Internet Insecurity: Your private life is more public than you think

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Forgive Curtis Smith if he's having a little "internet insecurity."

On a recent afternoon, Smith agreed to let private investigator Ron Rugen snoop into his life, via the world wide web at the Westport Coffee House. Smith said he really had nothing to hide, and welcomed the search, using common sites and links available to anyone.

"News articles, public records, criminal records, address history, phone records," allowed Rugen. And indeed, he found Smith. In fact, he found where Smith lives, even though he's a renter.

"Yeah that would be irritating to me. I don't like that idea very much," Smith said.

But like it or not, it's the reality of the digital world. Information that is out there, is out there for all to see.

"That's information that's been out there for a long time," said Brandy Peterson, Chief Technology Officer of Overland Park based Fishnet Security. "It's just more readily available because of on-line records. You could always go get the information at the courthouse, but now it's just sitting there for someone to find it."

As the afternoon at the coffee house wears on, Rugen finds traffic tickets, addresses, even an old newspaper article on one volunteer and her former roommate. He'd been charged with animal abuse for killing her pet rabbit back in 2006.

With another volunteer, Rugan scrolled through her personal Facebook page.

"You're Facebook is wide open for everyone to read," he told the young lady. "That is true," she replied. "Honestly I thought it was on privacy settings."

But experts warn even that won't completely shut down your social media life, and that those bent on looking you up, tracking you down, or snooping on your life, can find ways via other "friends" or just by "Googling" you.

"The only sure way to be safe is to not share it in the first place," says Fishnet Security's Peterson. "If you don't want somebody to know a secret, don't tell anybody."

But for one metro woman, it was more than just party pics or traffic tickets. It was her personal safety at stake.

Kathy (she doesn't want her last name used) endured years of physical abuse and violence in her marriage.

"Mostly punching, just like you'd punch a man."

She eventually broke free, only to find her ex stalking and harassing her on her social media sites, MySpace and then Facebook. He tracked her down and posted on her Facebook page a Google Earth picture of where she was living, even though it was a secret location.

"And then he wrote me a private message, that didn't show up on my newsfeed. A private message that said 'see I always got eyes on you. You can't go anywhere without me knowing about it."

In other messages he threatened to kill her.

"It was very scary and I felt very helpless," she remembers.

Kathy sought help at Hope House, a domestic violence shelter, where CEO MaryAnne Metheny says they see more and more of what Kathy dealt with.

"And I think each year, as new things are added, there's new technologies that are coming out, and we keep seeing more and more of that, absolutely."

Metheny says part of their counseling new clients includes "do's and don'ts" on the internet and social media, and ways to protect themselves.

The experts say you can always start by searching for yourself on the internet, using common search engines.

Fishnet's Brandy Peterson also suggests setting up alerts: "You can set up alerts with search engines. Looking for alerts on your name for example."

That way, he notes, you can at least be aware of what's out there, to avoid any surprises. (For additional tips, see links below)

Meanwhile, back at the Westport Coffee House, private eye Ron Rugen has the reality check when it comes to what's out there on the "world wide web."

"The web is forever, just like tattoos."

FOX 4 is working for you with tips to customizing your online privacy. For details click here.

For a list of domestic violence shelters and hotlines, click here.

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