Fact Sheet 1:
Privacy Survival Guide:
Take Control of Your Personal Information

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Copyright © 1994-2016
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Posted October 1994
Revised June 2016

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 Fact Sheets, many of which are highlighted in the sections below.

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.  Be aware that apps may also access some of this information. Take steps to minimize these risks.
  • Understand how downloaded apps may access and use your personal data.  Be sure to read an app’s privacy policy before downloading.  Immediately adjust the app’s settings (where available) to minimize data collection and sharing.
  • 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.
  • Do not allow your device to automatically remember login passwords for access to any sensitive accounts such as email, social networking, or financial accounts.
  • Consider turning off Wi-Fi, location tracking and Bluetooth (or use airplane mode) in public places to avoid passive data collection.
  • Learn more by reading PRC Fact Sheet 2b.

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.  Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to create a secure connection.
  • 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!
  • Learn more by reading PRC Fact Sheet 36.

Understand How Your Personal Information is Revealed Online

  • Consider using a privacy-friendly search engine.
  • 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.
  • Learn more by reading PRC Fact Sheet 18.

Be Cautious With Social Networking

  • Companies that operate social networks collect a variety of data about their users.  This information may be shared with marketing partners.
  • Carefully read a social network's privacy policy and understand how your information will be used and shared with others.
  • 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.
  • Learn more by reading PRC Fact Sheet 35.

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. They get your information from public records and other sources.
  • 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.
  • Learn more by reading PRC Fact Sheet 41.

Handle Social Security Numbers (SSN) and Personal Information Carefully to Avoid Identity Theft

  • 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.
  • When someone asks for your 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.
  • Shred any documents containing your Social Security number, 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.
  • Learn more by reading PRC Fact Sheet 17 and PRC Fact Sheet 10.

Check Your Credit Reports and Other Consumer Reports        

  • There are 3 nationwide credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). You can obtain a free credit report from each credit bureau once every 12 months. Order your free reports online at www.annualcreditreport.com, download the Annual Credit Report Request form to mail in your request, or call (877) 322-8228.
  • To monitor your credit reports year round, you can order your report from a different credit bureau every four months.  There are also a few commercial services that will monitor your credit reports at no charge.
  • 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. 
  • Obtain copies of your other consumer reports covering insurance claims, tenant history, check writing history, employment, and medical conditions.
  • Learn more by reading PRC Fact Sheet 6 and PRC Fact Sheet 6b.

Additional Tips to Protect Your Privacy

  • Reduce unwanted telephone calls by registering with National Do Not Call Registry at www.donotcall.gov or by calling by calling (888) 382-1222.  Learn more by reading PRC Fact Sheet 5.
  • Remove yourself from as many national mailing lists as possible by registering for the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service at https://www.dmachoice.org/register.php.  Learn more by reading PRC Fact Sheet 4.Opt out of unsolicited credit card offers in your mailbox for 5 years online at www.optoutprescreen.com or by calling (888) 567-8688. Learn more by reading PRC Fact Sheet 4.
  • 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.  Learn more by reading PRC Fact Sheet 24.
  • 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. If you have a debit card, ask your bank to replace it with an "ATM only" card.  Learn more by reading PRC Fact Sheet 32.


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