Five Ways to Defend Your Online Reputation

True or false, the information people find about you on the Web can have a big impact on your life. Here are five techniques to make sure that what people read about you is good (or at least true).

3. Opt Out Early and Often

By reducing the amount of junk mail you receive, you make yourself a smaller target for identity thieves and others who can mess with your reputation. (One of identity thieves' favourite tricks is to sign up for a change of address in your name, so they can re-route pre-approved credit card offers to your "new address".)

Though there's almost no way of getting your junk quotient down to zero, taking your name off marketing lists will nuke 50 to 75 per cent of it. The easiest way? Sign up for ProQuo. This free service can help delete your name from more than a dozen marketing lists – including those operated by the Direct Marketing Association and massive data brokers like ChoicePoint and Acxiom.

In some cases ProQuo will remove your name for you; in other cases it directs you to the opt-out page for an organisation's Web site or gives you sample letters that you must print out, sign, and mail. You can also use ProQuo to tell Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion to stop selling your information to companies that send you pre-approved credit card offers, and to thwart telemarketers by adding your name to the FTC's Do Not Call list. ProQuo is dead simple to use, and there are no strings attached.

4. Do Your Own Background Check

There is a treasure trove of information about you freely available to anyone who knows how to look for it. Do you own property? Are you licensed to carry a concealed weapon? Have you ever been late with your tax payments? Arrested? Divorced? In most states, that information is in the public record, and much of it is available online for a fee. When an employer does a background check on you, this is the kind of stuff that turns up – so at the very least you want to make sure the information is accurate.

While you're at it, order your free annual report from the big three credit bureaus. This information shows up when you try to open a new credit account, buy a cell phone, rent an apartment, or apply for a job, among other things. Unfortunately, credit reports are notoriously inaccurate. A 2004 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that one in four reports contains an error serious enough to deny you credit or employment. So you'll want to review and correct them as needed.

Just be careful who you order your report from. The vast majority of sites that advertise "free credit reports" try to trick you into signing up for credit monitoring services at $US10 to $US15 a month.

5. Defend Your Reputation

When it comes to online reputations, people are usually their own worst enemies. Those drunken holiday photos may have been a hoot in university, but they're not so funny when you're prepping for the big job interview. (And if you think employers won't find it, think again: 77 per cent of recruiters use search engines to screen prospective job candidates, according to a survey by ExecuNet). You can delete your Flickr account or your MySpace page, but once this stuff is on the Web, you have no control over what happens to it. If you find nasty stuff floating around that's not under your control, you may have to employ the nuclear option and hire someone to take care of it for you.

Reputation Defender will search the Web for information about you and attempt to remove false items.

Some services, like DefendMyName, can cost $US1000 a month; others are bit more reasonable. For $US10 a month, Reputation Defender's MyReputation service will scour the Net to find out what people are saying about you. If the service uncovers anything you can't abide, you can pay Reputation Defender $US30 to have it removed. Reputation Defender starts by sending a letter politely asking the site to remove it. If the site refuses, the requests become increasingly less polite. But sometimes this process backfires. When Reputation Defender tried to erase news of one client's arrest from Consumerist.com in January 2007, it spurred a spitting match in the blogosphere that only made matters worse.

And if the service can't get the bad stuff taken down, it will try to bury it by posting positive items about you and making sure the good stuff shows up higher in Google searches (though that service costs extra). Overall, MyReputation has had good success in removing items from video and photo sharing sites, social networks, and online forums, but only moderate success with blogs, says co-founder Owen Tripp.

"Most clients never ask us to remove anything, they just use us as a professional monitoring service for their good names," he says in an e-mail. "They think of our services as the 'new credit report.'"

PC World contributing editor Dan Tynan has a terrible reputation, all of it richly deserved.

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Dan Tynan

PC World (US online)
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