How to clean up your digital footprint

Jayne Hitchcock once saw an online ad for a literary agency. Not knowing anything about the company, she sent them a book proposal. Little did she know that her decision would haunt her for years to come.

After looking into the company further, she says she started receiving e-mail bombs, forged posts from her in online forums, publicized personal details about her, and nonstop spam.

Hitchcock was eventually able to rid herself of the cyber attacks after a lengthy and time-consuming legal process.

Now she wants to help others avoid repeating her mistakes.

“I wanted other victims to know they are not alone and that there is free help out there for them,” said Hitchcock, who went from victim to cybercrime expert and is president of Working to Halt Online Abuse.

According to Hitchcock and other experts, a big part of reducing your risk of becoming a cybercrime victim is reducing your digital footprint.

Watch what you write online

Before you write something on social media, ask yourself if you would say it to your parents or your employer. If the answer is no, then don’t post it.

If you’re worried about something you might have posted on Facebook in the past, download the FaceSaver app (iOS only). The app quickly scans your profile for inappropriate content and makes it easy to remove.

Deactivate old accounts

Not using your Tumblr account from five years ago? Delete it. Especially with blogs, a post can come up in an online search and be taken out of context. If you want to keep an account that you use occasionally, go through your posts and delete the ones you don’t want anyone to see. Also delete unused retail accounts, because you may have saved your payment info and shipping address.

Conducting a simple Google search of your name can also lead to information you didn’t know existed, including old accounts. From that Google+ account you forgot you made in college to mentions of your name in a friend’s blog, cybercriminals can easily piece information together to find out even more. Put your name in quotes and search the web and Google Images—those photos can link to forgotten websites or accounts that you can now deactivate.

Go incognito

When you window-shop on your favorite clothing store’s website, cookies are stored on your device that contain the website and information your browser sends to the web server. While cookies can’t take any information off your device, it’s still traceable data. To prevent this transfer of data, find your browser’s privacy function. Google Chrome has Incognito mode, Firefox has Private Browsing, and there’s InPrivate Browsing for Internet Explorer.

If you’re keen about commenting on websites or forums, don’t use your real name as your username. Come up with something that wouldn’t be associated with you (and use an alternate email account) to make your posts harder to trace back to you.

Think before you search

Another way to protect yourself is to use a privacy-minded search engine, such as Startpage, which claims to be the “world’s most private search engine.” It doesn’t remember your IP address, track your searches or place cookies on your device. Startpage has an app for iOS and Android™ devices.

Another way not to be tracked is to use an anonymous proxy, which is a server that hides your IP address and encrypts your web traffic. Most of the major web browsers have extensions or add-ons so you can anonymously browse the web.

Check your privacy settings

Hitchcock recommends making your profiles on social media accounts private.

“Go through all of your privacy and account settings on every account you use online and make sure the options are changed to be as private as possible,” she says.

Hitchcock also recommends going through your contacts, friends and followers lists to delete the people you really don’t know.