Misuse of Your Personal Information and Google Alerts

It's always a good idea to keep tabs on your online presence.  This can help prevent embarrassing situations, such as an ex girlfriend posting all your dirty laundry for the world to see, or keep someone from stealing your identity, or using your name or address for fraudulent activities, resulting in the police knocking on YOUR door instead of theirs.

Here is an excellent example...

One of my former co-workers had a rather interesting event happen to him after moving in to his new house... Someone was running a "women's retreat" business from his home address!

He found this out through randomly searching for his own home address using Google.

Apparently someone had setup an entire website for this fake business using the real estate information from his home before purchase.

Luckily, this site did not remain online for long, but things could have become really interesting if someone showed up with suitcases in hand expecting to spend a weekend at the "retreat" they already paid for in full...

A few other situations which could happen...
  • Someone decides to try to rent or sell your house without your knowledge
  • Someone posts your address for a "everything for free" event on Craigslist as a cover for looting your house
  • A former co-worker or client posts your personal information on an online bulletin board accusing you of something "bad", resulting in harassing phone calls from thousands of complete strangers
  • An online group such as Anonymous posts your name and address on bulletin boards to coordinate a "prank SWAT raid"
  • Your college or university accidentally publishes a list of student names and social security numbers
The above are very real situations which have occurred, and could possibly have been avoided (or at least provided some warning) if only the victim would have regularly checked the internet for their personal information.

So how can you protect yourself from these situations?

One way to protect yourself is to setup Google Alerts to monitor your online presence.

It's really easy to do, all you need is a Google account, and visit http://www.google.com/alerts
If you use a different provider for your email, just use Gmail Forwarding.

Setup alerts to be emailed to you on a daily or weekly basis, using the following settings:
Search Query: <insert information here>
Result Type: Everything
How Often: As-it-happens, daily, or weekly, depending on how many alerts you want to recieve
How Many: If you expect a lot of info (for example your name is Bill Gates), go with "Only the best results".  Otherwise, go with "All results".
Deliver To: Your gmail address

Below is an example screenshot.  Note I have Deliver To set to "Feed" to hide my email address...

So what information should you monitor?

A few suggestions:

  • Full name
  • Full name with maiden name, if applicable
  • Home Address
  • Home Phone Number
  • Cell Number
  • Personal Web Site
  • Email Address
  • ...Any Other Personally Identifying Information
If you'd like, use advanced Google search techniques to construct queries such as:
"My Name" -"My Employer"

The above query will hide any results for your name if your employer name is on the same page.  This could be useful if your name is Bill Gates and you're employed by Microsoft, and not concerned about news articles which involve your company, but are concerned about people posting other personal information.

Also consider monitoring your children, spouse, and parents/grandparents names and contact information.

Two items you should NEVER EVER monitor through a Google alert are your credit card number and social security number.  Why? If your Google or email account ever gets compromised, the attacker will have instant access to that information!

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