By Nancy C. Muir

Sharing personal information with friends and family enriches your relationships and helps you build new ones. The key is to avoid sharing information online with the wrong people and shady companies because, just as in the real world, exposing your personal information is one of your biggest risks.

Criminals come in all flavors, but the more savvy ones collect information in a very systematic way. Each piece of information is like a series of brushstrokes that, over time, form a very clear picture of your life. And after criminals collect and organize the information, they never throw it away because they may be able to use it many times over.

Fortunately, information exposure is a risk you have a great deal of control over. Before sharing information, such as your date of birth, make sure you’re comfortable with how the recipient will use the information.

  • Address and phone number: Abuse of this information results in you receiving increased telemarketing calls and junk mail. Although less common, this information may also increase a scammer’s ability to steal your identity and make your home a more interesting target for break-ins.
  • Names of husband/wife, father, and mother (including mother’s maiden name), siblings, children, and grandchildren: This information is very interesting to criminals, who can use it to gain your confidence and then scam you, or use it to guess your passwords or secret-question answers, which often include family members’ names. This information may also expose your family members to ID theft, fraud, and personal harm.
  • Information about your car: Limit access to license plate numbers; VINs (vehicle identification numbers); registration information; make, model, and title number of your car; your insurance carrier’s name and coverage limits; loan information; and driver’s license number. The key criminal abuse of this information includes car theft (or theft of parts of the car) and insurance fraud. The type of car you drive may also indicate your financial status, and that adds one more piece of information to the pool of data criminals collect about you.
  • Information about work history: In the hands of criminals, your work history can be very useful for “authenticating” the fraudster and convincing people and organizations to provide him or her with more about your financial records or identity.
  • Information about your credit status: This information can be abused in so many ways that any time you’re asked to provide this online, your answer should be “No.” Don’t fall for the temptation to check your credit scores free through sites that aren’t guaranteed as being reputable. Another frequent abuse of credit information is found in free mortgage calculators that ask you to put in all kinds of personal information in order for them to determine what credit you may qualify for.

Many people set automatic responders in their email, letting people know when they’ll be away from their offices. This is helpful for colleagues, but exercise caution and limit whom you provide the information to. Leaving a message that says, “Gone 11/2–11/12. I’m taking the family to Hawaii for ten days,” may make your house a prime target for burglary. And you’ll probably never make the connection between the information you exposed and the offline crime.

You may need to show your work history, particularly on resumes you post on Internet job or business-networking sites. Be selective about where you post this information, create a separate email account to list on the resume, and tell what kinds of work you’ve done rather than give specifics about which companies and what dates. Interested, legitimate employers can then contact you privately, and you won’t have given away your life history to the world. After you’ve landed the job, take down your resume. Think of it as risk management — when you need a job, the risk of information exposure is less than the need to get a job.