The World Wide Web can be a wonderful thing. It offers a treasure trove of information that allows us to learn about everything from avocados to zebras. However, it also contains a vast amount of personal information about every one of us that can be used for either legitimate or nefarious purposes.

In our profession, we use the World Wide Web to conduct due diligence investigations to assist clients in vetting potential employees and business partners, and to help them avoid being scammed. But the same sources of information we use to protect our clients can also be used to target these people for criminal purposes.

Anyone can use the Internet to locate personal information about an individual.  For example, the address of a home residence, names and addresses of family members, phone numbers, vehicles, voting records, signatures, education, donation history, and other details that one may not wish to be available to the public, can be located on the Internet.  In this article, we will discuss the importance of controlling the personal information available on the Internet and provide insight into removing sensitive information, relative to the business person.

Why should a business person care?

Use of the Internet has allowed criminals to widen their nets and victimize a much wider swath of the population. The Internet provides anonymity for criminals as well as a multitude of new methods to approach potential victims. Wealthy individuals and influential business people are rich targets for Internet criminals, not only for their personal wealth, but for their business connections.

Many professionals may be targeted for theft of personal information for use in retaliatory or extortionate purposes. Attorneys, judges, and public officials often are involved in matters that are fraught with risk and intense emotions. Professionals involved in high stakes issues risk being threatened by those who were on the losing side.

Celebrities, business executives, and wealthy individuals are common targets of extortion, scams, theft, stalking and physical violence.  Malicious groups, paparazzi and journalists, and radical groups, among others, often focus on individuals whose high profiles will also lead to publicity for themselves.

Disgruntled or terminated employees or vendors can access personal information on the Internet and create a smear and stalking campaign against company executives and their families. For example, one corporate president noted that an ex-employee was stalking him and got his home number from the Internet and was calling him in the middle of the night.

Now that so much personal information is available on the Internet, it is easier and quicker for a bad actor to find out where a target lives and who their family members are, where they work and the identity of coworkers and business associates, and how to contact them, enabling them to harass, stalk, extort, or threaten them in multiple ways. Various websites show aerial or street views of properties, allowing bad actors to pinpoint the location of your home or office and figure out how to access your property.

Doxing

Another toxic practice that can be used to harass individuals is “doxing”. This is the practice of searching, sharing, and publicizing the personal information of people on the Internet on a website, forum, or other publicly accessible venue without their consent. Along with names, addresses, and phone numbers, doxing attempts may also reveal network details and email information.  It is important to note that all of this information – such as an address, phone number, or images – is already online and publicly available. Doxing simply aggregates all this information from across different sources into one place, therefore making it available and accessible to anyone. 

Doxing includes but is not limited to releasing a private citizen’s personally identifying information online, releasing previously unknown information of a private citizen online, and releasing information of a private citizen online that could be damaging to not only their reputation, but to the reputations of their personal and/or professional associates.   This include full names, home addresses, work addresses, phone numbers (both personal and professional), images, relatives, usernames, everything they’ve posted online, even things that were once thought private.

Perform an Internet Self-Assessment

So now that we have stoked your level of paranoia, what can you do to mitigate the risks presented by this proliferation of your personal information on the World Wide Web? First, assess the amount of personal information that may be present on the Internet. Factors influencing the amount of information are:

  • Ownership of real property: If you own real property, there will be more personal details online than if property is rented. In New Jersey, you can find deeds and mortgages, among other records, on publicly accessible websites.
  • Social media accounts: The more social media profiles, the more information on the Internet.
  • Political contributions: Campaigns are required to disclose donor information, and the possibility that your personal or business address is included in such a disclosure is very likely.

Second, search and identify the information that is out there. When we assist clients in assessing their risk with respect to their Internet footprint, we go through a four phase process:

  • Phase 1: search for personal information with a standard Google search;
  • Phase 2: focus on deep web searches which include public internet websites;
  • Phase 3: review people directories where personal information, telephone, and address are present;
  • Phase 4: review social media sites of family and extended family.

Third, eliminate or minimize your Internet footprint.

Eliminating or minimizing personal information on the Internet may deter a person with malicious intent from identifying and compromising an individual through fraudulent methods.  Eliminating or minimizing personal information can also stop identify theft and monetary loss.

Be prepared - this is a painstaking, time consuming, and frustrating process, but it will make your digital profile safer.  The process includes mailing written correspondence, sending emails and telephonically contacting entities displaying client data. Daily and weekly monitoring of the information on the websites is performed to ensure the removal was completed.  This includes an ongoing review of each website for client information.  Depending on the website removal process, the removals can take as little as one day to complete or in excess of four weeks to complete.

Once opted out of the sites, the information may reappear.  Additionally, it is possible that people have already requested reports on the individuals. There is a good chance that the information that appears when someone searches a name can still be available to those who have looked it up before, as it will be cached or retained electronically, or not removed from Google search results.

Keep a Low Profile Going Forward

Once you have succeeded in removing certain information from the World Wide Web, try to maintain your low profile by following these suggestions:

  • When asked to give out a telephone number, email address and home address, provide alternate information that does not compromise the real information.
  • Before setting up an online account, consider the risks, as this information can be disseminated to data brokers. Cancel unused accounts.
  • Check the status of existing email accounts.
  • Only log in to trusted platforms. Never log into a website that contains any information from a machine that is not personally controlled.
  • Refrain from using online coupons and filling out warranty cards.  These are attempts to obtain personal information that can be sold.
  • Open a post office box as a mailing address.
  • Package deliveries should be sent to a work address or post office box address.
  • Shut down social media accounts.  
  • Monitor daily the entire Internet for any new information that may surface by creating an automated alert system.

While the amount of personal data available on the Internet can pose a threat and seem overwhelming, there are steps that can be taken to minimize and eliminate some of the risks. The professionals at Sobel & Co. would be happy to discuss your situation, perform a risk assessment, and assist in removing your information from the World Wide Web.