Embarrassing text, pictures or videos appearing online have the power to damage careers and lives. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself beforehand and wipe your online reputation clean afterwards.
When Georgia school teacher Ashley Payne went on vacation, she didn't think much about snapping pictures to commemorate the trip. Some of the pictures showed her visiting the Guinness Brewery in Ireland and sipping wine in Italy.
But just days after she returned, Payne was told she had to leave her job. The reason? An anonymous complaint was made to Payne's school principal about the pictures in which Payne was drinking.
"I was just doing what adults do and having drinks on vacation and being responsible about it," she said. "The only way to avoid having a suspension on my record was to resign."
Stacy Snyder, a 25-year-old education student, had her teaching degree denied because of a picture of her in a pirate costume that had the caption "drunken pirate."
"Whatever you post online stays online forever," internet safety expert Parry Aftab said. "It's not like Vegas. This will come back and haunt you."
But it can still happen, even if you didn't post it. Kimberly Petrovic, 39, claims someone maliciously attacked her online by posting rumors, slamming her on a blog and even creating web sites that talked about her. Petrovic said a potential employer saw the online attack. She was not offered the job.
"How dare you who have no life do this to me?" Petrovic said.
"What they say may be outlandish or it may smack of truth," Aftab said. "But whatever it is, if it's posted often enough, [it] may rise to the top of the search engines, getting people in trouble."
But there are steps you can take to clean up your online reputation.
Petrovic went with professional help and hired a company called Reputation Defender.
"Sometimes we're able to remove the content that's offending you completely from the web and other times we bury it so far down on Google that no one ever finds it," Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation Defender said.
"There may be a lingering this or that, but for the most part, it's as if it never really happened," Petrovic said.
Aside from professional help, you can do the following online to be your first line of defense:
Take control of your digital real estate. You want to make sure that you know everywhere your name appears online. That's as easy as Googling it. But if it appears on a friends blog in a less-than-professional light, you can email the friend and ask them to take it down. If it's something a little more difficult, at least now you know it's there and can have an explanation prepared for future employers.
Get Facebook and Twitter accounts using your real name. Skip the nicknames. To control your name online, you have to use it.
Get the web address for your name, start a blog, and don't forget the real world. You want to register your name before someone else does. Since you have it, you might as well start a blog that lists your accomplishments. That way, you're the one managing the positive information out there about you.
But while you can clean up your reputation on the 'net, Aftab said the best way to keep a clean record is the same as it is in the real world:
"In the end, a good reputation will support itself," she said. "Just don't give them anything to fuel the fire."