Over time, it can be easy to accumulate a number of online accounts, many of which you may no longer use. Deleting these unused accounts is an important step in reclaiming your privacy, as dormant accounts are vulnerable to data breaches. A data breach is when a service's security is compromised and protected information is viewed, transmitted, or stolen by unauthorized actors. Data breaches are unfortunately all too common these days, and so practicing good digital hygiene is the best way to minimize the impact they have on your life. The goal of this guide then is to help navigate you through the irksome process of account deletion, often made difficult by deceptive design, for the betterment of your online presence.
Finding Old Accounts¶
If you have a password manager that you've used for your entire digital life, this part will be very easy. Oftentimes, they include built-in functionality for detecting if your credentials were exposed in a data breach—such as Bitwarden's Data Breach Report.
Even if you haven't explicitly used a password manager before, there's a chance you've used the one in your browser or your phone without even realizing it. For example: Firefox Password Manager, Google Password Manager and Edge Password Manager.
Desktop platforms also often have a password manager which may help you recover passwords you've forgotten about:
- Windows Credential Manager
- macOS Passwords
- iOS Passwords
- Linux, Gnome Keyring, which can be accessed through Seahorse or KDE Wallet Manager
If you didn't use a password manager in the past or you think you have accounts that were never added to your password manager, another option is to search the email account(s) that you believe you signed up on. On your email client, search for keywords such as "verify" or "welcome." Almost every time you make an online account, the service will send a verification link or an introductory message to your email. This can be a good way to find old, forgotten accounts.
Deleting Old Accounts¶
In order to delete your old accounts, you'll need to first make sure you can log in to them. Again, if the account was in your password manager, this step is easy. If not, you can try to guess your password. Failing that, there are typically options to regain access to your account, commonly available through a "forgot password" link on the login page. It may also be possible that accounts you've abandoned have already been deleted—sometimes services prune all old accounts.
When attempting to regain access, if the site returns an error message saying that email is not associated with an account, or you never receive a reset link after multiple attempts, then you do not have an account under that email address and should try a different one. If you can't figure out which email address you used, or you no longer have access to that email, you can try contacting the service's customer support. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that you will be able to reclaim access your account.
GDPR (EEA residents only)¶
Overwriting Account information¶
In some situations where you plan to abandon an account, it may make sense to overwrite the account information with fake data. Once you've made sure you can log in, change all the information in your account to falsified information. The reason for this is that many sites will retain information you previously had even after account deletion. The hope is that they will overwrite the previous information with the newest data you entered. However, there is no guarantee that there won't be backups with the prior information.
For the account email, either create a new alternate email account via your provider of choice or create an alias using an email aliasing service. You can then delete your alternate email address once you are done. We recommend against using temporary email providers, as oftentimes it is possible to reactivate temporary emails.
You can check JustDeleteMe for instructions on deleting the account for a specific service. Some sites will graciously have a "Delete Account" option, while others will go as far as to force you to speak with a support agent. The deletion process can vary from site to site, with account deletion being impossible on some.
For services that don't allow account deletion, the best thing to do is falsify all your information as previously mentioned and strengthen account security. To do so, enable MFA and any extra security features offered. As well, change the password to a randomly-generated one that is the maximum allowed size (a password manager can be useful for this).
If you're satisfied that all information you care about is removed, you can safely forget about this account. If not, it might be a good idea to keep the credentials stored with your other passwords and occasionally re-login to reset the password.
Even when you are able to delete an account, there is no guarantee that all your information will be removed. In fact, some companies are required by law to keep certain information, particularly when related to financial transactions. It's mostly out of your control what happens to your data when it comes to websites and cloud services.
Avoid New Accounts¶
As the old saying goes, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Whenever you feel tempted to sign up for a new account, ask yourself, "Do I really need this? Can I accomplish what I need to without an account?" It can often be much harder to delete an account than to create one. And even after deleting or changing the info on your account, there might be a cached version from a third-party—like the Internet Archive. Avoid the temptation when you're able to—your future self will thank you!