From the March 2013 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Use Technology to Protect Clients' Personal Information

Despite your strongest passwords, some of your information is still susceptible to attack

Illustration by Ellen Weinstein. Illustration by Ellen Weinstein.

I sometimes find myself in conversations with clients of advisors who tell me how important it is for their personal information to be protected. These clients want to make sure that they are implementing the right steps and practices to protect their information. What’s interesting regarding these conversations is that the focus of their efforts generally is on using strong passwords, never sending private information over email, using only computers or devices that they control and having up-to-date anti-virus software. What a lot of your clients probably don’t realize is that much of their information—of which some is very personal and specific—is readily available on the Internet, usually free of charge.

Why is it important to minimize the amount of information about you that is available to anyone via the Internet? There are a number of obvious reasons, including preventing identify theft, fraud and other ways that thieves can use this information for their gain. Less obvious reasons relate to ways that con artists can use bits and pieces of personal information to impersonate you over the phone, in emails, or even in good old-fashioned letters. In recent years, there have even been attempts by crooks to impersonate regulators, using names and contact information of real regulators in order to gain private information about a firm’s clients. Although it is very challenging to remove all of your personal information from public Internet sites, there are relatively simple steps that you and your clients can take to at least minimize the amount of information available.

The first step in the clean-up process is to research what personal information about you is actually available. The simple way to begin is to enter various renditions of your name in several search engines. Then try adding the city where you live in the search criteria. You might be very surprised by the amount of information that is retrieved. Examples of sites to look for in the search results include MyLife.com, WhitePages.com or Spokeo.com, just to name a few. You should also conduct a search using the names of your family members. Frequently, information about you can also be displayed on a site that has your spouse, or even your parents, as the primary member, but lists your information with just as much detail.

Once you have that information, how do you get it removed? A good place to start is to review the privacy policy statement of each site. Most of these websites provide instructions on how to remove your information as part of their privacy policy statement. Frequently, this is accomplished via an email request or through a Web page that allows you to delete information directly from the site. Don’t be surprised if you get an email response from the company asking for more information regarding your request to delete your information or simply confirming your wishes. Be sure to watch your spam folder because it is quite possible for this follow-up email to be routed there.

Removing your information from each site, depending on the amount of data, can be quite cumbersome and tedious. In addition, it is an ongoing effort because it is possible for your information to return to a site days or months after initially being deleted. Given this situation, you could consider hiring a service to do this removal work for you. Companies like Abine, Reputation.com and Safe Shepherd each offer removal services. Some companies even offer a free basic service as well as a monthly or annual paid plan that provides a more thorough removal and information protection service. As part of these plans, you should regularly receive a report that lists the Internet sites from which they have removed your information. Furthermore, for the handful of sites that do not allow a removal service provider to complete this task on your behalf, they will provide you clear instructions on how to do the work yourself.

For the novice user, Facebook is definitely one of the more challenging sites when it comes to protecting information from public view. There are a number of security settings available, but the user has to take the time to understand how they work. If they don’t understand the settings correctly, the photo or caption they intended to post to only their “friends” ends up being available for public view. Every Facebook user should know how much of their personal information and what pictures are listed on their public Facebook profile and banner page. A quick search of your information via Google will show you what the world can see without even having a Facebook account. Bottom line, Facebook is no doubt a great social network, but it is also a very easy target for someone to learn more information about you than perhaps you ever intended.

If you take only one step to protect your clients’ online identity, try to make your non-technology savvy clients aware of what information is available about them on the Internet. They need to understand what is available in the public domain in order to better protect themselves. You hear the story all too often: “There was a nice person on the phone who said he was Uncle Mike’s friend and knew about our family history, but I never imagined that he was a fraud.” Unfortunately, it is those clients who use the Internet very little who could be an easier target for a thief who uses their personal information against them.

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