You may have just received a call from a prankster or a telemarketer and are now left wondering how on earth they got your number. Well, chances are, they found it on the internet. And the scary part is, they might not be the only ones who have access to it.
Our digital footprint depends upon the way we use the internet, particularly, social media. Careless use may result in your private information ending up in the hands of trolls and hackers, causing a myriad of problems including identity theft. (It is not always your fault by the way. It is totally likely that the company you had entrusted your data with brokered it to the highest bidder).
Research says that 79% of Americans are concerned about how the data collected on them will be used. Therefore, it is important that you know how to remove your phone number from the internet to protect your data.
There are innumerable ways your phone number can end up on the internet – and one of the most obvious ones is that someone posted it there deliberately. The first part of removing it is, therefore, figuring out its location. A lot of people post their numbers on social media which may easily end up on a hacking forum in the aftermath of a data breach, as it happened with Facebook in April this year, in which data from 533 million people in 106 countries was publicly exposed.
The company now faces an international probe regarding violation of the European Union’s GDPR rules, and mass legal action from affected EU citizens, who had their private data leaked, including phone numbers. Too bad that legal action alone cannot undo the harm. So, to avoid the eventuality, don’t post any personal details on social media which you may regret going public. And while you are at it, revoke all permissions you may have given earlier to your free games as their business model rests on selling your personal details to third parties.
Opt out of people search and background check websites
The business model of people-search websites is that they painstakingly collect your digital footprint and sell it to data brokers which eventually serves the purpose of targeted advertisement. Background check websites have a different market but their model also depends upon scavenging your private data and listing it for an inquirer i.e. usually a potential employer. Both kinds of websites go to great lengths to dig out your details, and the scary part is, there is no stopping them. They operate legally in the United States presumably because they give an option for opting out. Now, this opting out may be as easy as clicking a few tabs or as cumbersome as filing paperwork for the same, depending upon which website we are talking about. The bottom line remains – you can and should opt out if privacy is your priority.
Contact the website owner
If your phone number is showing up on a website, the simplest and most effective way to take it down is by requesting the website owner to do so. The two most common ways to find out the contact of the website owner are the following:
- Look for the “Contact” link on the site’s home page. You can find it in the navigation bar at the top or at the bottom of the website.
- If you do not find it, run a Whois google search. For instance, Whois www.xyz.com would show the contact of the owner of the subject hypothetical website. Once the website removes the content, it usually stops showing on Google too, after a routine update. In case it is taking too long, you may use Google’s Outdated Content Removal tool.
Request Google to remove your data
If this method does not work and the website owner or the hosting company does not respond to your request, you are still not out of options. Google offers to remove websites from its search listings if it is established that it hosts your sensitive information which may result in identity theft. The only limitation to this method is that Google does not actually remove your number from the website, but only makes it harder to access by delisting the website, so it will still remain visible to anyone who accesses the subject website from other search engines than Google.
Get rid of what Google knows about you
A quick Google search will tell you that Google knows a lot more about you than you can possibly imagine. The good news is, you can get rid of it and have a clean slate if you do two things: Uncheck Web and App Activity Tracking, and delete your Activity under Activity Controls in Manage your Google Account. This may seem too good to be true, but it is possible.
Get Professional Help
If all that sounds too cumbersome, premium services can come to your rescue. They find and remove your personal information the first time you subscribe to it, and then run periodic scans every couple of months to ensure it does not reappear until the expiry of your subscription. Online reputation management companies can also help by creating flattering content for you that would show up in a Google search and effectively push down what you don’t want people to see into the endless abyss of Google results. You got to have deep pockets to enjoy such services though.
Everyone’s threat model is different. Some people would not care a dime if their intimate pictures were splattered all over the internet while some would get uncomfortable with a harmless birthday photograph showing up in Google’s image search results. Regardless of what your personal threat model is, it helps to understand that there is a price tag on everything. If you are a more private person, the cheapest and most effective option you have is to go completely dark on social media. If that sounds too hermetic, just be careful while sharing your data online and be aware of all the corrective steps you can take if your number still ends up in public visibility on the internet – and you are good to go.