So, you happened to find some of your information on a website which you didn’t give it to.

How did it get there? Were you hacked? Is someone stealing your mail?

They may not have gotten the information directly from you, although believe it or not, you still may have had a hand in them getting it.

Many of the websites out there that you may stumble upon with what seems like a treasure trove of your personal information are websites that collect or aggregate information about people to mine it for valuable statistics or sell access to it.

Let’s look at three of the ways these websites and companies normally obtain their information on you, and other people:

Public Records Databases

Believe it or not, in North America when you buy a house, get a mortgage, get married, etc. The government collects information about you and keeps it in publicly available databases.

With the advent of the Internet, many of these databases are now accessible online. Since the data is freely available, these websites can scoop it easily.

Purchased from 3rd Parties

Even with our society becoming more privacy-aware, there still are websites and apps that sell the personal information they collect about their users to other parties as an additional revenue stream.

Sometimes its just geographic information like how many people use their service from a certain country or demographic information like what the age ranges of their subscribers is, for example. Other times its the entire contents of your profile.

Scraping from Other Websites

Not all websites are above using “grey” methods to obtain the data they need. Some will simply copy and paste (called scraping) your information from other publicly available websites and even other record-collecting websites into their database.

Sounds a bit scary, right?

Don’t stress. A little due diligence can combat a lot of this. Here are a few things you can do:

Evaluate whether that website really needs all the information it’s asking you to provide you with the service you’re looking for?

Before you ever fill out any form online, check out the company first. Read their Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Do they explain how they protect your information? Do they state they will not sell your information? Red flags should be going up if not.

If they need a ton of information, find reviews on the company. Are they reputable? Have they suffered a data breach recently? Do they have any other divisions or products which might make use of your information?

Nothing in life is free, every company needs money to survive. If it’s a free product or app, and they want a ton of information, be skeptical. An app shouldn’t ask for more information than required for you to use it. If they ask for more, and don’t indicate how they use your data, there is a good chance selling your information is their revenue stream. Even if it is “ad supported”.

Use your head when it comes to social media

If you don’t invest some time and effort into locking down your social media profiles, then they could be publicly accessible. Does the whole world need access to your social media profiles? If not, don’t give it to them.

Be careful of what you post. Even once you have adjusted all those privacy settings, don’t post any personal information in updates or posts. You never know when the company may change or remove privacy settings which can accidentally make your profile public, exposing all that information you’ve posted.

Check the Terms of Service, Privacy Policy and other policies of the social network. Who owns your posts or updates? If it’s not you, they could be selling them, or access to them. Believe it or not, you are not always the owner of the information you contribute to social networks!

Don’t post it at all

Ultimately, the best course of action to stop anyone from obtaining or using your personal information, is to simply not put it on the Internet. Of course, there are times when this isn’t possible and you do need to provide some personal information. In those cases, a little bit of due diligence can go a long way in keeping your information safe.

This Week’s Challenge

How do you decide which places to submit your personal information online? What do you do for your due diligence? Have you ever thought about locking down your social media profiles?