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Web designers and developers have an extra level of responsibility to their clients (and themselves) to protect online privacy. If you buy domain names, host websites, or even have conversations about proprietary information and private clients, you need to seriously consider how you protect your privacy online, including your personal information.
Whether it’s about actual security — or just avoiding spammers, junk mailers and telemarketers — there are steps to reduce the odds of personal information getting into the wrong hands.
6 ways to protect online privacy
Here are a few tactics you can use to protect everyone’s privacy and keep them from the everyday annoyances of pest marketing.
Use contact forms instead of email addresses.
Privatize WHOIS records.
Use a PO Box instead of a residential mailing address.
Rent a spot at a coworking space.
Use separate emails for personal and professional correspondence.
Set up a separate phone number.
Ready to learn more about how to protect your privacy online (and your clients’, too)? Let’s dive in!
1. Use contact forms instead of email addresses
You can’t put an email address on a website without it being swarmed by spam bots looking to shove one more address into their gaping maws. Unless you’ve got a throwaway address and a rock-solid spam filter, your clients will grow to hate you if you put email addresses on their websites.
While it might fall prey to spammers as well, the number is much, much smaller than the filthy rotten spammers clogging up our email inboxes every day. If you use WordPress, look into the Ninja Forms plugin to create a contact form.
On my own website, I rarely get unwanted contact form spam — about two every months. Believe me, I still get spam because I made the mistake of posting my work email in the wild a few times several years ago, but the contact form spam is few and far between.
2. Privatize your WHOIS records
When you register a domain name on GoDaddy, you can choose to mask your WHOIS records with the private registration service. You should do this for a few reasons. For starters, once you register a domain name, you’re going to be bombarded with countless emails from companies asking if they can design your website, do your social media, or help you with your email marketing. You can stop all that and gain an additional measure of online privacy.
Public WHOIS records also open up your clients to fraud, such as those frightening looking FINAL NOTICE ON YOUR DOMAIN NAME! messages. I’ve had clients call me in a panic because they received an angry-looking email saying their domain name was in danger of expiring, and they’re wondering if they should pay the exorbitant fee to save it. I had to assure them that, no, they weren’t going to lose their domain, and no, it certainly wasn’t going to cost (insert exorbitant fee here) to renew it.
GoDaddy makes it easy to hide personal details so hackers, identity thieves, and spammers can’t access them.
This also helps to protect you from attempts to steal your domains, and from domain-related spam.
3. Use a PO box instead of a residential mailing address
I always use a PO box for my company mailing address — not my residential address — when it comes to client work. For one thing, if I ever move within the city, I don’t have to change my mailing address. I can just drive to the same PO box. Plus, I always feel like forwarding my email is more reliable. I have no way of actually knowing this; I just feel better about it.
If nothing else, that provides me with a little more personal security and online privacy, as well. I can get a PO box that’s not too near my home, but is still close enough that I can get to it easily. And I don’t have to worry about checking it frequently. As long as it doesn’t overflow, I can go for several days without checking my PO box. I can’t do that with my home mailbox because then it just looks like I’m on vacation and the house is empty.
It’s much harder to steal mail from a PO box than a mailbox, and if I’m especially concerned about client privacy, a PO Box is my best bet for protection. Finally, if your clients pay you via ACH or credit card, you don’t have to worry about getting that kind of mail in the first place, which is even more secure.
4. Rent a spot at a coworking space
Hot desking is another way to separate your professional and personal lives. This is where you pay for a non-assigned desk at a coworking space. You’ve got a spot, but the location will change every day, sort of like a seat at your favorite coffee shop.
I worked in a coworking space when I first moved to Orlando. It was a pretty nice setup. I was right in the heart of downtown, had access to their meeting facilities, and could even use their mailing address for deliveries. It was also a great way to network and meet other startup professionals.
Too many solo developers and designers (myself included) keep a home office. While it’s convenient, and nothing beats rolling out of bed at 7:45 and being “at work” by 8, you’ll actually have more privacy for your business if you’re in a coworking space, compared to working in a regular coffee shop. It’s also a decent alternative to working out of your house or getting a PO box — at least you get to get out and meet people.
Of course, the big concern is privacy — can you make private phone calls, and will you have access to a VPN? In my case, the latter was easily solved. I already own VPN software, so I never have to worry about my “location,” since I always appear to be somewhere else. Otherwise, your IP address will give away your location, which could be a problem for online privacy.
The coworking space also had private “phone booths,” which were really just closets with small desks. You could take phone calls inside these rooms and be assured of privacy. If you need to make sure your calls are über-private, but you can’t get that in your coworking space, then you need to ask whether a coworking space is right for you.
5. Use separate emails for professional and personal correspondence
I think most of us have a few different emails — work, home, Yahoo!, Gmail, even Hotmail (does anyone still have an Excite email?) — and we use them for things like communicating with clients, or that one throwaway email when we download white papers or request free samples.
This way, you’re not leaving your regular email open to the spammers who will no doubt start flooding you the moment they find your poor unsuspecting email just sitting out there in the open, all alone.
Instead, they’ll fall for the email you did use, and you can pretty much ignore everything that comes in. Just don’t forget to check it once in awhile, because that’s how you’ll be notified about pending domain expirations and changes to your terms of service. Set up a special filter that flags all emails from your DNS registrar and web host, just in case.
6. Set up a separate phone number
I have several phone numbers available — including Google Voice, Skype, and my cell phone — all used for different purposes. And to be honest, I hardly answer my Skype number, so I use that for things where people are likely to call and spam me. I’ve made the mistake of leaving my Skype when I’m not normally using it, and it’s just a pain with online privacy. I get calls from people who got my number from my WHOIS records, or found it in one of the instances where I gave that number and not one of my private ones. So I know to never use my real phone number in public, and to never answer the phone when it’s not a number I recognize.
Editor’s note: If you’re looking for a stronger but still very affordable alternative to Google Voice, check out GoDaddy’s new SmartLine second phone number app. It’s got features like texting and voicemail transcription, with more coming out all the time. You can try SmartLine for free.
Be vigilant about protecting privacy online
Online privacy is hard to maintain, given the number of intrusions constantly trying to worm their way into our awareness. But you can cut down on a lot of them if you just think about how to protect your privacy online — use a PO box, get a throwaway email address, and get a free online phone number. And don’t forget contact forms on your website. Your online privacy, and that of your clients’, can remain intact and untouched.