Episode 23: How To Remove Your Data From The Internet
How (and Why) to Remove Yourself From The Internet's Biggest Data Brokers
Photo by Rishi Deep on Unsplash
From time to time, we’re all advised to Google ourselves. This is especially true before a job interview or any important, personal or business venture. Why? Simple: it’s best to know what’s publicly available about us on the Internet. If there’s any information that’s embarrassing or damning out there, it’s best to know about it before others do, so we have the chance to edit or delete it.
However, as good as this advice is, it overlooks a far more crucial priority: our public contact information. I don’t want anyone in the world to have easy access to my current home address and phone number, my previous addresses and phone numbers, my auto & real estate loans, or members of my immediate and extended family.
Unfortunately, all of that information is free, publicly available, and easily accessible to anyone who searches for it. “Data broker” websites provide these kinds of data to the public. In fact, here’s a link to one example which includes scores of individuals who happen to share my name:
Spokeo.com is easy to search and provides a TON of personal information about every David Koff listed, including age, gender, relatives and - get this - a map to a recent address. The cost to access this amount of data? Free. #TotallyCreepy
For an additional fee - of just $0.95!! - phone numbers, email addresses, marital status, and court records can be provided. If you think I’m joking, just check out this image:
And, by the way, if you’re reading this and you just happen to be David Brian Koff of Denver, Colorado: my most sincere apologies. All David Koffs should stick together, so keep reading: I’ll explain how to delete your data! :)
Spokeo, of course, isn’t the only data broker. Not by a long shot. Just have a look at this list. Or this one. Or this one. There are hundreds of data brokers that are publicly available, easy-to-find, and super easy-to-use. They specialize in collecting data about you and me which they can then either give away or sell.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my personal data being so publicly available for so many people to find. Or buy. Or use in ways that I can’t control. That’s why I deleted my information from Spokeo. And that’s why I then took the extra step of scrubbing my data from every other data broker I could find.
How I did that is a two-chapter short story:
Part One: I invested about 15-20 hours of my time over a week and went to every data broker website on this list and followed the instructions for how to scrub my info. 15-20 hours is a lot of time for me, especially with a child at home.
Part Two: I managed the email confirmations from each of the various web brokers and went back to each site a second time to confirm that my data was, indeed, wiped.
That’s it. The peace-of-mind I have now is worth far more than the time I invested. Now, when I Google myself or visit any of the largest data brokers on the planet, my personal data isn’t shown. Now look: I’m no dope. I’m sure that SOME of my data is still available - somewhere out there on the Internet, available to law enforcement agencies should they need it or to the most sophisticated hackers - but, by and large, I’ve made finding out info about me far more difficult.
And that was my goal.
Even better, as a result of my time investment, I now also get little to no junk mail through the US Mail. That includes no catalogs, brochures, credit card solicitations, and more. So, yeh, I’d have to say that my privacy (and the amount of paper that gets wasted on me) is now #MuchBetter
As I mentioned above, scrubbing your data from the Internet only requires an investment of your time to do some manual work: going to websites, filling out forms, and then waiting for responses. Some websites can scrub your data within 24 hours. Others take a few days to a week. All of the legit businesses should notify you if you provide a valid email address.
If you don’t have the time (or desire) to do this yourself: stay tuned. I’ll share another solution for you folks in the section below called “The Alternative Solution”.
Start with this list. The author has clear instructions with (mostly) accurate links, and back-up phone numbers in case a call is necessary to the data broker.
Be sure to opt-out at the Direct Marketing Association because that stops your data from being shared with others who wish to market and mail things to you. That means reducing junk mail substantially.
When you’re done with that list, I’d tackle this list next.
Good To Know:
Most data brokers allow you to scrub your data from their website for free; a few - cuz they suck - charge a fee. Most data brokers have an automated system on their websites that allow you to make a simple removal request; a few - cuz they suck - ask you to provide record IDs, links, or other specifics from their websites to honor your request. Most data brokers don’t ask you to prove who you are when you request that they scrub your data; a few - cuz they suck - will ask for tangible proof, like a driver’s license.
