Miscellaneous 5 min. read

How to Protect Your Personal Information Online

What Types of Personal Information Can Be Found Online?

Surfing the Internet used to be one of the last bastions of privacy and security. After all, since you didn’t have to get dressed, get in your car, and drive anywhere to shop or meet new people, you could build any kind of profile you wanted for yourself. You could have any name and be any person you wanted to be (theoretically) and nobody would be able uncover your identity if you didn’t want them to have it.

But unfortunately, things have changed. Today, most people tend to be naïve and unaware of the many different ways that their personal information may be stored online.  They’re even less likely to know how both companies and individuals gain access to this data.

Just because you may not be aware of the all the different avenues that exist to gather personal information about you, that doesn’t mean that your information is safe!

Even the most seemingly innocent or innocuous activities can lead to sharing personal information with anonymous sources across the Internet. The more aware you are about this information, the better you’ll be able to protect yourself, your family, and all of that valuable information.

The Different Types of Personal Information You May Unwittingly Share Online

If you’ve ever written anything about yourself online, or made purchases, or visited websites, there is personal information about you floating around in the ether. Some of the most common tidbits of personal information that someone could find about you may include:

  • Your full name
  • Your home address
  • Where you went to school
  • Where you work
  • Your Social Security number, its last four digits, or other identifying information
  • Where you shop
  • Favorite websites that you visit
  • General search information and parameters
  • Your computer’s IP address
  • Personal banking information

Upon a quick review of this list, there should be a few items that stand out and give you reason to pause. Your Social Security number? Personal banking information?

Maybe you haven’t ever purchased anything online, but you’ve probably have accessed your bank account online to check your balance or conduct transactions. So how could someone gain access to such personal information?

The key to that one is through your computer’s IP address. Once an individual has your IP address, if you don’t have a firewall and other security features setup, he or she could – theoretically – gain access to your computer and “observe” your activities while you’re connected to the Internet.

This would give these hackers access to just about any personal information they want about you. It sounds scary, but there are plenty of tools and resources available online that teach wannabe identity thieves how to hack into another computer using the IP address alone.

This isn’t legal – not by any stretch – but it highlights the ease with which companies and individuals can access your computer.

But let’s step back for a moment and discuss some of the other types of personal information that someone could find out about you online…

Do you have a social media profile? Have you set up an account on Facebook or Twitter, for example? If so, anything you share online through these sites has the potential to be found by others. Even if you’ve set your profile to “private,” you can’t guarantee that anything you share online will remain hidden forever.

For a bit of education, let’s visit any major search engine. Type in your name and see what comes up. You may have a common name and need to scroll through a few pages of results before finding something about yourself, but most people will find at least something about themselves online.

Even if these factoids seem innocuous by themselves, remember that they may feature prominently into the security questions you’ve set up for your accounts.  If hackers or identity thieves have access to your email address, they can use this information to retrieve “lost” passwords to your accounts by providing the answers they’ve been able to source from your Internet footprint.

And that’s just public domain information. That’s what’s out there and readily available, and it can include White Pages listings, your college coursework, or any number of other references to different aspects of your life.

That said, the most common way that your personal information can be sourced is through cookies and your IP address.

What Are Cookies?

Cookies, also known as internet cookies, are small files that are downloaded to your computer from different websites. These cookies may track some personal information, such as your name or other data that you may enter while either browsing or shopping online.

Most companies use cookies to help make your shopping or web experience more enjoyable for you (and more profitable for them). Most cookies are harmless and, in fact, some websites won’t even open properly unless you allow cookies.

However, any personal information that is stored about you through the use of cookies has the potential to be retrieved by anyone who knows how to access that information.

Your IP Address

Overall, the most critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to having your personal information accessed online is the IP address of your computer. Your IP address is your personal computer’s unique address and is supplied by your Internet Service Provider (ISP).

When someone has this information, they can potentially gain access to the rest of your computer – including any and all of the personal information you have stored there – when you’re online.

Many websites and web services pull your IP address as part of their standard operating procedures – for example, in order to serve up content that’s based on your geographic location. But even if you’re chatting online with someone through a secure site, such as a dating site, the person on the other end may have the ability to find out your IP address when the chat window is open.

How Do You Protect Your Personal Information Online?

There are steps that you can take in order to protect your personal information online. The first is to disable cookies in your web browser. This is achieved by accessing the “Tools” features of your particular browser (whether you’re using Safari, Firefox, IE, or Chrome, to name a few). Be aware, however, that disabling cookies will mean that you might not be able to access certain websites.

Another step you can take is to withhold any personally identifiable information from social media sites. Don’t share your last name, where you went to school, who you’re married to or dating, and so on. That may seem drastic, but when security is your primary concern, it’s a reasonable step.

In addition, consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service to access the Internet. This is a secondary Internet access company that provides a virtual IP address (one from a bank of IP addresses) that will keep your actual IP address hidden from prying eyes (or chat windows).

Overall, a VPN service is one of the most effective and efficient ways to protect your personal information online in today’s modern technological world.  Give Hotspot Shield – or any other VPN of your choice – a try today and keep your most personal pieces of information safe.

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