We often don't value our privacy until it's gone. Lost privacy can mean that your personal information is collected, analyzed and shared by data brokers, marketing companies, employers, and insurance companies. You may learn your privacy has been compromised only after you've been refused a job based on your Facebook profile, denied the ability to return a purchase because of previous returns to that store, or added to telemarketing lists. If you have become a victim of identity theft, lost privacy can mean months dealing with debt collectors, police, credit bureaus and government agencies.
Maintaining your privacy can be a challenge. Rapid technological advances are constantly infringing upon our private information. Our personal data is collected by others, often without our knowledge or consent. In many instances, we cannot control how this information is collected or used by others. However, opportunities exist to protect your privacy and to take control of your personal information. You can begin by following the tips featured below. Educate yourself further by reading the information in our Consumer Guides.
Protect Your Smartphone and Mobile Devices
- Your smartphone or mobile device stores a tremendous amount of personal information. Think about the information that could be accessed if it were lost or stolen. Take steps to minimize these risks.
- Be sure that your phone or device is encrypted. Then, make sure that your lock screen is secured with a strong password.
- Use your device’s security lockout feature. Set it to automatically lock after a certain amount of time not in use.
- Install security software that allows you to remotely lock your device and wipe the data if your phone is lost or stolen.
- Consider turning off Wi-Fi, location tracking and Bluetooth (or use airplane mode) in public places to avoid passive data collection.
Secure Your Computer
- Use up-to-date anti-virus and anti-malware programs and firewalls.
- Make sure that your operating system and software are current and patched.
- Back up your data. Ransomware is a growing threat that can be avoided if you have backed up your data.
- Encrypt sensitive information before storing or sending.
- Be cautious when using wireless connections and Wi-Fi hotspots. Most public Wi-Fi is insecure.
- Do not use the same password for multiple accounts. Instead, use strong passwords that are unique to each account. This is particularly important for your most sensitive online accounts.
- Utilize two-factor authentication when available.
- Before you donate, sell or discard your computer or device, be sure to securely wipe all personal data. Deleting files is not enough.
Limit How Your Personal Information is Revealed Online
- Log out of webmail, social networking, and all other accounts before visiting other sites or using search engines.
- Use your browser's settings to maximize your privacy. Disable 3rd party cookies.
Use Social Networking With Caution
- Companies that operate social networks collect a variety of data about their users. This information may be shared with marketing partners.
- Use privacy settings to control who sees your posts, but keep in mind that even the strongest privacy settings won't prevent someone from re-sharing what you have posted.
- Remember that privacy policies and privacy settings may change. Check them periodically.
- Identity thieves, scam artists, debt collectors, stalkers, employers, and corporations looking for a market advantage can use social networks to gather information about you.
Be Aware of Data Brokers
- There are hundreds of data brokers that publish your personal information online (for example, address, phone number, and date of birth). Others sell or trade information that they collect to other companies.
- Some data brokers will allow you to opt out in order to remove your personal information, others will not.
- There is no single mechanism of suppressing your information from all data brokers.
- View our list of online data brokers to determine which ones offer an opt out.
Handle Your Social Security Number Carefully
- When someone asks for your Social Security number (SSN), ask why they need it. Ask them to explain their authority for requiring it, and what the consequences are if you do not provide it. Ask if you can give another identifier instead, such as your driver's license number.
- Remove your Social Security card and any other documents containing your SSN from your wallet. Securing your SSN is a key step in avoiding identity theft. Carry your Medicare card only when you are planning a medical visit.
- Shred any documents containing your SSN, bank or credit card information, or other personal, identifying, or financial information. Use a cross-cut or confetti shredder.
- Be suspicious when receiving calls asking for credit card, bank account, Social Security or PIN numbers. Instead of providing any personal information, contact a company directly to verify the need for the requested information. Use a known legitimate number such as the one on your statement or credit card.
Check Your Credit Reports
- There are 3 nationwide credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). You can obtain a free credit report online from each credit bureau once every 12 months.
- You have the right to freeze access to your credit reports. This is an effective way to reduce your risk of identity theft. A security freeze locks your credit file, preventing others from getting new credit using your name or identity.
Additional Tips to Protect Your Privacy
- Reduce unwanted telephone calls by registering with National Do Not Call Registry.
- Remove yourself from as many national mailing lists as possible by registering for the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service.
- Opt out of unsolicited credit card offers in your mailbox.
- Protect your financial privacy by reading privacy notices from your bank, credit card, insurance, and investment companies. Take advantage of any opt out opportunities to prevent the sharing of customer data.
- Don't use debit cards. They offer less legal protection than credit cards in the event of fraudulent purchases. A lost, stolen, or otherwise compromised debit card can result in your bank account being wiped out by a thief, without using your PIN number.