WICHITA, Kan. (KSN) – Our personal data is prevalent online. The question is: Just how much of our personal data is available, who is putting it there, and is our information protected?
In an effort to answer these questions, KSN decided to take a closer look at the personal information we could find out online – about total strangers – in a matter of minutes.
KSN set out to perform a certain ‘social experiment’ of sorts, to learn whether our participants were overexposed online. The only tool in our toolbox? The Internet.
Using only free search engines, those available to anyone with access to a computer and a WiFi connection, KSN recruited a number of willing Wichitans. That’s when our test came to life online.
Participant 1: Dana
During lunchtime one January afternoon, KSN News set out to find some willing participants who would put our digital experiment to the test.
KSN did a quick search of Dana’s first and last name on a couple of websites. First, we usedPipl.com, which brands itself as “the most comprehensive people search on the web.”
However, we didn’t stop there.
In the short 15 minute period, we also utilizedSpokeo.com, along with various social networking websites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.
In Dana’s case, someone who does not have a Facebook account, she thought our results would be somewhat limited.
We found out that’s not necessarily the case.
“[I think you could find] where I work and maybe where I live,” said Dana.
In only minutes, and using only free information websites, we uncovered Dana’s employment history, previous and current, her street address, Dana’s educational background – including where she went to high school outside of the state of Kansas and with the specific degree she graduated with, and where and when she went to college, also out-of-state – along with the names and ages of numerous relatives.
Dana confirmed her relation to everyone we listed.
Participant 2: Joe
For Joe, it was a similar situation.
When we asked Joe if he thought he would have readily available information about himself online, he said simply, “Yes.”
“I kind of thought that people could find anything they wanted to about anybody,” explained Joe. “I don’t like it, but it really doesn’t bother me… If you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have to worry about it.”
Like Dana, Joe does not have a Facebook or Twitter account. However, that factor seemingly didn’t play into his results.
Within 15 minutes, KSN knew Joe’s age, two phone numbers registered to him – one of which he has had for eight years, his current address, along with 22 previous known addresses in states across the country, some of which were P.O. boxes.
We asked Joe about one of the P.O. Boxes Brittany found registered to him in Booker, Texas; “How long did you have that P.O. Box?”
Joe replied, “Twelve or thirteen years.”
Brittany responded, “Are you surprised that I could find a P.O. Box online?”
Joe said, “Yes… You’d think that’d be private information.”
We were also able to uncover the address of a residence Joe lived in for only one month in Oklahoma in December 1993.
“When we first moved there we were looking for a house and stayed in an apartment,” explained Joe.
KSN also obtained additional personal information about Joe’s wife and adult children.
Joe said he was amazed we could track down one of his old phone numbers.
“Yeah, that’s surprising because those were company numbers, some of them,” Joe said. “If you can find that, you can find bank accounts and everything else, I’m sure.”
Participant 3: Gail
During a spirited lunch with a group of lady Shocker fans, KSN’s Brittany Glas met Gail and her friends.
Following the same protocol as the examples above and given only 15 minutes, the result was more of the same.
Before the bill was brought to the table, KSN was able to discover the following information / content about Gail:
- Address in Derby, Kansas
- Phone number and telephone service provider
- Maiden name
- Husband’s name and contact information
- Details surrounding a Colorado trip she took with her husband in 2010, along with pictures posted from her trip
- Pictures of all of her grandchildren
- Circumstances of death, burial, and funeral of Gail’s adult nephew
After revealing Gail’s results, we asked her about her thoughts.
“I’m on Facebook, so I’m not surprised [by] some of those things,” said Gail. “Except for my nephew – I didn’t think about that – and the trip.”
For Gail’s friends looking on, what we were able to find out online in 15 minutes, was somewhat concerning.
“I can’t imagine if there’s somebody out there wanting to do harm or steal your identity, if they spend days or weeks, they’re going to find out more information than you ever want to be out there… It’s very scary,” said friend, Sherl.
It is just one reason Sherl does not have a Facebook account for herself, especially after having her Discover credit card hacked.
“I could never figure out how that happened,” said Sherl. “I worry about stuff getting out there. It just seems that the criminals are smarter than we are. It doesn’t take them a long time to figure out how to get information about us that we don’t want them to have.”
Are you oversharing on Social Media? Are you overexposed online?
While it is common knowledge, in this day and generation, that the world constantly posts details about friends and family, sights and sounds, even where we are at any given moment in time thanks to social media, this may not be the only culprit in causing our digital overexposure.
Social media is not the only avenue whereby the internet obtains our personal information, although there are precautions you can take about the information you share on your social media accounts.
Internet Safety: Tips for you & your family
In fact, according to the Federal Trade Commission, it is imperative for American consumers to know who your share your information with online.
The commission suggests Americans Treat Your Personal Information Like Cash.
“Don’t hand it out to just anyone. Your Social Security number, credit card numbers, and bank and utility account numbers can be used to steal your money or open new accounts in your name. So every time you are asked for your personal information – whether in a web form, an email, a text, or a phone message – think about whether you can really trust the request. In an effort to steal your information, scammers will do everything they can to appear trustworthy.”
The FTC offers the following additional tips:
- Don’t Overshare on Social Networking Sites
If you post too much information about yourself, an identity thief can find information about your life, use it to answer ‘challenge’ questions on your accounts, and get access to your money and personal information. Consider limiting access to your networking page to a small group of people. Never post your full name, Social Security number, address, phone number, or account numbers in publicly accessible sites.
- Be Alert to Impersonators
Make sure you know who is getting your personal or financial information. Don’t give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you’ve initiated the contact or know who you’re dealing with. If a company that claims to have an account with you sends [you an] email asking for personal information, don’t click on links in the email. Instead, type the company name into your web browser, go to their site, and contact them through customer service. Or, call the customer service number listed on your account statement. Ask whether the company really sent a request.
- Safely Dispose of Personal Information
Before you dispose of a computer, get rid of all the personal information it stores. Use a wipe utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive.
Before you dispose of a mobile device, check your owner’s manual, the service provider’s website, or the device manufacturer’s website for information on how to delete information permanently, and how to save or transfer information to a new device. Remove the memory or subscriber identity module (SIM) card from a mobile device. Remove the phone book, lists of calls made and received, voicemails, messages sent and received, organizer folders, web search history, and photos.
- Encrypt Your Data
Keep your browser secure. To guard your online transactions, use encryption software that scrambles information you send over the internet. A “lock” icon on the status bar of your internet browser means your information will be safe when it’s transmitted. Look for the lock before you send personal or financial information online.
- Keep Passwords Private
Use strong passwords with your laptop, credit, bank, and other accounts. Be creative: think of a special phrase and use the first letter of each word as your password. Substitute numbers for some words or letters. For example, “I want to see the Pacific Ocean” could become 1W2CtPo.