In my book, Back in the Day, I talk about how we had a lot more privacy when growing up in the previous century than we do today. We didn’t have cell phones, Twitter, or surveillance cameras on every street corner. We could get away for hours, sometimes days at a time, and no one could reach us. It was also pretty easy to keep most of our information private. Times sure have changed. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens online, at your bank, and your favorite retail store goes everywhere. Now that we live in the age of information, things such as your mother’s maiden name and what color shirt you ordered last week on Amazon are all worth their weight in gold. Everything from filling out forms at the dentist to subscribing to an online newspaper requires divulging reams of information.
Unless you decide to go off the grid and start communicating with a string and a tin can, how are you to participate in our modern society while still protecting your privacy and personal data? It’s not always easy, but there are some steps you can take. The following are a few easy ways you can safeguard your private information both online and off.
1. Use Encrypted Email – Sending and checking email on a daily basis is now part of a normal routine. Everything from viruses on our devices to losing personal information can happen through sloppy email practice. One of the best things you can do is to encrypt your email. A site that is encrypted will start with https://, not http://. It’s also important to safeguard your email offline. Many retailers now automatically ask for your email address when making a purchase. I always politely say no. I haven’t yet had a salesperson refuse to take my money or sell me an item because I didn’t give out my email.
2. Monitor Your Credit – It’s important to regularly check your credit from each credit bureau. These bureaus include Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Since you can get a free report from each of these once a year, it’s recommended to ask for one report approximately every three or four months. By spreading each of them out, you don’t have to wait an entire year to check your credit.
3. Limit Your Use of Public Wi-Fi – Yes, it’s both enjoyable and convenient to go to your local coffee shop or library and use the public Wi-Fi. It may be okay if you just want to generally surf the web while enjoying coffee and a donut. Try not to do anything that requires giving out sensitive data, like banking or making purchases, while using public Wi-Fi.
4. Strengthen Passwords – This is a basic tip, but one that can’t be emphasized enough. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of using the same password, or variations of the same password, for all your accounts. Make sure to use completely different passwords and change them every three or four months.
5. Pay with Cash – Unfortunately, some credit card companies have started selling purchasing information to marketers. Companies now have the ability to track what you’re buying and how much of it you’re buying. If you want to limit the amount of personal information that’s out there about you, pay with cash when you can.
6. Opt Out When Possible – Many of the forms we fill out have “opt out” boxes to check for receiving emails or allowing the information we’ve just given to be used for marketing purposes. These boxes and the text beside them are often microscopic, so many people often overlook them. It’s smart to get into the habit of looking for them and always checking them if possible.
7. Skip the Competitions and Surveys – When I was a kid, I loved filling out the little pieces of paper and sticking them in the box for whatever prize the store was giving away. I always figured, what have I got to lose? Back then it was nothing more than a few minutes. Today it’s your privacy and personal information. Most giveaways, competitions, and surveys are little more than mining expeditions for information to use or sell.
8. Stick to the Billboard Rule – Don’t post anything online you wouldn’t want plastered on a billboard on the interstate. More people will potentially see what’s online than what’s on a billboard on any given interstate. Even if you’re using privacy settings, this can’t stop someone from resharing posts.
Privacy and the ability to protect our information may never again be as easy as it was in the old days. Following these few simple steps, however, will go a long way toward providing as much protection as possible.
Stasia Decker-Ahmed is a former waitress, social worker, activity director, newspaper researcher, and educator. After spending 14 years working as a teacher in public education, I started a freelance writing career. I’m a traditional and self-published author. I’m also the author of the blog, Back in the Day, which can be found at storiesbystaz.com.