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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Protecting Personal Information
by Rhonda R. McClure

December 20, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Recent news reports have brought privacy and personal information to the forefront. Unfortunately, there is misunderstanding and misinformation that aids in the fear of our identities being stolen.

This subject comes up frequently among genealogists. As we are researching our ancestry we may stumble on our names in a database or a news story mentions the type of personal information available online, that genealogists are placing there.

There are easier ways to steal your identity.

Stealing Identities

With the removal of certain indexes to birth and marriage records as a result of news reports that the hijackers from September 11th used fake ids and stolen identities, this discussion is once again in the hot and heavy category. Various news sources and those who do not approve of information being so easily available use this and other horror stories to support the closing of records.

A lot of accusations are thrown back and forth and some legislators point toward genealogy databases as a culprit for the stealing of an identity. Most of the databases that are held up as potential threats do not supply enough information for someone to steal an identity.

There are easier ways for criminals to steal identities. Every time you give information to a credit card company that calls offering you a new card you are actually give them everything they need to steal your identity. Think about it, they ask for things like date of birth, mother's maiden name, your social security number. These are powerful pieces of your identity that you are giving to a total stranger that you did not call but who called you. You do not know that they are from the company they say they are. They could be anyone.

Similar information can be skimmed as you are supplying such information over the counter to open an instant credit card. I have seen people verbalize this information as they stand across the counter from the clerk at the store. Anyone who is hovering nearby can hear the information you supply.

How many of you have thrown out those "pre-approved" credit card applications that arrive in the mail without ripping them up? How many of you have thrown out your power bills or telephone bills, or some other paperwork that has identifying information about you on it?

All of these are ways in which your identity can be stolen. Many of them have been used in the past and they will continue to be used as people continue to think stolen information can't happen to them.

Remove My Information

With this new surge in news stories and discussions, many people are searching various online databases only to come away angry that their name or their family is listed in the database.

They write to the companies that display these databases demanding removal. They throw accusations about the carelessness of others who would share this personal information about the living. They are also the first ones to complain if a company does alter information in any manner.

Once you have given your database to anyone, you have lost control of that database. I have said this often in lectures and other articles that I have written, the only other person who needs my entire database is my brother. No one else that I correspond with needs my entire database. Usually they need only a given line, and usually the line doesn't come any closer to me than a great-grandparent. I make it a point to not give out any information about living individuals, and I do not post it to the Internet in a database or Web page.

We owe it to our families to protect the information they share. Seldom is there a need for us to share that information on our siblings, parents and grandparents with others. Most of our cousins we discover online are related to us much farther back.

In Conclusion

While the news reports and other media stories are claiming the online information is aiding thieves and others to steal, to date there has not been any direct proof that genealogy databases have played a part in any identity theft. While we should share information responsibly, the only people that are hurt by the over reaction of legislators around the country is the honest researchers who were just tracing family trees.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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