In Depth

The paranoid's survival guide, part 3: Opting out, and how to protect your personal data offline

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How to just say no to direct mail and other 'offers'

You have more control over your privacy than you think. While it's true that you can't control absolutely everything that's out there about you, with a little work you can exert more control than you might expect over what's gathered, its accuracy and how it may be used, say privacy experts.

Computerworld asked nine privacy professionals to share their best tips for minimizing your online and offline data footprint.

Part 1 of this series covered how to maintain your online privacy and surf the Web without leaving a data trail. Part 2 offered advice on how to approach social media, messaging and some general rules you should follow when using mobile apps. (For more tips, also see our "60-minute security makeover: Prevent your own epic hack.")

In this last installment we cover best practices to lower your offline data footprint, and where to go to opt out of everything from direct mail offers to online behavioral advertising.

Offline safety tips

Use cash or disposable credit cards

If you prefer keeping what you purchase to yourself, consider using cash for most transactions, including at restaurants, bars and retail stores. "When you use a credit card, your bank knows what you bought, and the merchant has a way to track you over time," says Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"Using cash really does wonders to minimize how much your footprint is being automatically tracked," says Rob Shavell, co-founder and CEO at privacy software vendor Abine -- and you don't have to worry about having your card data stolen from a retailer's point of sale system.

Another option, especially for online purchases, is to use disposable credit card numbers, says Brookman. For example, Abine's MaskMe service provides a one-time use credit card number that hides your real number from the vendor -- which means it can't be added to a customer profile or stolen from their database.

On the other hand, Brookman advises, don't bother with those rechargeable cards from retailers. "If you use the same rechargeable card over time, you have some of the same problems as credit cards -- you can be tracked by unique number by the retailer over time," a privacy issue, and the number "could be compromised and used by identity thieves," which represents a security problem. "I'd use cash over a rechargeable gift card," he says.

Check your credit report annually

Monitor your credit report for any suspicious activity by ordering free credit reports at Annualcreditreport.com, and challenge incorrect data. You're entitled to a free report from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion every 12 months.

Consider a permanent security freeze

A permanent security freeze puts your credit report under your control: No one can access it to open up new credit accounts in your name without your permission. Businesses cannot access your credit report unless you unlock it, and identity thieves can't set up new credit accounts in your name unless they can present the credentials required to unlock it. Equifax, Experian and TransUnion are required by law to allow consumers to place a permanent security freeze on their credit reports.

There may be charge to set up the service, depending on your state of residence, as well as a charge to temporarily unlock your credit report for an authorized lender. Pros: The option is much less expensive than credit monitoring services. Cons: The credit reporting agencies make the process for unlocking/locking your credit report cumbersome and, except in states where prohibited by law, they charge you a fee -- generally in the range of $10 -- every time you make a lock or unlock request.

Know your options for opting out

Direct mail and email offers

Visit the Direct Marketing Association's DMAchoice website to opt out of mail and email direct marketing from the DMA's approximately 3,600 member organizations. You must individually choose to opt out four distinct categories of direct mail: Catalogs, magazine offers, credit offers and other mail offers. There's no global opt-out option.

You're asked to fill out a form with your personal information, including your social security number and date of birth. Unfortunately, the opt-out choice is only good for five years when you sign up online. To opt out permanently, you must mail in your request.

Telephone solicitors

Use the Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call Registry to opt out of receiving telemarketer calls and report violators. There are loopholes for politicians and nonprofits, and some offshore operators continue to flout the law. But your volume of unwanted solicitation calls should go down.

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