Be careful with the personal data you share online

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Are you delving into your family history? Searching for your soul mate? Using an online job placement/job search service? Trying to earn points, prizes, or cash payments from online surveys? Registering for Medicare, applying for a credit card or filing your tax return with the IRS?

These may seem to be quite different activities but are all very similar. The organizations, companies and government agencies that are involved come under the general category of data aggregator.

A new term for you? While the label may be unfamiliar, the practice is something in which you have participated. Data aggregators are basically information warehouses. They collect, process, use, and or sell information that individuals and businesses readily provide.

In some cases, information collected by aggregators is legally protected as is the case with state and federal agencies. In most situations, the information is provided voluntarily and its use is not protected. In fact, most aggregators operate with the primary purpose of collecting and selling the information collected. Some aggregators actually give away some of the data collected on individuals as a teaser to lure business.

What types of information can be purchased? Names, demographics, family relationships, criminal records, residences, educational and employment background. Comprehensive reports providing all of this and more can be purchased for less than $50 from many aggregators by anyone willing to pay for the service. Additionally, aggregators often sell the information they collect to other businesses and advertising firms for marketing purposes.

Avoiding data aggregation is virtually impossible. Practically every communications provider aggregates data including cable television companies, internet providers, and web browsers. Need a demonstration? Next time you go online, run a search for a product — it does not matter what product. Wait a short period of time, then go to a web site you frequent. The pop-up ads now appearing on the web page usually echo the item from your recent search.

Can you protect yourself from aggregators? Yes and no. A great deal of your personal information is readily available for free or for a fee to anyone on a computer. But there are ways to protect additional personal information. Stay away from online survey web sites. Rewards are minimal; they collect and sell the information you provide including demographics, geography, and preferences.

Be particularly guarded with the information you provide in social media platforms such as Facebook. While on the surface, users feel that they can control who accesses their postings, hacking into user sites is relatively easy and all your information is available to the social media providers.

Before engaging in online dating, genealogical searches, or job searches, contact the service providers and request a written copy of the company's user data privacy policy. Also ask for information as to how the data security is maintained.

With respect to telecommunications and entertainment providers, request a written copy of any policy regarding what information regarding viewing or communications habits is collected, how it is used, and whether or not it is sold or given to others, including affiliates.

While it is difficult to shield your on-line communications from others, the purchase and use of a Virtual Personal Network (VPN) can provide some security from prying eyes. In previous articles I have recommended the use of VPNs when using public WiFi. Use of VPN services on a home computer can restrict the extent to which providers and browser software can monitor your usage.

Finally, consider the internet as a community bulletin board. In this case, the community is the world. Do not enter or post personal information that you do not want to make public on every bulletin board in the world. Be certain that when you enter personal information you are fully aware of what will happen to it and what rights you have to restrict use and protect privacy.

If you suspect that you may be a victim or a target of a scam, contact the AARP Fraud Watch Network hotline at 877-908-3360. You can also contact your Attorney General's Office:

New York: (800) 771-7755 http://www.ag.ny.gov/bureau/consumer-frauds-bureau

Vermont : (802) 656-3183 https://www.uvm.edu/consumer/

Elliott Greenblott is the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. The AARP is seeking fraud fighters. Join the AARP Fraud Watch Network and receive watchdog alerts and tips. It's free. Go to aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork or volunteer by emailing vt@aarp.org, calling 877-434-7598, or by emailing Greenblott at egreenblott@aarp.org.

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