If You Need It:
Some data brokers may ask you to provide a short, written request to authorize your opt-out. Here is the stock letter which I use. Feel free to copy it, if you like:
Thank you in advance for removing all of my personal information from this and any other subsidiary website of yours. I do not authorize any of my personal data to appear on any website of yours for any reason without my express written consent in advance. This includes, but is not limited to: my names, mailing addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, cities, states, countries, possible or actual family members or contact information of any kind. Thank you so much in advance for your help! Here is the data which I'd like removed:
Then, just list any pertinent information, links, or record IDs that you’d like purged from the brokers website(s).
Total Time Commitment:
I’d budget 15-20 hours of time to do this work. If you don’t have the time (or desire) to do this yourself: scroll down to the section below called “The Alternative Solution”.
Here’s a typical confirmation email which, in this case, I received from a data broker called PeopleByName. As you can see, in PeopleByName’s case, I had to submit “RecordID” numbers associated with my name/information on their website:
As my longtime readers know - and as you can see from the screengrab above - I never EVER provide my personal email address to anyone. That rule goes doubly when contacting a data broker. Instead, I use two email services: 33mail (which I’ve known about for years) and Erine.email (which I discovered thanks to a TechTalk subscriber!). Using these services accomplishes three goals:
They provide me with an infinite number of fully customizable emails
All emails get auto-forwarded to my personal email so I don’t have to go to another website to retrieve them.
I’m able to block any of my custom email alias at the press of a button. In fact, just check out the image above: at the top of the email header in a green box, you’ll note how 33mail mail provides a link - in every email!!! - to block any further correspondence from any of the aliases I create. Nice!
The Alternative Solution
While all of us would probably like to see our data scrubbed from the largest data brokers on the Internet, not all of us have the time to do the work involved. If that’s the case, the alternative solution is to pay a reasonable fee to let others do the work for you.
After I learned how to successfully remove my personal data from data brokers, I began offering the same service to family and friends. I offer my services to the general public for a fair price of $350, but I’ll tell you upfront that you can absolutely find companies to do this work for cheaper. In fact, here’s a link to a popular service called DeleteMe right here that charges between $129 to $350/year depending on the level of service you purchase. I give you this information up front for two reasons:
If you’re on a budget, DeleteMe may be a reasonable option
As always, we get what we pay for
There are a small handful of providers that offer data wiping services. The DeleteMe service offered by Abine, Inc is one but of them. However, as far I can tell, none of the companies offering this service has 25+ years of experience in tech and security; none of them guarantee, upfront, that they’ll reduce or eliminate your physical junk mail (the kind that comes to your home); and none of them state, upfront, that they only hire Americans who work for a fair hourly wage.
You’ve got options if you want to scrub a ton of your personal data from the web.
If you invest 15-20 hours of your time, you do the work yourself using the guides here, here, and here. Alternatively, you can pay a reasonable fee for others to do the work for you. Regardless of how you choose, just remember these four things…
If you’re concerned about privacy and/or security, you should do whatever you can to reduce your personal data being available online.
If you pay for others to remove your data for you, that’s fine: just be sure you can trust the individual or company to whom you’ll provide some of your personal data.
There’s no known way to remove ALL of your personal data from the web. No doubt there are many local, state, and federal agencies that have data on every one of us. No doubt those data are available via the web to the most malicious hackers.
The goal is never to remove ALL of your personal data from the web: it’s to remove as much of it as possible. And that goal, dear friends, is 100% doable.
Go for it.
And that’s a wrap for today’s episode, everyone. Thank you again, for reading and for being a subscriber. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.
And remember: if you’d like me to write about a topic, drop me a line on our still-open discussion thread at this link.
As always… surf safe.
Click here for my guide on how to choose a privacy-focused VPN.
If you’re looking to set up a VERY secure iPhone, click here.
For a super cool way to NOT give your personal email address to everyone, click here.
Click here for a crash course on how to keep your devices updated.