Can People Find Me Online? Be Aware!

If you think your name, your identity and your personal information isn’t all over the internet just because you’re one of the rare people who hardly ever goes online, you might want to think again. Do you have utility service to your home? Are the accounts in your name? Do you have a telephone? Do you pay taxes? Then you’re out there. Your online identity — your digital footprint — isn’t necessarily created because you spend time online, sharing tidbits of your life, although this can contribute. Your digital footprint exists because you do. Every public or private entity you do business with has a record of you. And in this day and age, it’s easily accessible by anyone with computer access.

According to the Pew Internet Project, launched by the Pew Research Center, six out of every ten American adults find information regarding themselves online when they Google their names or use any other search engine. A whopping 87 percent of these respondents reported that the online data was accurate. It included their names, ages, phone numbers and addresses. Yes, addresses. Essentially, anyone who takes even a mild interest in you can probably Google your name and find out where you live.

Try it yourself, as an experiment. Odds are, when you type in your name, you’ll get a bunch of hits for sites like, and, all of them claiming to have found you. Link to any one of them. Most likely, the generic page that pops up first will include your name, your age, your city or town, and a list of your relatives. If you have a credit card or debit card, you can go one step further. You can buy your exact address – not just the town you live in – and a list of all the places you’ve lived before, for about $1. This pittance of a fee also usually includes your phone number. For $30 or so, you can get a more comprehensive report. These reports tell the world — or at least anyone who wants to know about you badly enough to spend $30 — who you live with, who your neighbors are, if you’ve ever filed for bankruptcy, if any creditors have taken legal judgments against you, what property you own, and if you’ve ever had a brush with the law.

Scary, isn’t it? Yet 60 percent of the Pew Internet Project respondents reportedly indicated that this doesn’t concern them. It’s just the way the world is these days. Only 38 percent said that they’d taken measures to try to limit their online exposure.

Of course, the odds that a stranger can find you increase considerably if you intentionally share your life on the internet, as many do. The Pew Internet Project reports that one in ten adults use the internet to advertise themselves or their skills for business or work-related purposes. But what about social networking, those sites where you share your life just for fun and to keep in touch with friends and family? Approximately 60 percent of the Pew Internet Project respondents admit that their social network profiles are open to everyone — they’ve taken no steps to limit access by strangers. Others block their profiles from everyone but their “friends.” However, in a social networking context, this term is used loosely. Your “friends” are not always really your friends. They just know someone you know. Or maybe you were buddies once, 30 years ago in high school or college. If you met these people in passing on the street, you might not even recognize them.

Let’s assume for a moment that I decide to share a photo while I’m away, enjoying myself on vacation. Let’s assume that I clicked and posted it to my social network page with a gleeful explanation of how much I’m enjoying myself. Hundreds of people I do not even remotely know are instantaneously aware that I’m not at home — and probably won’t be for days to come. People with access to their social network pages will also know that I’m not home. Should any of them have a desire to relieve me of all my belongings, they could easily do so. What’s more, take a look at your friends on Facebook. See how much information they share with the world. Pictures of their children, their relatives, friends, lovers and sometimes pictures of their home, their cars, and their pets… the list goes on and on. Read through their posts – it usually talks about where they are, who they’re with and what they’re doing. I suggest you read up on Geotagging and location based services as well. You’ll be amazing to learn that when you take digital pictures factory settings usually are set to imprint the exact location of where the photo was taken into the file. That’s right. So when you post that picture of your 5 year olds first loose tooth, a predator can download that file and, assuming you haven’t changed the settings, find out exactly where the photo was taken – your home. The information on the file also includes date, time of day, longitude and latitude, and even which direction you were facing. You may not know all of this, but I promise you that every sexual predator out there does.

I’m not suggesting that we must stop internet social networking for the sake of safety. It’s a great way to maintain daily contact with people we really do want to keep in touch with. And, unfortunately, it’s probably too late to go back and undo past mistakes. Your digital footsteps are pretty much forever. Once you’ve released something into cyberspace, you can’t snatch it back again. You might be able to delete it from your Facebook page so it’s not immediately obvious to the world, but it’s still out there somewhere, digitally recorded in some unknown place. And unless you want to drop out of society and live on a mountain somewhere with no electricity, never voting again, sites like will be glad to tell everyone where they can find you for $30 or so.

You can’t erase your old digital footprints, and you can’t really protect yourself from publication of the basic facts of your life. But you can be sensible. If you want to share photos of the wonderful places you’ve been and seen, post them after the fact. Don’t tweet that you’re in Aruba all week and the sunsets are fantastic. If you repeatedly go to the same place at the same time each week, don’t tweet or post a comment about it each and every time. Don’t make your pattern apparent. Check out your own “friends” list and figure out how many of them you really know. “Unfriend” the others. They may be offended, but if you don’t know them, do you really care? Take the steps necessary to make sure your profile isn’t visible to the internet public at large.

Ironically, the Pew Internet Project reveals that teenagers are far more savvy about this sort of thing than most adults are. Although 60 percent of adults had taken no measures to restrict their profiles to only their best friends, only 38 percent of teenagers admitted to making this same mistake. Maybe they just don’t want their parents checking out what they’ve posted, but we should be grateful that they take these precautions. Most social networking websites also block young teenagers from using their sites — unless, of course, they lie about their age to get on. MySpace has an age limit of 14; with Facebook, it’s 13. Your young children may not have an opportunity to leave their own digital footprints, unbeknownst to you. But as a parent, you can’t put your faith in that, not entirely. The next time your son or daughter’s school sends home a permission slip, asking if they can post your child’s photo and name on their website, weigh the pros and cons. On one hand, your kid will probably get a kick out of it. On the other, you’re helping to begin creation of your child’s own digital footprint, one that will follow him for the rest of his life.

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