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With all of the rumor mills out there online, how do you fight back if your name is smeared? And who are these people who take great pleasure – and often make money – out of spreading rumors about others? Our guests discuss how gossip websites operate and how to protect yourself and your family from false and/or embarrassing information that appears online.

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Adam Levin, chairman and founder of Identity Theft 911 and author of the book Swiped

Joseph Finder, author of the new novel, Guilty Minds.

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Cyber Security: How do you protect your reputation?

Gary Price: Gossip websites like TMZ, Gawker, Perez Hilton and others are full of stories about celebrities and what they’re doing in and out of the public eye. Sometimes, though, the gossip can be damaging and the stories just “speculation” rather than fact. They can cause damage to a career or, at the very least, embarrassment to the subject and their family. The same embarrassment and damage can be done to non-celebrities by people who want to hurt them on social media websites, through Tweets and in emails. How do the perpetrators get away with it? And can anyone – famous or not – fight back against these mean-spirited individuals? Adam Levin is the chairman and founder of Identity Theft 911 and author of the book Swiped. He says that to understand how the damage is done, you have to understand how permanent anything you or anyone else posts really is.

Adam Levin: Anything that happens on the Internet is like a wildfire, it’s true. Anything that happens on the Internet is like the Wild West! And the key thing that people have to remember about the internet is this stuff doesn’t go away, that if you do something that ends up on the internet that you have to work pretty hard to get it off. And unlike in Europe, where they’re developing the concept of “the right to be forgotten,” in the U.S. we don’t really have that right now and so therefore there are things that you may have to live with, and as a result of that you have to be very, very careful. You always have to think before you click; you have to think before you respond, and you have to think about what the motivations are of people who would try to get a reaction from you when you go online.

Price: Celebrities are usually pretty wealthy, and can afford to hire companies to protect their privacy. Even so, Levin says that they aren’t immune from people peering into their lives and making money off of pictures and information gathered surreptitiously and posted online. And he says that some sites that deal in Hollywood gossip aren’t scrupulous about determining if that information is even true.

Levin: A gossip website doesn’t necessarily know the information is true, but it sounds good, it comes from someone that sounds like they might have a clue as to something that’s going on. And a lot of times it’s just sensationalized. A lot of times it is a combination of information discovered on many public websites. Of course you’ve also had certain cable news channels that have been accused of creating what they call an “echo chamber,” which is someone says something and reports it as if it’s a fact. It isn’t a fact but then several other people start saying the same thing and all of a sudden it becomes a de facto fact even though it is clearly not a fact at all.

Price: Joseph Finder is the author of the new novel, Guilty Minds, a thriller about a Supreme Court justice caught up in a scandal that’s set to be posted on a gossip website in just 48 hours. Finder says that part of the problem is that in the internet age, fans of gossip websites expect their news at lightning speed.

Joseph Finder: The gossip websites will get a tip from somebody and in the old days they would call around to try to vet it, if possible. They do it quickly, of course. These days there isn’t really time so a tip goes up there on these gossip websites often “true or false.” And we see this, for example, when you read about the death of a celebrity and maybe an hour later someone tells you, “Oh, by the way, that was made up. That’s not true. That’s just a rumor.” And yet the same time, you know when there are events like these tragic shootings of policemen, we want to know right away who did it, what the motivations are, who the shooter is, where they come from and the answers to those questions can often take hours and usually days. And yet we want to know within seconds.

Price: So some of the stories are completely made up and others rely on half-truths so they sound like they might be factual. It’s a messy business, especially when these stories are written by people who are difficult to trace. Finder says that sometimes finding the source of malicious gossip has to be done the way his fictional hero, Nick Heller, does it in his book.

Finder: This is the difficulty that my hero Nick Heller has when he’s trying to disprove a story and he finds that the way to do it is actually person-to-person, one-on-one as the old-fashioned gumshoe which means tracking people down and talking to them. I think there are paper trails on the internet, only we don’t call them paper trails, so there are ways of finding things out that often use the old-fashioned methods of phone calls and visits.

