Deleting your digital past -- for good

Can you erase your tracks online? We tried to get a few bad mentions off the Net forever. Here's how we did.

The talking cure

If that approach fails, his company tries to reach people through various social media sites such as MySpace or Facebook or Web portals like Yahoo.

The bottom line: An address or a live e-mail account is good; a human on the phone is better, Martin says. "We call," he says. "We say we're from an Internet privacy corporation. We explain the situation, and we say, 'You need to take care of this as soon as possible.' "

Many times, people do, he says. "The situation can resolve really quickly," Martin says. "If there's a legitimate problem, it's natural for someone to go in there and take the material down."

ReputationHawk's fees vary by case. For a situation like WrongedGirl's, the charge would be US$500 or less, Martin says. ReputationDefender doesn't take on ad hoc erasure cases. Instead, clients pay US$9.95 per month for a yearly subscription and US$29.95 per removal.

Both services claim that they have a much higher success rate than individuals. The reason? You're a newbie; they do this all day, every day.

ReputationDefender has taken on about 1,000 cases with an 85 percent success rate, according to Fertik. He says the cases build upon one another as relationships develop. "If you call them informally enough times, let them know you're not an abusive company, you're not sending legal letters, then you can have a very high success rate."

In contrast, says Martin, an individual trying to clean up his own reputation starts from scratch and has almost no clout. "We can dig and find contact information pretty quickly, and we're going to have a lot more pull when contacting the Web site owner," he says.

Setting WrongedGirl right

Of our three cases, both experts said the case of WrongedGirl stood the best chance of being resolved. That's good news, since it's the type of scenario that's playing out ever more frequently as the Net generation enters the workforce.

Armed with advice from the pros, we set out one recent Monday to see how far we could get in righting WrongedGirl's reputation in a week.

We first tried to track down the journal author herself, with the idea that we could entreat her to take down the offensive material. (Perhaps she had matured since her partying days.) It seems that five years ago, she set up an account at a free online journal site and posted half a dozen entries in 10 days -- most apparently written under the influence of one substance or another -- before abandoning the site.

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