place to advertise your business.

  • JKH

    I am not in the zaba search. Yea for me. I am a privacy advocate and I don’t facebook, twitter, myspace, instagram, or any other social sites. Never been arrested or detained. Something I am proud of.

  • bigpinch

    I’m not in the zaba search either, which is kind of surprising. My name isn’t exactly a common one (no, not bigpinch) I’ve lived in the same state since 1974 and in the same house since 1985. I have found myself through other search engines, however.
    I don’t do social media but I have been arrested on a couple of occasions. It can happen more easily than you might imagine. Thank God for competent attorneys and the U.S. Constitution.
    I’ve had more luck finding people using Google Images than I have using the free people search web sites. I sometimes use both to corroborate information. When an old friend died, I looked up a mutual friend using Google Images and found her in less than an hour even though she’d moved half way across the country and I hadn’t spoken with her in 35 years. It kind of freaked her out that I was able to do that. She had reason to disappear and thought she had.

  • shondell mann

    Ah the amiguities of the internet, such a wonderous event indeed. Can’t ive with it, you are not living without it. Seems like the only downfall of this miraculous invention is slanderous taunts, and theft of personal information. The only solution to the problems one can encounter over the internet is to limit your browsing of the web. Most times that I have received a virus were from perusing a web site that where not apparently up to par. Visa Versa with chatting? I don’t think so !

  • Adrienne Roche

    I didn’t show up in the Zaba search either. I don’t consider myself particularly difficult to find however – I am young and though I don’t give out private personal information lightly (or in any situation I don’t believe mandates it), I do use the Internet daily and frequent certain websites. I’m glad I haven’t created as big of an online footprint as I thought I had.