Price: Sometimes an account or a website is hacked, and criminals get personal information about anyone who subscribes to it. This can be used to steal identities, harass someone or to collect photos and other information to be used later for bullying or blackmail. Levin says that computer experts can sometimes find out who’s behind the hack, but it’s not always successful.

Levin: Hackers use relays and they do all sorts of tricks of the trade in order to hack into systems. The truth is though; there are certain, what they call, “signatures” in software that will lead investigators back to someone or something. And you know as a result it’s not impossible but in many cases it’s very difficult. If you think about some of the hacks we’ve had, I think to this day no one’s quite figured out how the Ashley Madison hack occurred or who was behind it. Even with Sony, they think it was North Korea based on certain signature-type information they found in the malware, but there are still people that are denying it.

Price: Finder did a great deal of research before writing his book, and found that there are people who can help mitigate the damage done by malicious hackers and rumor mongers, and even help scrub your personal information off the internet. In fact, he had it done for himself.

Finder: If you hire some of these services, what they’ll do is they’ll take some derogatory information about you and they’ll put it – some how, I don’t know how they do this – they’ll make it so that it doesn’t come up in a Google search until the 20th page on Google, for example. So that the information, instead of coming up right away with this bad information, it doesn’t come up until someone checks five, or six or 20 pages down in Google and, therefore, most give up. I hired a firm to take my personal information off the web so that fans couldn’t necessarily find out where I live, for example, or that sort of thing. So it’s possible to do it, you just end up paying people to do it and sometimes it’s very expensive.

Price: What if you’re looking to restore your reputation after someone has posted malicious gossip about you – false statements or half-truths? Levin says that, again, you can hire someone to do it but it can be very pricey.

Levin: You can contact the sites; you can obviously bring a legal action. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be completely successful. You can contact, for instance, “reputation management” companies, and there are a few of them out there that are pretty good that will actually help you elevate the relevance of positive things about you and thereby mitigating some of the negative impact of stuff that may come out there. For instance, make sure that you buy your name as a domain name because there are people out there that can get their hands on it and create all sorts of havoc with it. So you need to do that. You need to be online; you need to be checking what’s out there. Google yourself, see what’s out there.

Price: Levin says that it’s best to prevent rumors from circulating in the first place, and to guard against that he says that vigilance is the key.

Levin: If someone is trolling you — and this is a reality that we face – is there are people who will goad other people. They’re bullies and they will goad people into saying things or potentially doing things. And what they want to do is engage you. It’s sociopathic behavior on the part of these people, and for some of these people it doesn’t matter whether they engage you in a positive way or a negative way. They have an unquenchable thirst to engage with you. So if someone trolls you, there are methods that you can use on social networking sites to block them so that you won’t see what they’re doing and after a while they’ll realize there’s nothing they can do to get to you through a normal communication channel because you block them out. So that’s an important thing. Be very careful of texts you receive that look like it may be coming from one place and it may not be. So don’t respond to texts.

Price: Keeping your information under lock and key is also a way to keep trolls and hackers away from your personal data and from exploiting what you post on social media. Levin suggests that passwords be complex and changed often and that you use tools that are out there already to block your info.

Levin: You can go to different sites of information brokers, data brokers and there are ways that you can opt-out of those data brokers’ databases. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat cumbersome. They make it that way to make it more difficult for people to do that, but sometimes in life this is part of the things you don’t want to do that you have to do that you need to focus on. So these are things. Another thing is that minimize your online footprint by don’t use social media sites as your login information for other sites, like using Facebook to log into Air b-n-b. Be careful when you receive something on Facebook that you know where it’s coming from. You can also do something on Facebook where if you’re tagged in a picture, you’re notified and you have the right to communicate with it and get that tag removed. Also when you post, use good judgment when you’re posting. Because, remember, some of this may stay around for a long time, so these are some of the things you need to think about.

Price: You can find out more about how to protect yourself from hackers and trolls on the Internet in Adam Levin’s book, Swiped available now. Levin invites listeners to visit his websites at SwipedBook.com and IDT911.com. For a thrilling look at a Washington gossip scandal and the “private spy” who’s on the case, pick up Joseph Finder’s new novel, Guilty Minds and visit his site at JosephFinder.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.