Google Yourself Challenge: How Much Can People Learn About You Online?

by Mikey Rox on 16 April 2012 (8 comments)

This article is made possible by our underwriter Equifax.

By now, we’re all familiar with the concept of Googling someone. If you’re not (seriously, where have you been?), it’s the act of typing a person’s name into the search engine to learn more about them. You can find lots of information about an individual through Google, such as where they live, where they work, their level of education, and if they have a criminal past.

While others may Google you, however, it’s just as important for you to Google yourself. Why? Because the pictures, videos, and other personal information about you online will affect you at some point in your life – whether you know it or not.

Who Is Searching for Your Information?

Several types of people might try to find out about you online. Here are a few types to be especially aware of.

1. Employers

It used to be that the only background information an employer had on you was the resume and references you provided. Then came the Internet. While your resume and references are still helpful to employers, they’re secondary to the online research that potential employers conduct about you. Employers aren't stupid. They know that anyone can fake a resume and coach their references on what to say. But Google doesn't lie. Not only will employers check your name on Google to verify facts, but they’ll dig deep to make sure you don’t have anything in your past that will reflect unfavorably upon the company.

2. Creditors/Financial Services

In the past, to get a loan you had to sit down with a loan broker and hand over your financial standing on paper. The problem with that was there was a lot of room for fudgery – paper can be copied, modified, and even forged. Nowadays your credit score is stored in an online database, which is accessible to anyone in a position of power to give you money.

3. Stalkers

Stalkers can learn about you on Google, but they can also follow your every move through your social networks. Have you heard those horror stories about people getting robbed blind while they’re not home because they posted about how they’re enjoying their glorious vacation all over Facebook? It happens – but that is the least of your worries. What if a stalker showed up at your job or followed you around based on the information you’ve posted and shared? It’s tragic and frightening.

4. ID Thieves

Shopping online is easy and fun – until your identity is stolen. You’re setting yourself up for potential disaster by storing your credit card info on the sites from which you purchase frequently, but you’re still not completely safe even if you avoid this practice. In fact, keeping a credit card at all sets you up for identity theft because credit card companies store all of their users’ information digitally. When a security breach occurs, like the one at Global Payments recently, your card is compromised along with your peace of mind.

What Tools Will They Use?

There’s more to this than Googling – here are the tools people are most likely to use to get information on you.

1. Google

Google is the number one way for any of us to find information on someone we search. Literally. It’s the most visited website in the world. Most of us search for information about other people for benign reasons, but there are bad apples everywhere.

2. Facebook

Know what the number two most-visited site in the world is? Yep, it’s Facebook. While we don’t have a lot of control regarding what lands on Google about us, we have absolute control about what people can discover about us on Facebook. If someone wants to know what you’re up to, you can bet they’re browsing your profile.

3. Online Police/Sex Offender Registries

If you think your past won’t come back to haunt you, you’re wrong. Employers especially use these sites to make sure you’re telling the truth when you check that box saying that you’ve never been convicted of a felony. It’s better to be up front about your indiscretions than fib about it and get caught. At that point, you look like a criminal and a liar.

4. Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com is intriguing and interesting because it’s an incredible way to learn about your family history. But like any other tidbits of information about you that appear on the web, the information on Ancestry can inadvertently cause you more stress than you signed up for.

How to Protect Yourself

You could stop using the internet entirely…just kidding. Follow these steps.

1. Research Privacy Settings and Set Privacy at Maximum

Every social network you join has privacy settings. If you don’t manually change them, you’ll receive the default settings. Those default settings are rather loose, because it is a social network after all, and the whole point is for you to share with the community. Sharing doesn’t have to mean putting yourself at risk, however. Check your privacy settings and configure them accordingly. On Facebook, for example, you can choose to have your profile public or private. Keeping your profile private will only grant those who you personally allow to have access to it, greatly reducing your chances of someone from accessing your information for nefarious purposes.

2. Use Google Alerts

It’s not just celebrities whose names and likenesses are all over the web – you are, too. To keep track about what’s posted about online as soon as it appears, set up a Google Alerts account. The service will send you a message whenever it comes across any web-based material featuring your name or selected keywords.

3. Don't Share Your Password

Never, ever give your password to anyone – even the employer who thinks it’s OK to ask for it. Outside of the office, keep your password guarded even more closely. Pick strong passwords that are easy to remember with this great tip from Mozilla (via Lifehacker):

4. Stay Completely Anonymous

Unless it is absolutely necessary, don’t use any personal information when creating online accounts or leaving comment on websites. Also avoid using the same account name on all the websites you visit. Doing so will allow stalkers to look through all your comments and figure out your real identity.

5. Just Be SMART!

You can’t stay offline forever—and even if you do, other parties will still store your information online without your permission. Your only real option is to be as informed as possible about your online privacy so you can make the best decisions regarding your safety. If you don’t want something online, don’t put it there.

It’s time to open up this discussion. Have you Googled yourself? What are your thoughts about online privacy? Have you been a victim of hacking or stalking? Has your employer asked for your password? We want to hear about your experience with this subject in the comments below.

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Meg Favreau's picture

In regard to passwords, I've started using LastPass (http://lastpass.com/), which makes it easy to securely store and manage all of your online login info. Plus you don't have to remember every new password you make, which is especially nice for sites that make you change your password regularly.

Guest's picture

I've been using RoboForm for years. Can store the passwords locally, or in the cloud. Has a password generator that you can choose the length, include capital letters, special characters, etc. Has certainly been a life saver a few times.

Guest's picture

My favorite thing about LastPass is actually NOT its slick form-filling or password generator (although those things are fabulous -- can't live without 'em, now). It's the fact that it remembers every site I've ever signed up for since I've installed it. Do you know how many times I used to say to myself, "Hey, what was the name of that site I made a login for last night?" A lot of times. No more!

Big hugs to all LastPass users. I got my dad on it, which makes me believe that literally anyone can use it. And should.

Guest's picture
Ryan

I try to remember to Google myself about once a month to see what might be out there. So far I haven't found anything negative. On Facebook my privacy is set to friends only. Also, I don't share anything I wouldn't want an employer to see.

Guest's picture
Mobile Malli

I don't google myself but I love googling my friends. It is astounding the kind of weird stuff you can find out about people you think you know. I highly recommend it.

Guest's picture
Deacon

It is so true. If I Google myself, there are at least 3 sites that point directly to me. I think your point about knowing what the privacy settings are and adjusting them is crucial. Another thing that is good to do is to change your passwords every once in a while. I recently had my Hotmail account hacked, but I hadn't changed that password in years and it was super simple.

Guest's picture

Googling yourself is always very interesting. I do it every once in a while to see what is out there about me or others with my same name and recommend everyone do the same!

Guest's picture

Never thought about Googling myself, but I just did and I was amazed at how many times my name was there. Now mind you, I don't do facebook or tweet and I don't shop very much online. We've been fortunate, we haven't been hacked or had our identify stolen...knock on wood. But thanks for the heads up. I will be more aware from now on.