What I shared with my stalkers on social networks

Stalker #2: Sam Felsing, Web Sleuth

“What could a stranger find out about you simply by typing your name into Google? What could they find on your Facebook, Twitter, or Foursquare accounts, even if it’s someone you’re not connected to? Could they find your address, your mother’s maiden name, your date of birth, or your favorite coffee place through examining your digital footprint?

"It’s totally possible. I found all these details about a person I had met only briefly more than two years ago.

If you're not careful, a stranger could potentially see a map of your Facebook check-ins.

"For one week, I spent a couple hours a day stalking a female editor at a tech publication. I never hid outside her home, nor did I rifle through her garbage. Instead, I used my Internet savvy to find out as much as I could about her online. And I found a lot. I started the project with only her name and email address; I ended it with information that ten years ago would have been impossible to get by myself.

"I was never friends with the subject in real life, nor on any social media outlet, so I had to rely on Google to find most of her online information. But my Internet stalking was helped by a very uncommon trait about the subject: Very few people in the United States share her almost unique last name. In fact, a quick search on the How Many of Me website reveals that perhaps just one person with the subject’s name lives in the country.

"I found many of the subject’s social networking sites simply by typing her name into the search bar. Her accounts on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter instantly appeared in my search results. I got her Foursquare and Instagram accounts using the information she publicly provides on the social media sites I found on Google.

"Much of the subject’s personal information was on Facebook. Her About section reveals where she grew up, where she went to college, and where she currently works. After typing this information into Google, I was easily able to find the addresses of her college and place of business.

Sam Felsing was able to find the subject's childhood home through Google.

"Though the subject doesn’t list a lot of information about herself in her Facebook About section, her friends have left a substantial amount of personal information on her Wall. Using Facebook’s Timeline feature, I was able to scroll through her old Wall posts to find her birthday, her cousin’s name, and her travel history. I used this information to expand my Google search parameters, which allowed me to find a couple of her old travel blogs.

"Finding the name of the subject's hometown on her Facebook page led to much, much more information. I typed the subject’s name and her hometown into various search engines, like Spokeo and Whitepages, and was able to uncover her parents’ address and phone number. Spokeo actually has an attached Google street view of her parents’ house.

"Both Spokeo and Whitepages list the names of the editor’s immediate family members. Using that information, I found the social media sites of her mom, dad, and sister. The family’s social media sites in turn revealed a great deal about her (like her mother's maiden name and her parents’ anniversary), and included links to her Tumblr blog and an abandoned Twitter account.

"The subject's Tumblr page was also very revealing: That’s where I found her Instagram info. Pictures of food and guinea pigs didn’t give too much away, but Instagram keeps records of where photos are taken. It doesn’t give addresses, but it does put markers nearby or in front of the areas where the pictures were taken. I was able to click on her blog’s past Instagram pictures, see on Google maps where they were taken, then use the comments that the editor and her friends had left on the pictures, to identify where the editor currently lives. Instagram’s new PhotoMap feature also makes this easy."

The victim’s perspective

Although the stalking in this case was just for fun, the dirt that both Chris and Sam were able to dig up left me feeling very vulnerable. If Chris was, say, a burglar or a car thief, he had all the information he needed to heist my ride or break into my home while I was away for the weekend. And if Sam was some creepy guy I met at gathering last week, he’d have everything he needs to pester me in person when I refuse to text him back.

After reading my stalkers' findings, I took action. My settings across every social platform I’m on (except Twitter) are now restricted, so people that I don’t know or haven’t approved of can’t view my posts or information. However, I had to tweak these settings myself, because most social sites make your personal information public by default. If you're not careful and use those sites frequently, location-enabled settings can really get you in trouble—so fix those settings.

Much of what Sam was able to find out about me on the Web, I can’t really erase. My digital footprint is pretty unshrinkable, especially because of my unique name, which I’m kind of attached to. It would also take some work to erase my parents’ information that is listed on public records sites like White Pages—data such as their landline number and the address of the home that they own. I can, however, show them how to update their privacy settings on Facebook to restrict what others can see, and use some restraint myself when posting.

Here’s how to change your privacy settings on a few popular social networks:

Facebook: On your main News Feed page, click the down arrow next to your name and the Home button in the top right corner, and then select Privacy Settings from the drop-down menu. Under the Control your Default Privacy section, select your desired level of privacy. The "Friends" option is probably a good place to start, but for more control, select Custom. Continue on through the list of Privacy Settings, and edit each one to the level you prefer. Take special notice of the Ads, Apps, and Websites section—if you post to Facebook from other apps you use, that information might be publicly available to others as well. My Foursquare posts appeared public because they were listed as public in this section.

Twitter: If you’d prefer, you can make all of your Tweets private, meaning you must approve of all followers before they can see what you Tweet. To set this, go to your profile settings from the drop-down menu next to the Search bar. Select the "Protect my Tweets" box in the "Tweet privacy" section to prevent your posts from being publicly available. To keep your Tweets public, but without location information, uncheck the "Add a location to my Tweets" box in the "Tweet location" section. (Or, you can keep this box checked and opt out of including location info in individual Tweets, which Twitter provides an option for.)

Foursquare: Surprisingly, Foursquare has a pretty solid privacy plan, considering that it's a service entirely based upon sharing your location. By default, only people on your Foursquare friends list can see your check-ins. However, if you decide to publish your check-ins to other social sites, like Facebook or Twitter, the privacy settings are different. When I linked Foursquare to my Twitter account and opted ot Tweet my Foursquare check-ins, those check-ins were now public via Twitter. Facebook was similar—anyone with a Facebook account could see my Foursquare check-ins, even if we weren't connected. Take a look at Foursquare's privacy settings by going to the drop down Profile Settings page; Facebook's settings for linked apps can be changed in the Ads, Apps, and Websites section.

Instagram: You can opt to keep your Instagram feed private and available only to those followers with whom you've approved. From your profile page, click the Edit Your Profile button, then hit the Preferences cog wheel. Scroll down to the Account settings, and slide the switch that reads Photos Are Private from off to on.

Shop ▾
arrow up Amazon Shop buttons are programmatically attached to all reviews, regardless of products' final review scores. Our parent company, IDG, receives advertisement revenue for shopping activity generated by the links. Because the buttons are attached programmatically, they should not be interpreted as editorial endorsements.

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter