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Your credit-card information could be exposed online

Even if you try to be prudent and careful with your credit-card information, it might wind up where anyone in the world can grab it. A query on the widely used Google search engine can yield hundreds of credit-card numbers, along with other personal information such as the account holder's name, address, and phone number.

Google has a feature that lets users search for a range of numbers. It was designed to facilitate searches for prices and dates. But it can also be used to find credit-card numbers and their expiration dates on Internet message boards in several countries. Many of the sites containing credit-card numbers are otherwise written entirely in a foreign language.

According to Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com, which analyzes the search-engine industry, data can be exposed by accident. "It's sort of like leaving billing records out on the counter of a store," he says. "You can be upset with the person who grabbed the information, but the core cause was that the information shouldn't have been left unprotected in the first place."

What you can do

You can find out whether personal information is on the Internet and take steps to try to remove it.

• Sullivan recommends searching for the first three sets or last three sets of digits of your credit-card number to see whether it is posted anywhere. Don't use the entire number for the search; it could be picked up through search records. If you find no match, your card information is not on the Internet.

• If you find your credit-card number, immediately report the incident to your card issuer.

• Have the page removed from the search engine. For Google, send an e-mail message to help@google.com with a link to the page. However, removing the search-engine listing isn't the same as removing the offending site from the Internet. The only way to do that is to contact the site's host, which you might be able to locate in the site's "about us" or "contact us" section.

• To minimize the chance of having your account information fall into the wrong hands in the first place, take these precautions: Never publish your credit-card information online in any form, even on a private Web page. For online purchases, consider obtaining a single-use credit-card number, one that's good for only one transaction; contact your card issuer about getting one of those numbers. Scrutinize monthly statements for anything that you did not buy.

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