As the saying goes: The Internet is forever. Once you’ve put something online—a credit card number, a silly photo, a heat-of the-moment comment on social media—it can come back to haunt you.
But what are the risks, really? “There are two worst-case scenarios,” says Thorin Klosowski, privacy and security editor at Wirecutter, a product recommendation service owned by the New York Times. “The most obvious one is a security issue. Everyone’s e-mail address and basic details are leaked somewhere online, and if you reuse passwords, that means a nefarious person will have an easier time getting into your accounts.”
The problem is getting worse: Identity theft cases more than doubled in 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission, with reported monetary losses from fraud overall climbing to $3.3 billion from $1.8 billion in 2019.
“The second worst-case scenario is more primal: embarrassment,” says Klosowski. And sometimes the pricks to our pride are far more personal than blushing over an unflattering photo. “Many of us store our most intimate thoughts in a digital notes app, draft e-mails we never send or pour out our private feelings into a direct message to a friend. This is the type of thing that can get leaked online, either through a provider being negligent or through your own misunderstanding of the often-confusing privacy settings in the software and services.”
With these sorts of slip-ups, the stakes can be high. But you’re not powerless. You can stand up for your privacy and begin to take control, starting right now. Here’s how:
1 Mix Up Your Passwords
If you always use the same password, no matter how carefully crafted it may be, it’s probably already out there.
The 2017 Equifax breach that resulted in the loss of 147 million Americans’ public records was big news, but we don’t always hear about the smaller-scale breaches, which are frequent. They occur when criminals purchase leaked databases of usernames (usually e-mail addresses) and passwords on dark web marketplaces. Then the crooks try these combinations, hoping to access people’s other accounts. So use a strong, unique password for every account.
2 Use a Password Manager
How can you possibly remember all your passwords? You can’t. But if you enlist the help of a password manager, you need to remember just one password—for it. The manager will do the rest, creating strong passwords and automatically filling them in for you.
The service 1Password offers an excellent manager for a few dollars a month ($3/month for one person, or $5/month for a family of up to five people). Bitwarden is a good free option. Or use the free manager built into your browser.
3 Find Out Whether Criminals Have Your Information
Visit haveibeenpwned.com to see whether your email address, phone number, or passwords are included in any leaked databases available to criminals. Spoiler: Your information has probably been involved in multiple leaks. (The leaks on HaveIBeenPwned are just the tip of the iceberg of what criminals have access to.)
4 Delete Old Accounts
You probably have a lot of online accounts you no longer use, and they might contain personal information. Delete them. Don’t leave whatever details you may have shared sitting around so they can be discovered by criminals—or misused if an unscrupulous company one day buys and abuses your data.
To learn how to delete an account, perform a web search such as “delete old email account.” You can also visit just delete. me, which has instructions for deleting many different types of accounts. Or go right to the company; check its online support pages or contact customer support and ask for account deletion.
5 Download Your Data
Deleting an account doesn’t mean you lose everything you had on that particular site. For example, you can easily download all the data associated with a Facebook or Google account and do whatever you want with it. Just be sure to keep backup copies of everything you consider important.
6 Find Old Accounts to Delete
You probably don’t remember every online account you’ve ever created. To find old accounts you might want to delete, search your e-mails for terms like “welcome,” “verify,” “your account,” and “free trial.” The e-mails that pop up will remind you of accounts you’ve signed up for so you can then choose which ones to get rid of.
It’s even easier if you already track your passwords in a password manager. Just scroll through the list to find accounts you no longer use.
7 Delete Old E-Mails Too
Do you really need to keep old e-mails forever? They contain a lot of personal details that could be useful to identity thieves.
Also, under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, e-mails stored on a web server—such as Gmail—are considered “abandoned” after 180 days, and the government can access them without a warrant. Despite bipartisan agreement and a unanimous vote in the House to approve the Email Privacy Act in 2016, which would close this loophole, the bill has not passed the Senate.
Consider deleting old emails, possibly after downloading a copy. This protects your correspondence from both hackers and warrantless government surveillance.
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