This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
You can remove or greatly reduce access to your online public records, and the personal information that they contain, by following the five-step process below.
Public records, many of them now available online, are government documents that anyone can legally view. You may wonder why so much personally identifiable information about you is accessible in these online public records. It’s because the law requires that certain types of records be made available for the greater public good.
These public records are not a new phenomenon, but the ease of accessing them on the internet is.
With digitization, a host of privacy and security problems have arisen around public records. In this article, we’ll clarify the main types of public records, spell out some of the threats they cause, and provide you with a five-step process to protect yourself.
Definition of public records
Public records refer to any document or piece of information that is created, collected, or maintained by a government agency or institution and considered to be open to the public for inspection or access.
These records can include a wide range of personal information such as birth and death certificates, marriage and divorce records, criminal records, property records, and more.
While public records serve important purposes in promoting transparency and accountability, individuals may have valid reasons for wanting to remove their personal information from the internet and protect their online privacy.
What are the main types of public records?
While the types of records that are considered public can vary due to state laws, they usually include:
- Arrest records
- Government contracts with businesses
- Driver’s license information
- Birth, marriage, and death records
- Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings
- Court files
- Voter registration
- Property ownership/tax information
- Occupational licenses
These records often contain a great deal of personal information. However, once a record is public, there are few rules about what individuals or organizations can do with this data.
What threats do online public records create?
Before states started putting public records online in the mid-1990s, accessing these records meant either mailing out written requests or going to government offices in person. This was a daunting and time-consuming task; therefore, not many people viewed public records, and the information on any single record was generally not sufficient to cause an individual any harm.
However, over the past few years, numerous data brokerage firms have used online public records to compile detailed personal profiles about you.
They then flesh out these profiles with data gathered from social media, news stories, and elsewhere, and sell them to anyone who wants access.
Consequently, anyone can quickly and easily find personal information about you online, and this information is very comprehensive, covering many areas of your life.
These online profiles leave you exposed to numerous risks. The following are only a few examples—with links describing real-world cases—of people being harmed:
- Identity theft: Many public records contain all the information a person would need to steal your identity.
- Targeting by predatory businesses: Unscrupulous businesses sometimes use the information in public records to identify individuals with bankruptcy or credit problems.
- Identity confusion: Private organizations compile information about you, retool it into a detailed dossier, and then sell it back to government law enforcement agencies. These files can contain mistakes that cause the government to falsely identify you as a criminal.
- Stalking: If someone wants to harass you, all they need to do is look up your address and telephone number in public records.
- Doxxing: This cybercrime (which is short for “dropping docs”) involves publishing someone’s personal information on the internet in hopes of intimidating or shaming that individual, or inciting others to harass him or her.
- Swatting: Intentionally sending the police (or a SWAT team) to an individual’s home because he or she supposedly committed a heinous crime is called swatting. Occasionally, swatting results in police shooting the innocent victim.
- Pretexting: This is when someone uses the personally identifiable information they find in your public records to pretend to be you to get access to secure information like your financial data. Hewlett Packard (HP) got in trouble for doing this in 2006.
- Increased marketing spam: Data brokers sell your information to advertisers for customized marketing and advertising based on the profile they build from your public records.
Overview of the removal process
Your personal information is more accessible than ever before.
Public records, which may include social security numbers, criminal records, online accounts, and even medical histories, are readily available online.
This brings to light the importance of removing public records from the internet to protect our privacy and lower the potential risk of becoming a victim of identity theft.
The removal process might seem daunting, but you can break it down into a few simple steps.
First, identify which of your public records are available online and where can you find them. You’ll need to look on people-search sites, social media platforms, and personal websites, in addition to government sites.
Next, determine the best course of action you should take to remove this information. For example, should you tighten your social media privacy settings or submit removal requests to the websites that are publishing it?
By removing public records from the internet, you can reduce your digital footprint and minimize the risk of identity theft.
