Why You Should Not Take Any Part of Your Online Identity for Granted

If you were to list the components of your online identity by priority, where would your personal email address come? I suspect it’s not very high for many of us (especially if you are lucky and young enough to be a Millennial and probably consider it a bit of a dinosaur!) Until last week I would have been exactly the same, but circumstances reminded me not to take any part of your online identity for granted.

To set the scene, I opened a free online-hosted email account in the early 2000s (to replace a seriously over-full Hotmail account which, to my mind, had a woefully small amount of storage). The online landscape has changed almost beyond recognition since then, but my faithful email account remained running and I would visit it regularly to ensure it was still active.

Being slightly out of date I had to visit it via a browser (possibly one of the email apps could have been used to access it, but I didn’t feel the need to put the effort in to find out). It was inconvenient, but not enough to cause me any particular problems. This was fine for nearly 17 years but then, quite by chance, I logged in recently and was greeted by a message that the free service was about to finish.

No problem, I thought, I will let it go, it’s no big deal. But then I looked at all the other parts of my personal life that are ‘tied’ to that one email account. Social media is an obvious one – whilst we all happily log in on a regular basis, what happens if you somehow forget your passwords? Its easily done if you rely on cookies in your browser and something happens to one of your devices.

Then it actually got even more serious. I realised my banking and financial services were all tied to this email account. Imagine if you lost your wallet or your smartphone (or they were stolen) – how would you prove who you were remotely? That email account becomes a lot more important. It is pretty much your virtual letterbox. Imagine being evicted from your home and then having to get a replacement set of bank cards but you hadn’t told the bank you had moved – it would be hard to get that sorted quickly!

If you think about all the online services you rely upon, how many of them use your personal email address as the contact if you get locked out or forget your password details? From social media, to banking, to online retail (and confirmation of your physical postal address), your email address is the last stop. If your credit card got cloned for instance, where would you first be alerted by you bank?!

In an ideal world, this isn’t a problem – if you are well organised you can just update your email details for each online account and receive a confirmation at the new address. This is what I duly did, but it made me realise just how ‘stuffed’ I would be if I had been faced with problems and my old email had expired!

When it comes to banking, your physical home address can be used for security. But when it comes to your social media for example, you could literally be locked out forever in theory. If you lost your login credentials and no longer had your email to fall back on, what could you do? Probably not much!

My point here is that we all recognise that our online identity is vital, in many ways just as much as that in the physical world. Our reputation, not to mention our financial wellbeing and lifestyle, can very easily fall out of our grasp if we don’t have an online ‘home address’ to fall back upon. It certainly was an eye-opener for me, I’m just glad I realised before it was too late!

Author: Simon Hewitt, Director at Chief PR Ltd