It's not what other people think of you that matters. It's what they can find out about you on the Web that will affect your ability to get a job or promotion, rent an apartment, buy a house, be accepted into the school of your choice, or find the love of your life.
Increasingly, your personal reputation is at the mercy of search engines, blogs, and social networks, none of which themselves have a sterling reputation for accuracy.
Identity theft, libel, defamation, mistaken identity, and youthful indiscretions captured forever--these are just a few of the things that can come back to bite you.
Fortunately there are ways to fight back--five ways, in fact. And it all starts with discovering the depth and breadth of your personal Net footprint.
1. Google Yourself
It's not enough to have the respect and admiration of your family and your peers; you need Google juice as well. Because if someone Googles your name and finds nasty things written about you, your credibility could be destroyed in an instant. The postings could be the rantings of a disgruntled former employee or an angry ex-spouse, or of someone posing as you, or even someone with the same name--in any case, you're toast.
"Google is no longer just a search engine; it's a reputation engine," says Chris Dellarocas, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies online reputations. The first step in taming this beast is to find out what's out there by Googling all variants of your name, your phone number, and your address.
If you've put stuff on your own sites that you don't want Google to find, you can ask the search engine to delete it from its results. If someone else posted this material, though, Google won't remove it. You'll have to ask the site owner to take it down--or hire someone to do it for you (see item #5).
2. Comb the Web
Even the mighty Google can't catch everything. For example, many of Facebook's 60 million profiles are inaccessible to search engines. So even if you haven't created a page on Facebook, MySpace, or one of the gazillion other social networks, someone else might have set up a spoof page to make you look bad.
Start by looking at so-called "people search" engines. Sites like Pipl, Spock, Wink, and ZoomInfo scrape information from other Web sites (like social networks) and slap it together into personal profiles. It's not uncommon for such sites to mix information about different people with the same name and present them as a single person. That's not so good if you've got the same name as, say, a porn star or a disgraced former Congressman.
There are also hundreds of online address books that contain information on you, some of which surely won't be accurate. For $5 a month, Reputation Defender offers a service called MyPrivacy that locates your listings in some of the major Internet white pages and lets you remove your data. At press time, though, the service--a beta--was still buggy and incomplete. (See item #5 for another Reputation Defender service.)
And don't forget Wikipedia. You may have a false or defamatory entry in the world's most popular online encyclopedia and never know it. In the most infamous case, retired journalist John Siegenthaler publicly outed the encyclopedia for a false entry that implied he played a role in the Kennedy assassinations. If you've got a Wiki page and want to keep it, you'll need to keep an eye out for erroneous edits.
3. Opt Out Early and Often
By reducing the amount of junk mail you receive, you make yourself a smaller target for identity thieves and others who can mess with your reputation. (One of identity thieves' favorite tricks is to sign up for a change of address in your name, so they can re-route pre-approved credit card offers to your "new address.")
Though there's almost no way of getting your junk quotient down to zero, taking your name off marketing lists will nuke 50 to 75 percent of it. The easiest way? Sign up for ProQuo. This free service can help delete your name from more than a dozen marketing lists--including those operated by the Direct Marketing Association and massive data brokers like ChoicePoint and Acxiom.
In some cases ProQuo will remove your name for you; in other cases it directs you to the opt-out page for an organization's Web site or gives you sample letters that you must print out, sign, and mail. You can also use ProQuo to tell Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion to stop selling your information to companies that send you pre-approved credit card offers, and to thwart telemarketers by adding your name to the FTC's Do Not Call list. ProQuo is dead simple to use, and there are no strings attached.
4. Do Your Own Background Check
There is a treasure trove of information about you freely available to anyone who knows how to look for it. Do you own property? Are you licensed to carry a concealed weapon? Have you ever been late with your tax payments? Arrested? Divorced? In most states, that information is in the public record, and much of it is available online for a fee. When an employer does a background check on you, this is the kind of stuff that turns up--so at the very least you want to make sure the information is accurate. Fortunately, you can request a free public records report from ChoicePoint. (You'll have to print out a form and mail it along with copies of your driver's license and proof of address.)
While you're at it, order your free annual report from the big three credit bureaus. This information shows up when you try to open a new credit account, buy a cell phone, rent an apartment, or apply for a job, among other things. Unfortunately, credit reports are notoriously inaccurate. A 2004 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that one in four reports contains an error serious enough to deny you credit or employment. So you'll want to review and correct them as needed.
Just be careful who you order your report from. The vast majority of sites that advertise "free credit reports" try to trick you into signing up for credit monitoring services at $10 to $15 a month. The right place to go is AnnualCreditReport.com--or, better yet, call 877/322-8228 to order it by phone.
5. Defend Your Reputation
When it comes to online reputations, people are usually their own worst enemies. Those drunken spring break photos may have been a hoot in college, but they're not so funny when you're prepping for the big job interview. (And if you think employers won't find it, think again: 77 percent of recruiters use search engines to screen prospective job candidates, according to a survey by ExecuNet.) You can delete your Flickr account or your MySpace page, but once this stuff is on the Web, you have no control over what happens to it. If you find nasty stuff floating around that's not under your control, you may have to employ the nuclear option and hire someone to take care of it for you.
Some services, like DefendMyName, can cost $1000 a month; others are bit more reasonable. For $10 a month, Reputation Defender's MyReputation service will scour the Net to find out what people are saying about you. If the service uncovers anything you can't abide, you can pay Reputation Defender $30 to have it removed. Reputation Defender starts by sending a letter politely asking the site to remove it. If the site refuses, the requests become increasingly less polite. But sometimes this process backfires. When Reputation Defender tried to erase news of one client's arrest from Consumerist.com in January 2007, it spurred a spitting match in the blogosphere that only made matters worse.
And if the service can't get the bad stuff taken down, it will try to bury it by posting positive items about you and making sure the good stuff shows up higher in Google searches (though that service costs extra). Overall, MyReputation has had good success in removing items from video and photo sharing sites, social networks, and online forums, but only moderate success with blogs, says co-founder Owen Tripp.
"Most clients never ask us to remove anything, they just use us as a professional monitoring service for their good names," he says in an e-mail. "They think of our services as the 'new credit report.'"
PC World contributing editor Dan Tynan has a terrible reputation, all of it richly deserved.