Seven ways to rescue your online reputation

A bad reputation can hurt you big time -- especially if it's based on false or malicious information. Here's how to ensure your name isn't mud on the Internet.

Your online reputation is rapidly becoming at least as important as your offline rep – and will become even more important as our lives get completely sucked into the InterWebs. If you haven’t spent any time managing your online rep, you’re overdue – or in for a big and possibly unpleasant surprise down the road. Here are seven ways to get a handle on your virtual CV.

1. Google yourself early and often. Nothing like a little ego-surfing to find out if somebody has been trashing you online. Be sure to include any logical variations (like Dan, Daniel, Daniel T., Danny-boy, etc) to catch comments from people who knew you when you went by one of those.

Also: If you are signed into a Google account, sign out before you ego surf. Google customizes your results based on your online activities; searching anonymously will produce slightly different results that are more in line with what others will see.

(And if you are being trashed, see steps 6 and 7 below for how to deal with that.)

2. Set up Google Alerts. Now turn your search terms into Google Alerts so you will get pinged via email every time your name shows up. The downside? You will also get alerts about other people who share your name. (I’ve been reading a lot about an Irish livestock breeder named Dan Tynan who just sold a prize lamb for more than $150,000.) It’s a small price to pay, though if you’ve got a common name this could get irritating.

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3. Get anti-social. Take a hard look at your Facebook (Twitter, MySpace, etc) pages. If there’s anything on there you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see – like, say, a photo of you drunk and naked save for a sombrero -- think seriously about deleting it. Don’t forget about the things you’ve said on Disqus and other commenting systems. Ultimately you really can’t keep these things totally private, no matter how much you tweak your Facebook settings or how many pseudonyms you use, and social media is one of the first places recruiters and HR folks look.

4. Run your own background check. This will reveal places you’ve lived, property you’ve owned, marriages, divorces, tax liens, and whether you’ve got a rap sheet, filed for bankruptcy, or been sued in civil court, among other things. It’s essentially one-stop shopping for all your dirty laundry.

It’s especially important to have this information if you’re hunting for a job or in a position where someone is likely to run a background check on you. You want to know what they know, and make sure there aren’t any major errors in it. (Or get your cover story ready for when it comes time to ‘splain yourself.)

Because background checks are based largely on public records, you can do much of this yourself for free if you’ve got the time. SearchSystems’ Free Public Records Directory should have most of the links you’ll need.

In a hurry? Then it’s probably worth ponying up $50 to $70 to a firm like Intelius or Backgroundchecks.com to compile it all for you. But you probably have to do this only once every few years, as these records don’t change often.

5. Get a copy of your credit report. This will list all the loans, bank accounts, credit cards, and other financial data, along with addresses of the places you’ve lived. As with background checks, this is information a loan officer or landlord will request, so you’ll want to be familiar with it. It’s also a good way to find out if somebody has stolen your identity.  If you see a lot of unfamiliar accounts or addresses on your report, you’ll want to put a credit check or freeze on your accounts until you straighten that out.

You’re entitled to one free credit report each year from each of the big three credit reporting agencies. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com (and only AnnualCreditReport.com) to order it. Be on the lookout for fake sound-alike credit reporting sites; they are set up by the credit bureaus to charge you for stuff you’re entitled to for free. Order a new one from a different agency every three months, and you’re golden.

6. Fight back. If somebody has been trashing you in public, the best defense is to martial your allies and counter it with the truth – or, at least, a version of the truth that’s kinder to you.

For example, my insurance agent (a lovely woman) is being thoroughly trashed on Yelp, Merchant Circle, and similar sites by someone who took a severe dislike to her. The solution: Recruit people who know and like you who will post positive things to balance out the negative.

If you don’t already have a Google Profile, it would make sense to create one and fill it with positive information – Google will automatically place it higher in search results. Creating a personal blog, YouTube channel, LinkedIn page, etc, can also help push your whiny critics down toward the bottom of search results where no one will see them.

If someone is slandering you on their own site, you can politely request that they stop doing it – or better yet, have a lawyer friend draft a letter for you.

7. Bring in the big guns. If you’re really being slandered or harassed, you may have to seek professional help to silence your critics.

Beware, though, a lot of firms have sprung up that claim to help you manage your reputation but are mostly there to siphon money out of your wallet (more on one of those in a future post). Depending on the services offered, the price can get pretty steep.

Reputation.com has a good (ahem) reputation for helping people without gouging them. The Internet Law Center may also be able to refer you to someone who can help. As for the rest, well, shop carefully and ask a lot of questions about what they will really do for you and what it will really cost.

Your online reputation is worth a lot. But it’s not worth getting ripped off over it.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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