One hot summer day in college, two of my co-workers were bored and decided to Google everyone in the office.
Almost everyone had a social media presence. Jackie's name brought up news blurbs about the champion girls' soccer team she'd played on just a year earlier. Judy's name brought up her modeling agency in New York.
"I can't find anything on you, A.K.," Ramona commented.
"Good," I replied.
For months, I'd been subjected to a daily barrage of nuisance phone calls from a blocked number. I knew exactly who it was, but the police couldn't help me because I couldn't prove who was making the calls (this was before Trapcall existed), and the phone company refused to change my number.
I'd had quite enough from ONE troublemaker who had my cell phone number. Why would I want to be even easier to find?
Fast-forward to 2012.
I suddenly began to receive nuisance phone calls, sometimes 10 per day, from numbers all over the country. Strangely, there were only two or three different voices on the other end.
I received unsolicited packages from faraway cities where I know absolutely no one (and sent them back unopened).
I suspected that someone was watching me. And then the hacking started.
I have complicated passwords that I keep under lock and key. I always log out and close the browser. My computer isn't shared. Unfortunately, a very determined hacker can get into almost anything.
One by one, all of my online accounts were compromised. Utilities, Amazon, iTunes, social media, all of my email accounts --even the script-writing service where I had a one-act play in progress. When I tried to restore the script from a memory stick, it had mysteriously become infected with a virus (which was weird, since MacBooks rarely get viruses).
The police asked me if I suspected anyone specific. I did, and I'll call him Mr. X. The packages were sent from areas where he has family, he is extremely computer-literate, he frequents a business where "someone" used my credit card number, and under the charming exterior, he shows clear signs of sociopathic tendencies.
Since the evidence was circumstantial, the police couldn't arrest him. I filed a police report regarding the unauthorized credit card charges (knowing they would be easier to prove and prosecute), and decided I'd had enough. I was going to make myself as hard to find as possible by removing myself from the internet and moving.
After switching to a burner phone with a new number, my first order of business was to leave social media. I sent a group message to all my friends, explaining what was going on and asking them to de-tag (and preferably delete) all photos, posts, etc. with me in them. Then I de-tagged, altered, and deleted everything on my profile (in case "someone" managed to hack in and restore my account). Finally, I deleted my accounts.
I'd been reading three recently-published books on privacy. Now it was time to put them to work.
The first book I consulted was Michael Bazzell's Hiding From the Internet: Eliminating Personal Online Information. The author is an FBI agent and cybercrime expert, and the book details very simple steps for removing your name, address, etc. from data brokers, marketers, credit providers, and so on.
Some websites will demand proof of identity before removing information. Bazzell explains how to mask your ID in Microsoft Paint, but I found it much simpler to just cover the non-essential information with pieces of painters' tape, then photograph my redacted ID.
From there, it's a simple matter of going through the book and following the steps -- sending in removal requests one at a time. Since the procedures vary by site, I won't get into detail here, but none of them are difficult.
One data broker would only honor removal requests for up to five pieces of information per email address. I outsmarted them by using multiple disposable email addresses from GuerrillaMail.com. I'd submit five requests, change the email address, submit five more, and keep going until everything the broker had on me was gone. They had over 30 pieces of information about me -- more than any other site -- but with persistence (and caffeine), it was all gone in about an hour.
Some databases will not remove your information unless you are a domestic violence victim, an identity theft victim, or a public official (judge, cop, etc.). If any of these apply to you, be prepared to provide proof (sending in a copy of my police report worked).
Bazzell strongly emphasizes that the best way to get off the Internet (and stay off) is to stop giving out your information. This may seem hard in a world that is obsessed with over-sharing, but it's doable.
This is echoed in the other two books I consulted: J.J. Luna's How to Be Invisible (3rd edition) and Frank M. Ahearn's The Digital Hit Man: His Weapons for Combating the Digital World.
All three authors strongly recommend separating your name from your home address. They are right -- my name did not appear in search results anywhere until I rented my own apartment and put the utilities in my own name.
Six months later, I received the shock of my life when a very persistent former acquaintance found me in spite of my unlisted address. As it turned out, he'd located me via my electricity bills! These days, my landlady handles the utilities.
For many people, separating names and addresses is unrealistic. It means not receiving deliveries or mail at home. If you are in serious danger, it may mean filing your taxes under your work address instead of your home address. I filed that police report under my parents' address (they were about to move), knowing that police reports can be accessed by the general public. You never know what might end up online.
Speaking of which, Frank Ahearn (who is a retired skip tracer) details how to pretext websites, newspapers, etc. and persuade them to remove information. If you've ever been arrested, that information will still be in police and court records, but you might be able to get the Daily Blah to remove that embarrassing old blurb about some past indiscretion.
I knew Mr. X would use every scrap of information about my family that he could find, since he'd already proven he wasn't above targeting them. A few years previously, a relative was interviewed by a major newspaper. I happened to have a contact at an affiliate publication, so instead of pretexting, I asked my contact for a favor. Thankfully, it worked -- the article disappeared from the online archives within 24 hours.
Ahearn also suggests running a battery of Internet searches -- your name, your name with common misspellings, your name plus your job title, your name plus your hometown, etc. Think like someone who might be looking for you -- what search terms might they use? For me, nothing unexpected turned up, but it never hurts to check.
Knowing Mr. X had accessed my online accounts, I took another cue from Frank Ahearn: closing them all. As a precaution, I had my computer checked for spyware. A few days later, armed with a new IP address, I set up new accounts under altered names. I have not had problems with any of my accounts since.
I'm not going to lie -- deleting myself from the Internet was tedious. And it was time-consuming -- some sites take up to six weeks to respond. In my case, the whole process took about three weeks, start to finish. For someone with a bigger digital footprint, vanishing from the Internet could easily take a few months. For a celebrity, it would probably be impossible.
Then there's the matter of staying offline. Some data brokers will take down information, only to put it back up later. I use SafeShepherd, which searches the Internet for my information at regular intervals and notifies me if something appears.
It is a paid service, so if you are low on funds, create Google Alerts about yourself (name, name plus hometown, name plus workplace, etc.). Don't forget that if you give out your information, you may have to scrub it from the Internet all over again!
Thankfully, I was able to move shortly after disappearing, so if my name reappears online linked to an address, it will probably be out-of-date.
When I decided to finally disappear from the Internet, I was shocked and dismayed by how most of my so-called "friends" responded. My two best friends were, and still are, completely supportive of my need for privacy. Another friend promptly reached out to me to make sure I wasn't in immediate danger.
Strangely, it just didn't seem to register with anyone else. Apparently, their desire to only reach me via Facebook trumps my need to stay safe. That was a hard thing to experience, and my life became very lonely, very quickly.
Still, even with the drawbacks, vanishing from the Internet was worth every minute, every email, every fax, every repetitive Google search, and every Saturday night without my former friends.
Mr. X hasn't bothered me for two years and 10 months. My nervous tics are gone. I no longer have panic attacks when the phone rings (although I still break into a cold sweat whenever someone knocks on the door).
When I visit a new place, I rarely feel a need to memorize every potential escape route. To my pleasant surprise, all the junk mail I'd been receiving for years finally tapered off (even the marketers have given up).
Someday, Mr. X will probably let his guard down and fail to cover his tracks. If and when he gets caught, I still won't return to social media or stop withholding my personal information. I've never felt safer and I absolutely love it.