“There’s no such thing as privacy anymore,” said Adam Miller, president of Bellaire-based Aegis Insurance and Financial Services. “I don’t care how private you think you are. Just accept it.”
But there are a few steps you can take to reduce the number of eyes (both human and virtual) looking at your contact information.
Can you remove your email address from online databases?
The answer, unfortunately, is probably not. How many apps, online stores and websites have your email address? You know, when they ask for contact info to send coupons and package tracking details?
That information has been out there for ages; even if you don’t think you’ve posted your email on Facebook or another social network, you’ve probably submitted it to online businesses that in turn sell your data.
But there are a few things you can do to keep future businesses from getting your personal contact information. When a store or app asks for an email address to give you a discount, create a brand new email address. Miller recommends directing businesses to an email inbox used just to receive spam in case they sell that data.
What is this?
As a reporter, I usually ask the questions, but I can’t be the only one wondering how something works. What are things you need to know how to do, Houston? You can find me on Twitter at @gwendolynawu or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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“I don’t want my email address out there because you could then do reverse searches for your information,” Miller said. That means that when someone types your spam email address on a search engine, they have a harder time linking that to you and your other contact info.
It works. When I Google my spam email address, an inbox created 10 years ago to sign up for Flash game websites that became a safe haven for shoe store and H-E-B coupons, I find no link to my name.
You can also try random email address generators like 10minutemail.com when you need a spam email. Some sign-in features allow you to create “alias” email addresses that obfuscate your real email address with a made-up one, and redirects the emails to your actual inbox.
Can I remove my information from public records?
Under the Texas Public Information Act, government agencies are not forced to make public records available online. You can obscure some data, such as removing your name from property records and voter registration records available online.
Homeowners can fill out a form to remove their names from the online records of the Harris County Appraisal District.
This does not mean that your name is completely written off the record, though, said Jack Barnett, a HCAD spokesperson.
“If someone does file a public information request for an account, they would see the owner’s name even though the name had been removed from the website,” Barnett said.
Removing your name from the online listing could create problems if you need to prove residency when enrolling kids in school, Miller said. Keep paper utility bills in case you need to validate that you live at that address.
There is another option to remove names from property records. If you’re a member of law enforcement, state legislator or a victim of domestic assault/harassment/stalking, you can fill out a form to request confidentiality on your home address.
Texas also allows residents to remove their personal information on online voter registration records. The Harris County Clerk’s office offers a form that must be mailed or faxed. You will still be registered to vote, but anyone looking to confirm your voter registration status on harrisvotes.com, the county’s elections hub, will instead have to call the clerk’s office or visit in person to confirm your Election Day polling place. And like the Harris County Appraisal District, that information will still be available if someone files a public information request for your voter registration record.
Could I ask Google to take down pages that include personal information?
If I type my name into a Google search, dozens of results pop up linking me to my current and former workplaces and to where I went to school. By the nature of my work, I’m extremely online and have a reason to keep parts of my contact information out there for readers and sources to see. But not everyone needs to have that readily available by web search.
Google allows people to request the removal of their personal information from search results. The things that can be removed: bank account numbers, hand-written signatures, sexually explicit photos and Social Security numbers, among others.
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But the search engine will not delete content containing dates of birth, addresses or phone numbers, and taking that information off a search listing doesn’t make it disappear from the internet. You could reach out to the owners of the webpage to take it down, but that usually requires a fee, Miller said.
“I’m sure some people would pay that fee to get their number removed,” he said.
Where else might I have posted my phone number, address or email address?
Have you checked your social media accounts, particularly Facebook? Your email and often, your phone number, are linked to Facebook and may be publicly viewable on your timeline.
On the desktop version of Facebook, go to your profile and click the eye icon at the top, under the cover photo. There, you can view your profile as the public sees it. Check the ‘About’ page to see whether any personal contact information is on there. (This is how one of my best friends discovered that his entire street address was public on Facebook. Yes, street number and all.)
On mobile, go to your profile and tap “edit public details.” Scroll down to “edit your about info,” and you can see all of the information you’ve uploaded to your profile, and who can see it. Tap the “edit” buttons as you scroll to adjust what information is public.
If you live with kids or older family members who are social media super users, check their profiles to make sure they haven’t put any contact information up for grabs there as well.
Like Miller said, though, that if that data is already online, it’s pretty hard to get it removed. But some of the steps outlined here might be a start in reducing how easy it is to find your contact information online.