How To Click and Clean Your Online Profiles

Your cyber identity could keep you from a potential job. Find out how to clean up your online profiles with sites like Facebook and MySpace.

By Andy Simmons from Reader's Digest | April 2008

So what do you do about that picture now that you’re looking for a job? Take it down! And anything else that could possibly be construed as offensive.

But what if the picture is now on other sites? After all, a friend can post your photo on his Facebook page or someplace less secure. And from there, it can be posted on another site, maybe one run by underwear fetishists. In other words, you’re no longer in control of your photo.

This problem is so pervasive that a new industry has cropped up: identity management. “Complete transparency is great for the Internet, but not when it comes to your personal life,” says Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender, a company that is essentially in the Internet sleuthing business.

For $9.95 a month, it will track down embarrassing material about clients, then organize and analyze the dubious data. Using something called recursive searching, Fertik and his company scour cyberspace for all your pertinent information — various permutations of your name, job, birthplace, college, friends, hobbies — until they’re convinced they’ve caught all the troublesome bits. Removing that photo will set you back $29.95 for every site on which you star.

To remove an item, ReputationDefender tries a novel tactic: It goes to the person running the site or discussion board and asks politely. “It works a lot,” says Fertik, sounding surprised himself. When it doesn’t, the company works its way up the food chain, asking that person’s boss and so on.

And if that doesn’t work? “We can get less polite,” he says. He means hitting them below the belt — as in the wallet — by taking complaints to their advertisers.

This pocketbook warfare tends to seal the deal, but not always. While a student at Yale Law School, for example, one young woman applied to 16 firms for a summer associate position but didn’t field a single offer. It turned out that students had spread vicious rumors on a law-school discussion forum. In graphic terms, they claimed she slept around, had STDs and cheated her way into and through law school.

The woman hired Fertik, and ReputationDefender went to work, identifying and removing the offensive material. AutoAdmit, home site of the discussion board, wouldn’t cooperate. Fertik and his client are suing those who went on the attack. In the meantime, AutoAdmit has lost advertising, and a law firm rescinded a job offer to the former site administrator after hearing about the controversy.

You may think walking the straight and narrow is the solution. Think again. “Half the stuff we deal with is totally unexpected,” says Fertik. “Your name can be attached to a photo of some naked girl, usually posted by a jilted lover or former friend, and it will show up in searches of your name.”

Defendmyname.com, another identity management company, doesn’t remove negative items; it suppresses them. The company floods the Internet with positive information about you until the negative write-ups no longer show up in the top 20 search results. “Most people don’t look past the third page,” says spokesman Jason Allen.

These new business models serve to remind us that the World Wide Web is still the Wild, Wild West. You’ve got to be careful out there. Before you shut down your Facebook profile, though, meet Beth Murphy.

After graduating from Notre Dame in 2005, the 25-year-old landed a position in the ad-sales department of an upscale magazine. Her future employers checked out her Facebook profile and saw pictures of her scuba diving, traveling through Italy and helping introduce computers to a small African village. On the flip side, there were photos of her at a tailgate party with a beer in hand and a guy playfully planting a kiss on her cheek. But those pictures didn’t bother the employer, who offered her the job anyway. “They were looking for someone who would mesh with their community,” she says. “My profile showed I’m a well-rounded person.”

Let’s face it, most of us have tied one on or done something we regret. It’s called being human. But tossing it online is another matter. And for some, it’s even become an addiction, one with a nickname: Crackspace. Young or old, students and execs alike turn into exhibitionists, putting every aspect of their lives on public display.

Yes, it can be freeing, a little naughty — and totally misunderstood. But should those of us posting pictures of ourselves prancing around in our undies be given a mulligan?

“In a forgiving, kindly environment, yes,” says Tony Beshara. “But in a business environment?”

Well, you decide.

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