Identity thieves often use personal information found in public records to carry out fraudulent activities, causing significant harm to victims. Taking control of your online presence is a great way to safeguard your personal details and protect against becoming a victim.
By being proactive and following the necessary steps below, you can successfully remove your personal information from public access and regain control over your digital identity.
Five steps to protect yourself from online public records
Depending on which state you live in, the government can completely seal your public records under certain specific circumstances, such as when:
- You are a victim of domestic violence or stalking
- You have a juvenile arrest record for a minor crime
- Your data contains information that might put public safety at risk
However, even if your situation doesn’t fall into the above categories, you still have options. In most states, you can change certain types of personal data in your public records. You can also have other types of information redacted from the electronic versions of those records, and you can ask data brokers to remove your personal information from their indexes.
To get started, follow these five steps:
1. Google yourself
Search for different combinations of your name, name + city, name + employer, and any other combinations you can think of that are likely to pull up information about you. You want to find out what kind of information is being associated with your name, and hopefully also where that information comes from.
Search at least the first few pages, and don’t forget to look in the video and image tabs as well. Make a list of the personal information that you find. Then, deal with each type of information as follows:
- “Friendly” sites: These include charities, organizations you work with, or other websites that don’t really need to post your personal information. Contact them and ask to have it removed.
- “Hostile” sites: If someone has written a blog “doxxing” you, then they are unlikely to respond to requests to stop. You’ll need to follow an online reputation management plan to resolve the issue.
- Social media posts: Posts that reveal personally identifiable information are usually a Terms of Service violation. You should submit a removal request to the social media site.
- Images or videos: Similarly, any images or videos of your personal information can often be removed by issuing a removal request.
- Government websites and people-search sites: These are the trickiest, and unfortunately the most common. The remaining steps will help you get your information removed from these sources.
2. Get a P.O. Box
Not all public records require a physical street address. For some records, you can use a post office box instead. However, certain types of records, such as voter registration forms, do unfortunately need a physical street address.
Similarly, you can hide your real phone number by creating a dedicated phone number you use just for government forms.
3. Go to the county clerk’s office
Once you have a new P.O. box and phone number set up, your county clerk’s office can help you get your public records updated. These government offices house many of your public records, including:
- Court records
- Marriage licenses
- Old wills
- Probate cases
- Deeds and mortgages
- Government surveys
- Civil circuit files
- Birth certificates
Call before you go, both to check when they are open and to be sure you bring the correct types of ID. You should also check to see if there are any forms you need to fill out on their website in advance.
Ask the person at the county clerk the following questions:
- What information can be removed
- What can be redacted (at a minimum, you’ll usually be able to have your telephone number and a portion of your Social Security Number redacted)
- What can be changed (for example, initials instead of full names)
- Which documents can contain your P.O. Box instead of your street address
Next, ask to see the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) database. The UCC database at the county clerk’s office lists information on property ownership and liens and may contain your Social Security Number. The clerk may not automatically show you this database when you ask to see your records, but the information is still accessible to the public.
4. Visit the DMV
This DMV is another treasure trove of public records, including driver and vehicle records, as well as owner histories. Depending on which state you live in, your local DMV office may be able to replace your home address with your new P.O. Box on any driving-related records. Check on their website or give them a call, and then go into the DMV to update the records that are eligible in your state.
5. Opt out of people-search sites
Once you have erased as much personal data as you can from your original records, you need to delete any instance of that information appearing on people-search sites like Radaris, Intelius, WhitePages, and MyLife.
These sites crawl public records and the wider internet, including social media, to find your personal information. They then compile this data into a digital profile, which they sell to individuals who want to learn more about you. You may have seen some of these sites in your search results back in Step 1, as they often rank highly for a person’s name.
To remove your personal data from people-search sites, you’ll need to go to each company’s website and follow their procedures to opt yourself out.
We recommend using our detailed instructions on how to remove yourself from some of the biggest sites.
Be sure to also opt yourself out of legal aggregator sites, like CourtRecordFinder.com.
