You’ve heard over, and over (and over) how you should do your best to protect your privacy and what you share online. Even if you’re thinking, “I’m not really a private person, so I don’t care what’s out there” —you really should.
It’s not about whether people know about that embarrassing fender-bender, or the fact that your dog Cujo has a favorite brand of food. It’s about all of the individual bits of information and how it can be put together to create a picture of who you are to create a custom-designed scam.
The more information that’s publicly available, the easier it is to
create a good scam.
Don’t believe me? Consider this: if a scammer can find your sibling’s name and where they live, they could easily create a legit-sounding imposter scam. Just picture it: you get an urgent call from a “first responder” from <insert community name where your sibling lives>. The caller says there’s been a terrible accident and they need detailed insurance and payment information so they can provide urgently-needed medical care for <insert sibling name>. In your panic and freak out, it would seem entirely plausible because the details add up.
So how much information about you is on the internet? The bits of data about you aren’t sitting all in one place, of course. Instead, it’s spread across the internet in different public spaces. You’ve got to be a bit of a detective and do a little open source intelligence work—just like the scammers do.
“Open source intelligence” makes it sound like you’re becoming a spy, but really you’re just using online tools available to everyone—including scammers. You should know what they do to stay one step ahead.
Here are some tips:
Start with a search engine, but go beyond the basics
A variety of open source intelligence websites recommend you start by putting in your first name and last name and see what you get—and we’ve all probably done that. But you can also amp up your Google game by using some search operators. An operator is a character or string of characters that can be used in a search engine query to narrow the focus of your search. For example:
- Search: FirstName Lastname@ and you’ll see if you can find email addresses attached to you
- Look for: FirstName LastName filetype:doc (exactly like this, without any space!) to see if you can find any Word documents that contain your name. You could also swap out the file extension with other popular file types such as jpg, xls, pdf, etc.
- If you search intex:FirstName Last Name you’ll see results showing your name anywhere in the text
Note: if you changed your name at some point in your life, be sure to check your current name and previous ones.
Search some specific sites
There are many sites dedicated to gathering/aggregating all of the publicly available information about people. For example, see what you can find out about yourself at:
You will likely be amazed at what these sites gather all in one place. You might discover there is quite the dossier about you, including your name, age, relatives, cities where you’ve lived, current address, previous addresses, and more.
If you’re alarmed by what you see, here’s some good news: you CAN opt out of many of these sites. Lifehacker published a story with instructions on how to remove yourself from many of these sites, and so has Techlicious, just to name a few.
Note: opting out won’t eliminate this data, but it will make it harder to track down because it won’t be aggregated into one place.
Run an image search
While you’re using your favorite browser, don’t forget to see what images may come up in an image-specific search.
A Google search isn’t going to tell if your usernames and passwords have been hacked—but HaveIBeenPawned can. Run by a cybersecurity expert, it’s considered a reliable place to see if your email account(s) are not secure. (Reminder: using Chrome’s password extension can also help).
Give yourself Google Privacy and Security Check-Ups
Google lets you have some control over what information is saved by them, including your location history, YouTube history, contacts, voice and audio activity, and more. Head to your Google Account page to look at your Privacy settings. Oh! And while you’re there, be sure to run a Security Check-Up too. That will tell you which devices have permission to access your account.
Check your social media
Deactivate old accounts and make sure your privacy settings on your frequently used social media sites are locked down.
For more places to dig for information, check out OSINT Framework (OSINT stands for Open Source Intelligence). This site shows you different websites that may have information about you—including your email, IP address, social networks, people search engines, instant messaging, phone numbers and more.