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Protect Your Personal Data From an Angry Ex

If you are worried sensitive information could wind up in the wrong hands, here are 5 tips on how you can protect yourself

Surprised man with electronic tablet, Protect your personal information after an ended relationship (Radius Images/Alamy)

Radius Images/Alamy

Watch out. Your ex may leak your personal data to get sweet revenge.

Happy, loving couples eagerly share everything. But once Cupid's arrows go off their mark, you could be hit where it really hurts — an online leak of your most personal details, courtesy of a vengeful ex.

The majority of couples share details of bank accounts, Social Security numbers, health insurance IDs, email addresses and online passwords — and 94 percent consider that data, along with risqué photos, to be safe in the hands of their partners, according to the 2013 Love, Relationships and Technology survey by Internet security company McAfee.

But when there's a breakup, things can get ugly. Just consider: In one of every eight relationships gone sour, one of the partners has his or her personal data leaked online by a revenge-seeking ex, the company found. Among people ages 45 to 54, it occurs to about one partner in every 12 broken relationships, says McAfee after interviewing nearly 1,200 Americans between ages 18 and 54. The posting of previously exchanged sexy photos may be the most embarrassing — and boomers in love don't seem shy about providing them to each other. McAfee reports that one in four interviewees between 45 and 54 planned to send intimate photos to their partners by email, text or social media on Valentine's Day.

Of course, identity thieves are more interested in details of your financial data that the once-devoted might leak. Here's what you should know, based on McAfee's findings:

1. Change passwords to avoid potential payback

Sharing passwords with your partner might seem harmless and a sign of trust. But it can put you at risk. If you're ex feels vengeful, you could find your "landing private information in a public platform for all to see," says Michelle Dennedy, chief privacy officer at McAfee.

So if you're headed for Splitsville, it's time to change shared passwords for your email, social media pages and online financial accounts.

Even if the relationship's doing just fine, you might consider new passwords as a proactive privacy measure. Why? When armed with a partner's passwords, McAfee says, 56 percent of those surveyed readily admitted to checking the bank accounts of their significant others and nearly half said they logged in to read their partner's emails.

2. Forget clichés about scorned women

It's men who are much more likely to snoop on their partners, whether it's a current partner, ex-partner or even their current partner's ex. More men (57 percent) than women (52 percent) admit to checking their partner's personal emails, bank accounts and Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, says McAfee.

3. Take 'expose' threats seriously

Among all those surveyed, one in 10 ex-partners make advance threats of public exposure of sensitive photos. But when made, the threats are carried out 60 percent of the time.

4. Be smart with a smartphone

More than 45 percent of people 45 and older have personal or intimate text messages, emails and photos stored on their smartphones. What's especially dumb about that? About the same percentage of people 45 to 54 don't protect those devices with a password (or PIN), leaving the data vulnerable for private "enjoyment" or public consumption if the device is lost, stolen or even borrowed.

So if you don't delete intimate material, at least protect your phone and other mobile device with a password that isn't one of the most commonly used — and therefore most easily hackable: Your birthdate or birth year, 1234, 0000, 2580 (a top-to-bottom keypad sequence), 1111, 5555, 5683 (which spells "love"), 0852 (a bottom-to-top sequence), 2222, 1212 and 1998.

5. Know the other triggers

Think an official breakup is the only catalyst for a revenge disclosure of personal data? Think again. It's actually the third most common trigger, says McAfee, after being lied to or being cheated on.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.