The New York Times published in interesting piece this week that was among its most popular: I Shared My Phone Number. I Learned I Shouldn’t Have.
In it, the paper’s personal tech columnist Brian X. Chen explained how much information people can get about you with just your phone number. This includes “my current home address, its square footage, the cost of the property and the taxes I pay on it,” as well as past addresses, relatives’ names and past phone numbers.
He is right, but that kind of information is out there for many of us, with or without a phone number. If you have an unusual name, all of it is easy to find without any cell phone number. Even a pretty common name can be isolated on Ancestry.com, and the information vacuumed up. It’s even easier if you are the only person with your name in your entire state, which happens a lot.
The Times says Brian X. Chen lives in San Francisco. There may be more than 100 Brian Chens in the U.S., but in California there appear to be a few Brian X. Chens, one of whom is listed in San Francisco. With or without a phone number, your property ownership is an open book if you own the property in your own name.
If you are interested in keeping your address secret, some steps you could take are:
- Own the property in trust or in the name of a limited liability company. If your name is Joseph L. Sullivan, it would help not to name the trust the Joseph L. Sullivan 2019 Trust. You can name it just about anything you want, and the same goes for LLC’s, as long as the name isn’t already in use.
- Don’t get utility bills sent to the house. Use a PO box or a UPS Store. Be aware that if you use your cell phone to order a pizza to your house, the number will be linked to your home address in commercial databases. Some of that information may make it into web-based services such as the one Chen writes about, but some may be limited to more expensive databases available only by license.
- Use a made-up number when you get discount cards for groceries and pharmacy purchases.
- Don’t say your address in a loud voice into a telephone while talking in public, to be followed by a slow, clear recitation of your phone number. I hear these all the time and not being a criminal, do not act on the information. Others will.
As Chen says, there is no easy answer to counter the trend that we are increasingly identified with our mobile phone numbers, especially if we have given up land lines. His major example of when not to give your number cites Facebook, and I couldn’t agree more.
But what if you want to reserve a table at a restaurant? They often need a phone number, which is then available to a large number of restaurant employees. Here in New York, many of us get our dry cleaning delivered home, with a cell phone number to pull up our account. If I don’t trust these people with a phone number, does it make sense to give them a credit card number?
It’s true that hackers can do a lot of damage with the public records available in the U.S., but one thing Chen didn’t suggest that I have been doing for a long time is: make the answers to your password-recovery security question something that is not easily found on the internet. If mother’s maiden name is something easily found on line (don’t forget about on-line obituaries), don’t make it what someone needs to reset your banking password.
Try something like the name of your first school, or (unless you put it all over social media), the city where you honeymooned. If you’re not married, pick the city where you would like to have a honeymoon.
I wrote in my book The Art of Fact Investigation We often say that a Google search is not enough to do a good investigation because only a small amount of what you know about yourself is on Google. Everywhere you’ve ever lived? The names of best friends for third grade? All you old bosses?
Use that information to your benefit and the crooks will have a harder time hacking into your electronic life today.