What you don't know about your online reputation can hurt you

Employers and lenders may be rejecting you based on who you know and what you say online.

Social networking, and the broader concept of online privacy, have been under some rather intense scrutiny over the past couple of weeks. The issues at Google--voracious indexer of all things Internet, and Facebook--the largest social network and number one most visited site (according to Google) have made many users more acutely aware of what information is available about them on the Internet. However, your online reputation is being used in ways you may not be aware of, and could cost you.

Users don't necessarily need to be concerned, but should at least be aware of who they are connected with online, and what they say. No, Big Brother isn't watching, but potential employers and lenders are.

Increasingly, your online reputation is becoming a deciding factor in whether you get that job, or get approved for that car loan. Businesses have online footprints as well, and the online reputation of the business could impact partner or vendor agreements, or affect the creditworthiness of the business.

Companies and lenders are turning to services like those offered by Rapleaf, a San Francisco-based company focused on social media monitoring. Rapleaf scours the Web to compile your status updates, Twitter "tweets", the online organizations you join, the sites you link to, and the comments you post and convert it all into a consumer profile called a social graph.

The social graph reveals behavior patterns related to what you like, what you don't like, what you want, what you don't want, etc.. Rapleaf presents the service as a marketing tool--enabling companies to target marketing efforts more intelligently, and with more precision than base demographics like age, gender, or location.

At face value that seems like a reasonable use of your online footprint--at least to me. However, some employers or lenders are using information from services like Rapleaf for more invasive purposes. Using the Rapleaf social graph, or any other aggregate of an individual's online presence, companies can dive deeper into your social networks and see who you're connected to.

A bank considering you for a credit card can scan your social network and identify other users connected to you that are already customers of the bank. The bank can analyze the payment history and credit stability of those customers, and make assumptions about you based on them. The presumption is that birds of a feather flock together, so if you're social network is filled with credit rejects, you are also probably a bad credit risk.

Who you know online, and what you don't know about your online reputation may prevent you from getting a job or credit card. Even worse, sloppy online sleuthing or mistaken identity could lead to your rejection, and you may never even know why.

A friend--we'll call him Greg--was hired by a company and moved his family across the country to accept the job. The company had conducted a background check on Greg prior to hiring him, but subsequently launched a more exhaustive background check about a month after Greg had started working for them.

One day, Greg was called in to see his manager and was told that his services would no longer be needed. He was asked to clear his desk and escorted from the building with no further explanation. His family hadn't even finished unpacking from the cross-country move, and Greg was faced with the shock of unemployment.

Thankfully, after some pushing Greg was able to learn that the company had fired him because the subsequent background check had uncovered a criminal background and outstanding warrants the company was unaware of. Of course, Greg was also unaware of the criminal background and outstanding warrants because the company had uncovered information on the wrong "Greg".

The company put the burden of proof on Greg to produce evidence that it was the wrong Greg, which Greg did and eventually got his job back. Others might not be so lucky, though.

When you don't get the job, get turned down for a loan, or get rejected for a credit card, you may never really know if you were rebuffed on your own merits, or as a function of the crowd you choose to associate with online, or due to completely mistaken identity.

Rapleaf offers a service to discover your online footprint and get a view of what others might see on your social graph. Google offers a similar tool--the Google Privacy Dashboard--which presents an overview of the accounts and information you are connected with through Google.

Take advantage of tools like these to monitor your own online reputation and keep your online persona clean. What you don't know can hurt you.

You can follow Tony on his Facebook page , or contact him by email at tony_bradley@pcworld.com . He also tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW .

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)

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