What the Web knows about you

How much private information is available about you in cyberspace? Social Security numbers are just the beginning.

Interestingly, Barrett cites privacy as the reason Acxiom didn't reveal more of the data it owns about me. Search results often return information on other people who are linked to the subject's data in some way, such as through a common address or phone number. "It divulges details on other individuals and would invade their privacy," she says. But Acxiom does allow consumers to opt out of its marketing databases .

Assessing the risks

Perhaps the biggest risk that accompanies the proliferation of personal information on the Web is the increased danger that the information will be used for identity fraud. Although overall identity fraud has trended down somewhat, 8.4 million people were victims of identity fraud last year, according to Javelin Strategy & Research , which publishes an annual survey report on the subject.

Of the information available about me on the Internet, the most troubling was my Social Security number, blatantly posted online by my own county government, for the convenience of lawyers, insurance agents -- and petty criminals interested in identity theft. Today, you need more than just a Social Security number to commit identity fraud, but a criminal who has that number is off to a great start.

"Various arrest records released by law enforcement have included criminals' confessions of using bulk scans of both paper and electronic records access," says Javelin president James Van Dyke.

While I was able to have my Social Security number redacted from the county Web site record by filling out a form with the Registry of Deeds, there's no telling if that information was already scraped by thieves. (On the plus side, the information from the county database didn't show up on Google or other search sites, probably because it resides in a database and must be queried rather than appearing on a Web page that is easily indexed by Web crawlers.)

Identity thieves can also cobble together Social Security numbers from different sources that publish different parts of the Social Security number as an identifier. For example, subscribers to LexisNexis can find the first five digits of a subject's nine-digit Social Security number, while Acxiom provides the last four digits in its reports (although that's harder to obtain, since Acxiom screens its customers). Federal tax liens use the full Social Security number, and state tax liens use the last four, says Ostergren. Both are publicly available on paper records, and in many cases the data is being republished on the Web.

Once a thief has the number, it can be used to unlock more data about you that can be used for identity theft.

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Robert L. Mitchell

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