This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
If someone wants to know where you live or how to find you, all they have to do is google you and click on one of the many people-search sites that are probably in your search results.
Then, if they want to find your daily schedule, where your kids go to school, or your favorite jogging path, all they need to do is a little digging into your social media activity.
With this ease of access, it’s no wonder that people can and do find themselves in situations where online personal information has caused them significant harm in the offline world.
Below are nine examples, as well as some tips to help you protect yourself from these threats.
1. Man accused of Capitol riot murder
Twitter trolls mistakenly identified a retired Chicago firefighter as being the person who attacked a Capitol police officer with a fire extinguisher during the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot, leading to the officer’s death.
After the riots, a video showing a man wearing a “CFD” hat striking at least one officer with a fire extinguisher went viral on Twitter. Soon, people started circulating the retired firefighter’s name as the perpetrator.
As a result of the Twitter onslaught, the wrongly identified man started receiving multiple threatening phone calls, and strangers (including the press) started loitering outside his home. Outraged individuals also began harassing his son, who has the same name.
“It’s created havoc in my life, for my family, my wife, all of us … Someone should be held responsible for this. It’s just not right that you live your life correctly, follow all the rules, and this is what happens.”
To clear his name, the man hired a lawyer and contacted the FBI to show them receipts that proved he had been shopping in Chicago at the time of the incident. However, the internet still associates his name with the incident. Consequently, he still receives hate-filled phone calls labeling him a “terrorist” and a “murderer.” To ensure his safety, the police assigned an officer to guard his home.
According to his lawyer, the man’s name and other personal information being spread on social media has ruined his life.
“This has been an absolute disaster to him personally and his family. There’s a cop car outside his house. It’s over a picture that kind of looks like him because people sitting behind a keyboard with no proof or evidence are throwing out these tweets, and they’re wrong. Holy smokes, its eye-opening how terrifying social media can be when something like this happens.”
2. Epidemiologist targeted by antilockdown protesters
A group of unmasked protesters opposed to the Coronavirus lockdown measures imposed by a state epidemiologist gathered outside her home in October 2020, after her address appeared on a Facebook flyer.
One comment on the flyer says “This is EXACTLY WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN IN EVERY STATE AND EVERY COUNTY!! Take the fight to these job recking [sic] economy busting TYRANTS HOMES! Hold their feet to the fire so they know WE ALL KNOW WHO THEY ARE!!!!”
Concerned neighbors weren’t happy with the situation, with one person wondering “How much more is it going to take to get a hundred people here? 200 people and then what? Then at some point, somebody goes over the line and does something bad so I just think these things got to come to a stop.”
The epidemiologist held a news conference after the incident to express her dismay.
“It’s scary and wrong that someone would feel comfortable sharing my personal information. It’s taken a really big toll on my family and myself and they’re supposed to be there again tonight. I think it’s really unfortunate that we live in a state where people feel that it is OK to harass civil servants. It’s wrong.”
3. Stalker locates a woman through her online photos
In an example that shows just how little personal information is required to track someone down, consider the case of a Japanese man who was able to triangulate the location of and physically assault a 21-year-old woman he was obsessed with. He was able to do so using only the details from her social media pictures and Google Street View.
Photos of her windows and the angle of the sun hitting her face told him which floor her apartment was on, and Google Street View helped him figure out which road her building was on.
In one particular photo, the man was able to see a train station in the reflection in the woman’s eyes. He identified the station using Google’s Street View. This allowed him to wait for her there and follow her to her apartment building, where he molested her.
He was sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2020.
4. Public health official threatened
In May 2020, the director of a public health department called someone who had tested positive for coronavirus to remind the person to remain in isolation, only to hear that the individual had left the house. Soon after, the police contacted her to let her know about the growing threats being made against her online, especially a Facebook post that accused her of surveillance.
The woman recalls, ”The accusations started flying, that we were spying [on that family], that we had put them under house arrest. It got totally twisted and people thought we violated their civil liberties.” Comments like “Let’s post her address … Let’s start shooting” spurred her to file a police report and install a home security system.
Soon, she started receiving threatening calls on her personal phone, which frightened her even more.
“I was that fearful. When the neighbor’s dog would bark, I would jump up at night. I still find myself sometimes looking over my shoulder. Especially if I walk out of the building and it’s getting obviously dark earlier.”
5. Man accused of being a thief and a pedophile
A British engineer received a call from his father on a Saturday night in September 2018, letting him know that someone had written awful things on the internet about him and his family members.
The engineer quickly hung up and googled himself. What he found were posts on various websites, including the Ripoff Report, that called him a fraud, a thief, and a pedophile. Further, the posts revealed where he worked, as well as his contact information.
There were also horrible posts about his wife, his sister, his brother-in-law, his teenage nephew, his cousin, and his aunt. All the men listed were accused of being pedophiles and child molesters, and all the women were painted as thieves and scam artists. The only person who wasn’t targeted was his 8-year-old son.