Just like regular people-search sites, these sites let users search by name to learn more about someone. However, these sites focus on state, county, and federal legal proceedings, including marriages and divorces, arrests and warrants, civil and criminal trials, and bankruptcies and tax liens.
Unfortunately, opting out of people-search sites can be tedious, and it requires recurring maintenance to ensure that your data doesn’t reappear. That’s why it’s useful to use automated tools to help you with the process.
At a minimum, consider setting up a Google Alert for your name, so that you’ll see when new information is published about you online.
Alternatively, you might want to consider a paid privacy service, such as our ExecutivePrivacy or Privacy Pro solutions, which opt you out of dozens of people-search sites and monitor the web regularly to make sure your information stays private.
This is the most effective way to keep personally identifiable information from your public records off the internet.
Two bonus steps (for boosted protection)
Another place you’ll find public records online is on social media. As such, deleting private information on these platforms is a key component of the removal process.
Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram are popular sites where individuals often share updates, personal details, and photos that contain sensitive data from their public records—often unknowingly.
For example, people often unwittingly publish their full names, birth dates, addresses, phone numbers on social media without considering the risks. There are even instances of people accidentally sharing bank statements in the background of a picture.
It’s important to note that while these platforms can potentially store and display public records, there are steps you can take to protect your privacy.
For example, you can adjust your privacy settings, limit what information you share, and regularly review and delete old posts to help minimize the exposure of personal information on social media platforms.
Start by reviewing the privacy settings on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and any other social media platform you use. Each of these platforms allows users to customize privacy settings, control the visibility of their personal information, and delete posts or photos as desired.
Adjust these settings to limit the visibility of your personal information and posts.
Then, delete any unnecessary or sensitive posts and photos that may be compromising your privacy. Consider deactivating or deleting accounts on platforms where you no longer wish to have a presence.
It is important to note that the complete removal of public records may not always be possible due to privacy laws or the actions of others who may have shared your information.
Today, we rely heavily on online accounts to access various services, connect with others, and function in everyday life.
However, maintaining control over our personal information and online presence is crucial for ensuring privacy and protecting ourselves from potential harm.
As such, it is essential to understand how to manage and remove public records from all our accounts on the internet.
Amazon, eBay, and Netflix are just a few of the online shopping and services accounts that can be sources of private, personal information that may be accessible to the public.
Online shopping or e-commerce accounts can also store sensitive personal information like shipping addresses and payment details, which can be accessed by the public or potentially used for targeted advertising.
It is important to be mindful of the information you share on these online accounts and to regularly review and update your privacy settings to limit the exposure of personal data.
Removing public record information from online accounts can help protect your privacy and reduce your digital footprint. Follow these simple steps to remove personal information from your online accounts:
1. Access privacy settings: Log in to your online accounts and look for the “Privacy Settings” or “Account Settings” option in the menu.
2. Delete personal information: In the privacy settings, review and modify the information displayed publicly. Remove or limit access to personal details such as your address, phone number, or date of birth.
3. Deactivate or close accounts: If you no longer use certain online accounts or want to remove your presence entirely, consider deactivating or closing them. Look for options like “Deactivate Account” or “Close Account” in the account settings.
4. Opt-out forms: Some websites or people-search sites may have opt-out forms that allow you to request the removal of your public records. Search for “opt-out form” on the website, fill out the required information, and submit the form to remove your records.
These five steps and sub-categories will help you secure all your personal data in a way that is most effective for today’s digital society.
Removing your public info from the internet can be a challenge, but it is an important step in protecting your online privacy.
Taking action, being tenacious about your personal info, and protecting your identity is the best defense against the privacy risks of the highly digitized world we live in.
Now that you know how to combat people-search websites, you can remove yourself from lists you don’t want to be on and hopefully reduce the likelihood of you becoming a victim of identity theft.
For a look at what kind of information about you is visible online, get free access to your reputation report card. It will help you instantly see if there are any concerns you need to address.