A few months ago, we received a call from a law firm that was representing a CEO of a major public company. Day after day, the CEO had been receiving phone calls at all hours from an anonymous caller; they were believed to be from an irate investor. Concerned for his family’s safety, he did some searching and found several websites that not only published his home telephone number but also his home address and other details about his personal life.
The obvious answer to his immediate problem was to change his telephone number. But, as I explained to him, preventing this from happening again would be a bit more complicated than that.
Your Information is Available, Whether You Know it or Not
There are a number of formal, legitimate Internet companies, as well as less formal and illegitimate ones, that collect, maintain and distribute personal information about individuals, including home addresses and telephone numbers, cell phone numbers, personal email addresses and related information. These data brokers obtain personal information from telephone companies, credit reporting agencies, government agencies, Internet sales transactions, magazine subscriptions, utility companies and other sources.
Most of these data brokers make this information available on the Internet, through databases such as Intelius, PeopleSmart, Spokeo and ZabaSearch. These databases are based in the United States and regulated by various federal and state privacy and other laws that provide opportunities for individuals who want to maintain personal privacy to opt out of these individual databases. As an example, here is the link for the Intelius opt-out.
There also are online tools, such as Abine’s DeleteMe and Reputation.com, that assist individuals with removing personal data from the websites listed above and monitor the web for new publications of personal information.
Unregulated Data Brokers
But there are other websites or data brokers that collect and distribute personal information related to noteworthy individuals, such as celebrities, high-net-worth individuals, public officials or corporate executives. These resources are not based in the United States, are beyond the regulatory reach of U.S. federal and state authorities, and do not provide any opportunity for individuals to opt out of their databases. There is little that can be done to effectively remove information or prevent republication of information distributed on these types of websites.
It is important to understand that it is extremely difficult to maintain anonymity and/or personal privacy in an Internet society.
First, it is important to understand that it is extremely difficult to maintain anonymity and/or personal privacy in an Internet society. Enhanced data analytic techniques have made it possible for legitimate and illegitimate data brokers to obtain and sort caches of personal information regarding anyone who is involved in regular commerce.
Paying a telecommunications provider fees to maintain a “private listing” will only protect a home telephone number if that telephone number is not used for any publicly available transaction, such as making online restaurant reservations or online purchases; listed on any record maintained by a federal, state or local government agency, such as a property tax assessor; or used as the contact number for any type of credit card, utility or other account. Legitimate and illegitimate data brokers buy lists from hundreds of government, retail, online and other sources on an ongoing basis.
There are steps that can be taken, however, that minimize the possibility of home addresses, personal email addresses, and home telephone and personal cell phone numbers becoming available for public dissemination. And there are also some steps that you can take to protect some of your other personal information.
- Whenever possible, don’t use your personal phone number, email address or home address for regular commercial transactions. If you are not comfortable using your business address for personal, political or nonbusiness-related transactions, it may be worthwhile to acquire a P.O. box at either the U.S. Postal Service or a local shipping and business center. The advantages of setting up an account at a local shipping and business center are that you can get packages delivered and you can usually have 24-hour access to your mailbox.
- When making any type of reservation, including travel or restaurant reservations, use your office telephone number and business email address or your P.O. box. Do not provide home address and telephone number information when you reach your destination, either.
- When making any type of Internet purchase, use your office telephone number and business email address. Credit card and ship-to information may necessarily reveal your home address, but you can protect your home telephone number by NOT providing that information when engaging in these transactions.
- When making political contributions, use your business address or P.O. box.
- When providing personal information for charities, events, trade groups, community organizations, schools, memberships, etc., provide your office telephone number and business address and office email address. While most nonprofit organizations do not engage in data brokerage, many use vendors to conduct these transactions and those organizations may sell data.
- If you don’t want to use your business telephone number for personal, political or nonbusiness-related transactions, it may be worthwhile (a) to acquire a second home telephone number or cell number or (b) to obtain a telecommunications account under the name of a trusted associate or personal staff member (to use for such nonbusiness transactions). Such auxiliary numbers would not be used to contact friends and family members, and would be turned off at night. Most telecommunications companies provide inexpensive minimal-usage accounts.
- Limit your social media presence on the Internet, and if you do participate on social media sites, invoke the highest privacy settings available for those sites. Do not allow any portion of your social media presence to be accessible by anyone other than invited users. Many social media sites now include “geotag” options for postings. Make sure you disable this feature.
- Instruct your teenage and adult children and anyone working in your home to protect home address and telephone number information using the same steps as you do, especially on social media sites.
- Set up Anonymous Call Rejection on your landlines and mobile phones. Most telephone services allow you to block all incoming calls that have their caller ID blocked. This may prevent unwanted intrusions. The person on the other end will hear a message stating that the line does not accept calls from callers who block their number.
- Finally, never provide your Social Security number, date of birth or other personal information to anyone who contacts you over the telephone.