Pictures taken from his Facebook and LinkedIn profiles with the words “pedophile” typed over them were posted on Pinterest and began to appear at top of the search results for his name, ruining the first impression he would make on anyone, like a potential employer or rental agent, who searched for him online. Negative search results also appeared prominently for the other targeted members of his family, which was especially worrying for his young nephew and cousin, who were just beginning their careers.
After reading about vigilantes attacking people accused of being child molesters, the engineer worried for his safety and installed a home security system.
A New York Times article about him has since replaced the first few pages of his negative results, but the negative links still remain.
6. Police officer targeted by advocacy group
In April 2020, a police officer arrested a woman who refused to leave a section of a public park that was closed as part of the city’s Coronavirus lockdown. Other parts of the park remained open.
Upon learning about the arrest, a libertarian advocacy group called the Idaho Freedom Foundation shared the officer’s name and picture on its Facebook page, identifying him as the one who made the arrest and calling for people to “Let the Police Department know how you feel.”
In addition, the leader of the group sent the officer’s home address out to a listserv and wrote it on a whiteboard during a group meeting. Video taken of the meeting, in which the address is clearly visible, has been viewed more than 1,200 times.
The group’s leader has previously expressed his opinion that “When someone’s rights are being violated for whatever reason … then thousands of people come and surround that person and bring a tremendous, a lot of attention and bring accountability to the bad actors.” He has also endorsed the use of weapons at protests, declaring, “The First Amendment is secured by the Second Amendment.”
As a result of the online exposure, dozens of protesters gathered outside of the officer’s home, demanding he accept a 13-page written complaint they had written.
According to a state congressman, the group leader’s actions brought “all kinds of additional threat and risk to this police officer and his family.”
7. Cancer patient plans to kill his doctors
A stage 4 cancer patient who accused his doctors of treating him like a “laboratory monkey,” tracked down their home addresses in the San Francisco Bay Area and planned to kill them.
On May 31, 2017, the man’s family members called the police to report him missing. When the police arrived, they discovered a note stating that the individual “had to kill these doctors today because they are evil.”
Luckily, the man got lost and couldn’t find any of the doctors’ homes. Police arrested him as he attempted to drive back home. In his car, officers found two loaded semi-automatic handguns, a notebook containing directions to the doctors’ home copied from Google Maps, and a white rubber mask. There was also a note titled “why do I kill,” that stated, “this is possible if you treat people like an animal.”
8. Music fans dox critic
In July 2020, a famous singer’s fans, upset that a music critic’s review of the singer’s newest album wasn’t positive enough, began attacking her online. As soon as the review went public, people posted the critic’s home address and phone numbers, as well as photos of her and her home.
As a result, the critic started receiving phone calls at 2 am, only one hour after the review appeared online. She also received numerous threats on Twitter, including calls to “burn her house.”
She responded to the threats via her Twitter profile:
“I’ve gotten too many emails saying some version of, ‘you are an ugly fat bitch .. plz die,’ which is not the first time I’ve heard that from pop stans…It sucks to be scared of every person milling about outside or feel like you can’t answer the phone. That said, I am safe and doing fine.”
9. CEO of a Singapore company doxed
On May 5, 2020, an online mob mistakenly identified a CEO as the Singapore woman who was arrested in a viral video for refusing to wear a facemask in a public market.
Outraged citizens published her photos, her phone number, her private email address, and the names of her coworkers on social media in an attempt to shame her. This led to her receiving a barrage of racist insults and threats.
The social media outburst was so large that the CEO’s company was compelled to make a statement:
“It has come to our attention that there has been misinformation spreading across the social media about our CEO … being confused as the Singaporean woman who was recently arrested for flouting Covid-19 mask rule and claimed to be ‘sovereign’. We are glad the matter is resolved. The real lady has been identified and appropriate action taken by authorities.”
How to keep your personal information private
There are simple and effective measures you can take to reduce the possibility of something like this happening to you. Below are the top four things you should do right away.
- Opt out of people-search sites—Google yourself and see which people-search sites appear on the first three results pages. You’ll need to go to each of these sites and follow the instructions to delete your personal information. Or, for more thorough protection, you can use our online privacy product, which automates the opt-out process, as well as monitors the web for new instances of your personal information reappearing.
- Avoid posts that reveal your travel plans and routines—It’s also smart to avoid posting your travel itinerary or live snaps of your daily run, as these can make you vulnerable to a home invasion or physical confrontation. Before you share any pictures, posts, or check-ins, look carefully at the details you’ve included to be sure they don’t give people clues about where you’re likely to be and when.
- Tighten your social media privacy settings—Limit who can see your posts to the people you know well in real life.
- Disable geolocation tracking—Turn off geotracking on your phone and in any apps that use this feature to prevent people from discovering your physical location.
For more information
If you’d like to learn more about protecting your online privacy, feel free to give us a call. We are happy to offer advice on your unique situation.
We also have a variety of self-help articles that will teach you the basics of online privacy and walk you through the steps you need to take to protect yourself.