You have probably signed up for many online services that you no longer use. Most of these accounts probably still exist and likely contain a combination of personal data, identity details, and credit card numbers. Don’t leave juicy targets lying around for attackers.
Why you should close those old accounts
We live in an age where data breaches are common.
What happens if a service is hacked and any personal data you’ve uploaded to it leaks? What if a developer goes rogue and abuses your saved credit card numbers, sends you spam, or sells their service to a company that will?
If you reuse passwords, a password leak on one site means attackers can access your accounts on other sites. Even assuming you don’t reuse your passwords, the personal data associated with your old unused account could still provide attackers with answers to your security questions on other websites.
To protect your privacy, it’s a smart idea to remove your private data from services you no longer use. You can do this by closing those outdated accounts rather than leaving them dormant.
How to find your old accounts
The first step is to find those old accounts. Here are some tips that can help you find them:
- Look in your password manager If you use a password manager to keep track of all your logins, your password manager will effectively be a database of all the accounts you have opened. Even if you use your browser’s built-in password manager, it may remember many of your accounts. See the list of saved logins for accounts you no longer use.
- Search your email : If you search your mail for “welcome”, “verify”, “your account”, “free trial” and similar phrases found in the “welcome” emails sent by many services, you may discover some old accounts of which You forgot.
- Check Facebook, Google or Twitter : many services allow you to “log in” with Facebook, Google and Twitter accounts to create an account. If you have used this feature, check the list of apps linked to your account. Note that you cannot simply “disconnect” the connection to delete your data. That way the other service won’t actually delete your account.
- Visit Haveibeenpwned? : This service shows you which leaks your email address was a part of. It may remind you of some old accounts and show you which publicly available leaks already contained your data.
How to delete old accounts
You now have one or more accounts that you want to delete. Deleting accounts should actually be the easy part, but unfortunately it often isn’t.
Here are some tips to find out how to actually delete an account:
- Search for the website or service name and “delete account” using a web search engine such as Google or DuckDuckGo.
- Check it out JustDelete.me which offers a convenient database with instructions for deleting a wide variety of online accounts.
- Contact the website support and ask to delete the account.
In some cases, you may try to log into an account and notice that the service has automatically deleted your old account due to inactivity, or the service may no longer exist.
Unfortunately, some services don’t provide any way to delete your old accounts.
What if you can’t delete an account?
If you can’t delete an account, there are things you can do to protect your private data. Log into your account and follow these tips:
- Remove all saved financial and payment information, such as saved credit card numbers which allow anyone with access to the account to make purchases easily.
- Delete all private data that you have stored in the app. For example, if you have an old account in a note-taking app, to-do app, or calendar service, we recommend deleting those old calendar notes, tasks, and events. (Remember to export and download anything you want to keep before deleting it.)
- Erase the personally identifiable details saved such as name, birthday, shipping address and other details in the account settings.
If you remove as much personal data as you can from the account, attackers won’t be able to get a lot of data in the event of a breach.
Try to anonymize accounts you can’t delete
After an account is empty of all your other personal information, consider “anonymizing” the account by changing your email address and other personal information to something random and meaningless.
For example, maybe you have an account with the name “Sarah” and the email address email@example.com. You could change the name to “Jake” along with a meaningless email address, perhaps something taken from an anonymous email service like Mailinator .
Now, instead of a blank account tied to your name and email address, there’s just a blank account tied to a fake name and email address.
Just think about what would happen if the website’s user database leaked – attackers would only get a fake name, fake email address, fake birthday, and so on. This is all useless information.
Assuming you’ve deleted all of your other personal data, this can be almost as good as deleting the account. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
Think twice before signing up in the future
We’ll be honest: once you really start trying to delete those accounts, it’s amazing how hard or impossible they are to delete. If you’ve been online for a few decades, chances are you have hundreds of old accounts that you never use these days.
Consider being more selective about the accounts you will create in the future. In the future, before signing up for an account, you may want to consider whether it’s really worth it. Do you really want to provide your data to that service?
Even if you only sign up for half of your accounts in the future, this will reduce your privacy “attack surface” – there are fewer sources through which your personal information could be compromised.