How many times did you give out your phone number today? Filling out a form online, signing up for a rewards program at the grocery store, texting someone about a couch for sale on Craigslist or setting up a coffee date with that guy or girl you met on Tinder all require your number. Do you know what happens to your number once you give it out?
While you might feel like your 10 digits are just another 10 of the millions of phone numbers out there, your phone number is a valuable piece of information that actually reveals an awful lot about you. Anyone can use your number to find out a wide range of personal information about you from your full name and educational or career history to your current home address, a list of your close friends, relatives and known associates, where you used to live and even pictures of you and your family. This kind of information is available online and is largely free, from a variety of different “people search” services to Google.
So how does it work?
Every time you use your phone number to sign up for a rewards program, on Facebook, to post on Craigslist or anywhere online and offline, you are leaving an online breadcrumb trail and building a digital footprint of data that is hard to erase. The more information we share, the easier it becomes to connect the dots across all of your data points. There are entire companies that specialize in buying access to consumer data from all kinds of places, ingesting and aggregating it all, and then reselling it to any person or company who wants to buy it.
Awareness is the first step
The reality is that we’re going to continue to use phone numbers as a form of communication and identification in our everyday lives, but there are ways to increase our privacy and protect ourselves.
The answer isn't to stop signing up for rewards programs or buying things online. Rather, we must all become better stewards of our own data, and the first step of doing that is knowing what is out there already. We believe it’s important to raise awareness about this issue and that’s why we’ve built the Burner Challenge. By using the Burner Challenge to see just how much of your personal information is exposed when you give out your phone number, we hope to help you start conversations with your children, spouses and parents about good digital hygiene.
What can you do?
1. Audit your social profiles
Go through your various social media accounts and check that all of your privacy settings are set up how you want them to be -- make sure that the things you think are private, aren’t actually public. Are your full name, birthday, and phone number really all required or can you keep some of those details private?
2. Think before you give out your digits
Have you ever been asked for your number at a register in a store seemingly without a reason? Did you automatically give out your number to someone without thinking? We’ve all been there, and stopping for a second and asking why they need your number and how it will be used can save you a lot of headaches later on. There will be times where cashiers won’t have an answer for you, but you can politely decline to give your number to them. This applies to your zip code as well!
Its completely normal to have an extra email address or two -- the one we use on service forms that we know we never want to hear about again or to protect yourself from spam -- so why wouldn’t you have an extra phone number for the same thing? You can still sign up for grocery store rewards programs, post your number online when you need to, but keep your personal information separate and safe.
4. Set up a Google alert for your name
This a great way to monitor the online content that is associated with your name via an online search. You can create an alert in seconds and just enter what you want your search to be (in this case, your name.) When you set up your alert you’ll be able to decide how often you want to receive notifications and the types of results you want to receive.
5. Be cautious of sites that offer a reward for giving them your information
Any time someone is giving away something in exchange for your information, there’s a very good chance that they are collecting your precious information for direct marketing use or worse. This usually means that they are making a lot more money from your information than the thing you’re getting for free is worth!
The good news is, you’ve probably already started taking some steps (i.e. creating multiple email addresses) to take control of your personally identifiable data and limit your personal info and data exposure and it is quite straightforward to build upon that; take the Burner Challenge today and take the next step towards protecting yourself and the people around you!