Q. I did a "vanity" search on pipl.com and was appalled at how much information was available (albeit, some for a fee). There were sites offering to get your info off the Web. Are they legit, and is it possible to get your personal info removed from the Web even if it comes from public records? - B.A.
A. The popularity of social media, public records on the Internet and individuals sharing information in general has created a new niche in the world of search often referred to as "people search" or "social search."
These sites claim to search the "deep Web," which is the cacophony of dynamic data bits that can be pieced together to create a very detailed profile of just about anyone, whether they are active social media types or not.
These sites can aggregate public records with social media profiles, Amazon wish lists, music preferences from sites like Last.fm and Pandora, reunion or classmate sites or just about anything that you have ever posted on just about any public site.
The current crop of people search engines allows any average citizen to become their own "Magnum P.I." for little to no money.
Public records are pretty hard to change as the conglomeration of resources used to generate these public records is vast and often government controlled. Each entity decides how much information is made available on the Internet and who gets to access how much of it.
Your public profiles, however, are where you can reduce the amount of detail that is collected about you. Your e-mail address is one easy way for these sites to cross reference you across many sites. So if you always use the same e-mail address for every site that requires you to sign up for an account, you will increase the amount of info that can be compiled.
Free-mail accounts from services like Gmail, YahooMail and Hotmail allow you to have a different e-mail address for each profile, making it harder to connect the dots. You can also set up a fictitious profile to use on nonessential sites and use the same free-mail account on all of these sites so that the aggregate info is collected on your alias persona.
The best way to know what is being collected about you is to do what you did: search for yourself on these sites. Some of the more popular sites include pipl.com, Wink.com, Spokeo.com, Rapleaf.com and Cvgadget.com.
When you see the kind of details being collected, you will oftentimes realize where the information was gathered from, and you can update your profiles on those sites to make it less likely future searches will include this additional info.
Many of these social search engines work the same way as traditional search engines do: If the content gets removed, then it will no longer show up in searches.
If you don't care that people can learn your music preferences or items that you wish to buy or any of the other benign details, then you don't have much to worry about.
Unfortunately, the real sensitive personal info is often generated via public records (buying a house, registering to vote, registering a business, court cases, etc.) that can only be changed via legislation in many cases. So be careful about any companies that claim they can remove public record information for a fee.
Some sites, like Rapleaf, will allow you to opt out of their system, which will permanently remove your info from their database based on your e-mail address (www.rapleaf.com/opt_out).
Many other online information sites allow you to opt out of their databases. A list of some more are posted here: http://bit.ly/bmy88.
Trying to opt out of every information site that will ever come up would take you the rest of your life, so keep your perspective about what is realistic. Being careful with your public profiles is the best way to manage what gets indexed about you now and in the future.
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the "Computer Corner" radio, which can be heard at noon Saturdays on KTAR (92.3 FM) or at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.