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In an increasingly digital world, reputations can be made and damaged online and on social media. Establishing and maintaining a good digital reputation takes some effort, but the consequences of not doing so can be devastating. Here are some steps that can help you build a solid digital reputation.
1. Search Your Name
It's nicknamed "ego-surfing" but it's prudent, not vain, to look up your own name and those of your loved ones on search engines such as Google or Bing. Do the same using the search functions of popular social media platforms. Use variants including your middle name and initial or last names before and after marriage. Where the option exists, search images as well as text. It's also a good idea to search your email address(es) and phone number(s), to see if they've been posted anywhere they don't belong.
If yours is a common name, adding the name of your city or town may narrow the search, but there still may be tons of hits that aren't yours. Delve several results pages deep to make sure none of the "Jane Smiths" listed are you (or someone purporting to be you)—and also to see if there are any "Jane Smiths" engaged in activities you'd prefer not to be connected with. You probably can't do anything about others who share your name, but knowing what's out there can help you anticipate and head off the possibility that others will mistake those individuals for you.
Keep a list of any search hits that alarm you. If you control them yourself, consider hiding or deleting them. If they were posted by friends, reach out and ask for them to be removed or at least for them to untag you. And if they're from third parties you don't know, consider taking legal action as described below.
2. Opt out of "Public Information" Listings
It's relatively unlikely that your self-search will uncover misrepresentation or defamation (which we'll address a bit later on), but there's a very good chance you'll find yourself listed in "people search" directories such as Spokeo and UnMask.
These sites are not illicit—they publish information harvested from public records—but they can be a treasure trove for bad actors looking for information about you. Information listed may include past addresses, employers and the names of relatives, which can be used to guess the answers to security questions and help criminals open new accounts in your name. You can have your listings removed from these sites by using their opt-out functions. These aren't always easy to find; if you get confused, try Googling "opt out" with the name of the relevant service.
To automate some of the process, you can use Experian's personal privacy scan to scan covered people finder sites for free. You'll see where your information is listed and gain knowledge about how to remove your information from these sites.
3. Be Online and on Social Media
Even if you're not interested in using social media to network with friends or colleagues, establishing a digital presence can help you head off misunderstandings and mistaken identity.
Securing a domain in your name (if it's available) and creating accounts on social platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok can ensure employers find the "real you" when they search your name.
If you don't want to be active on those platforms, just lock down the account privacy settings—limit visibility to your own network, and then don't seek or accept any contacts. It's better for a prospective employer to find accounts containing essentially no information than to have them mistake another account for yours.
4. Be Aware on Social Media
Some cliches are true: Information posted to the internet can last forever. So, while it may be easier said than done, especially in the throes of group revelry, it's critical to think twice before sharing photos or posts that could come back to haunt you—sooner or (potentially much) later.
Fashion disasters and dated hairstyles are no big deal, but posts depicting (or even alluding to) reckless or excessive behavior can have serious negative consequences. No doubt spring break was fun, but your beer pong victory could be less than impressive to hiring managers or admissions officers. Recent posts depicting or hinting at illegal activity (underage drinking, trespassing or vandalism, for example) could even prompt a visit from law enforcement.
Because even years-old posts of "kid stuff" you may have forgotten could be available in online photo albums or searches, it's wise to think twice—and to urge young people you care about—to think twice before sharing details that could prove embarrassing—or worse.
5. Keep Social Media Private
Using the privacy settings on your social media apps to share information only with members of your personal network can help prevent misuse of your image and personal information. It's not foolproof, since the successful hacking of a friend's account could provide access to your info, but it makes it harder to find than if you make all your posts public.
If you're concerned that information you've shared, or posts or images in which your friends have tagged you, could create an unfavorable impression, it might be wise to change your profile name to something other than your full name. This can make it more difficult to find you (and the problem posts). Since dedicated seekers may still be able to find your profile on many platforms, consider untagging yourself from potentially unflattering posts and deleting any of your own posts that give you pause.
6. Use Strong Passwords and Multifactor Authentication
Access to your social accounts, email and other online accounts can make it easier for criminals to impersonate you and commit fraud that (at least temporarily) hurts your credit and tarnishes your relationships with financial institutions, retailers and other businesses. Damage done by identity theft can be reversed with time and effort, but prevention is far preferable. To help keep hackers away from your personal information, use unique, strong passwords on all your accounts and change them regularly (a good password manager can help in this effort).
Also consider activating biometric authentication (face or fingerprint recognition) on your smartphone apps and multifactor authentication (MFA) on other account logins. MFA adds a quick additional step to the account login process by sending you a verification code you must provide for login, on the assumption that criminals won't have access to your email or text messages.
7. Take Action as Appropriate
If your research uncovers social media posts incorrectly attributed to you, notify the relevant platform using its built-in reporting tools and change your passwords immediately.
If you find evidence that someone is using your identity for fraudulent purposes, such as raising funds or selling merchandise in your name, in addition to reporting to the appropriate platform, consider making an identity theft report to appropriate authorities.
If you believe someone has posted defamatory information about you, it may be appropriate to seek professional advice on your legal options. Laws governing libel (defamation in writing) and slander (defamation in speech) and the legal hurdles for proving them can vary by jurisdiction, so an experienced attorney can advise you on your best course.
The Bottom Line
Paying attention to the information you share on digital platforms, and to what others may post about you, can help you ensure that your digital reputation is accurate and positive. It can also help you stop others from stealing your identity and tarnishing your credit. Another helpful strategy for preventing identity fraud is to use a service such as identity monitoring from Experian to help detect unauthorized use of your personal information and potentially suspicious changes to your credit reports.