Have you ever done a search for yourself online and found that your personal information was available to everyone?  Or even worse did you find information that was incorrect or damaging to your reputation?  Many people have found themselves in one of these situations and they have found that getting their information removed or corrected can be extremely challenging.  This guide is designed to help make it easier to get your personal information removed or corrected at popular online information brokers.

Start with the search engines

As with any online campaign, the best strategy is to begin with the most popular destinations and then gradually work your way down to places with smaller audiences.  Naturally, in this context, that means looking into what the major search engines have on you first.  Do a search for your full legal name to find out if any kind of undesirable content displays in the listing results.  Regardless of what the first search reveals, run a few more using variations of your full name.  For instance, suppose you’re a married woman with a hyphenated last name that retains your maiden surname for professional reasons, as thus: “Jane Q. Public-Privacy”.  You will want to search for “Jane Q. Public”, “Jane Public”, “Jane Privacy”, and “Jane Q. Privacy”.

Keep in mind at all times that the search engines are not intentionally trying to make your life miserable by publishing data on you. Quite the contrary, the major search engines are merely companies out to make an honest buck by providing information to people that are looking for it.  Just as it makes no sense to get mad at the local mailman for delivering letters that contain bad news, it also does not make sense to blame online search engine providers for negative data posted by third parties.

Contact the site operator

Before you begin trying to devise an effective plan of attack to permanently delete information about you from online sources, it’s vital to note a very important point.  Website operators are not legally obligated to remove any information without a court order.

However, the vast majority of site operators will hear your side of the story before they decide what to do.  First, locate the “Contact Us” link that’s typically listed at the bottom or very top left or right corner of the site you would like your information removed from.  If no contact data is displayed anywhere on the site, you can do a WHOIS search to find out the email address of the website owner.

A WHOIS search will contain a physical address, email address and/or phone number.  Many website owners pay for a private WHOIS listing.  In such cases, the domain name service provider will be listed, which you can then contact to ask for a message to be forwarded to the site owner.  Another common strategy that can be highly effective is to search for the website “short name” via social media sites.  The short name is just the name of the website in words.

When communicating with any website operators, be polite and remain calm to present your case in a rational manner.  No matter how angry or distraught you are, try to make logical arguments based on legitimate grounds to explain why specific content should be removed. If possible, supply documentation to support your case for content removal.  Should the website(s) at issue have formal policies of not removing any posted content, request that personal identifiers be deleted, like your name, images and/or social media profile URLs.

Other places that might have your information

After successfully having information about you either deleted completely, revised with a more sanitized version, or ‘de-personalized,’ it might be some time before changes are reflected in search engine query results.  Try to be patient as the search engines take some time to update their databases.

Also, don’t forget that there are other places that compile and might publish your personal data.  Numerous information brokers commonly referred to collectively as “people search sites” provide detailed personal data about anyone to anyone else that pays a small fee for the privilege of access.  Thus, if you truly wish to vanish from the online world totally, you must include people search sites in your plan.

How people search sites get their information

The primary people search provider databases are mainly compiled from public records.  Secondary people search sources acquire aggregated data in bulk quantities from primary data brokers and then they include additional info compiled from social media profiles and similar online venues.  Given the viral nature of the virtual data brokerage business and the volatile subject matter, the task of total removal from all such sources can be quite a daunting challenge.  Fortunately, there are some people out there trying to help make it easier to get your information removed from data providers.

Pro Publica is an organization of professional journalists devoted to promoting the public interest.  Consistent with this stated primary mission, they have compiled a list of data brokers to help real people retain or regain their online privacy.  The list contains information on the various data brokers that will provide you with copies of all personal data on file upon proper request as well as sites that allow immediate opt out via a simple online request.

After you submit an opt out request to a data provider, you will need to remain vigilant by doing periodic self-searches via people search sites.  Sometimes the information from public records can show up on another site or in a different way.

The Internet is constantly growing and changing.  Search engines and people search sites that were once dominant now no longer exist.  If you want to keep your personal information private and your public information accurate you must remain vigilant.  The good news is that it can be done as long as you are willing to make it a priority.