Mom Always Said to Share...

10 things to keep in mind for safe social networking
August 2010
by Robin Wark

But in the online world, that's not always the best option. The information you share on social networking websites allows you to connect and stay up to date with your friends, family and colleagues. Unfortunately, sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and Bebo can also bring together many of the risks of the Internet: identity theft, cyberstalking, online grooming, cyberbullying and malware.

Security analyst Jean Taggart, a member of ParetoLogic's Spyware Analysis Team (SWAT), said the key is to try to find a balance between using these websites and protecting yourself.

Here the top 10 tips to keep in mind for safe social networking:

  1. Think before you post: Comments or photos could get you in trouble at work or school or spark bullying or cyberstalking. Status updates about your location could draw unwanted people to you or prompt thieves to rob your place while you are posting photos in Mexico. Check out icanstalku.com for a shocking look at how careless posts could endanger you or your possessions.
  2. Remember your posts will be around for a long time: Jerome Segura, manager of ParetoLogic's SWAT squad, emphasized that what you post online will remain there – forever. "You may delete it, but between Internet archives and other spiders, you will always find a copy somewhere." This applies to personal information as well as potential embarrassing or inflammatory comments or photos that could cost you future employment.
  3. Customize your privacy settings: You should not share everything with everyone. Status updates (which might include your location, an item of interest to thieves or stalkers) and photos or videos should only be shared with people you trust. Facebook allows you to set up a group to share certain information with. You can adjust MySpace's privacy settings, but it can only be limited to your friend list and not an "inner circle." On Twitter, you can pick "Protect My Updates" and only your followers can read your tweets.
  4. Four things not to share: Repeat after me, I will never, ever share these things online: my social security number (even just the last four digits), home address, home phone number and banking/credit card credentials (this includes passwords, credit card numbers and bank accounts). It is also a good idea to not share your real birth date. First, check the social networking site's policy to see if you would violate it by using a fake birth date. Also, some sites allow you not to show your birth date online. Your date of birth and the items above could be used for fraud and identity theft. As well a birth date is sometimes utilized for confirmation of identity for changing passwords.
  5. Limit your work history: On Facebook or even LinkedIn, you do not have tell everyone all the details of your employment past. This info can play into thieves' hands for such things as filling out loan and credit card applications and guessing password security questions. When actively seeking a job you might feel more information would help you. You could expand your profile at that time and then shrink it once you have a job.
  6. Verify who your friends are: Let's say that an old college friend sends you a friend request. His name is right and his profile info looks basically correct but you are a bit curious why his profile pic is the one from his senior yearbook. Not everyone is who they appear online. Segura suggests, "In case you receive a request to send money or give personal information, it is a good idea to talk with them in person." It isn't a bad idea to verify a friendship request if it looks fishy.
  7. Read the so-called fine print: Those agreements that you need to complete before you finish signing up for a social networking site are not exactly good bedtime – or even bathroom – reading. However, it is important to understand how they will use info they collect. Is the site sharing your info with other companies? Is there certain data that third-party applications, such as Facebook applications, use from your profile or wall? As well, it is important to carefully read your company's or school's social networking policies.
  8. It's not a popularity contest: Even though it might seem like it at times, social networking is not just like high school. You don't have to compete to be the most popular guy or girl. Keeping a short friend list of only people you trust and want to keep in touch with is a way to cut down some of the social networking risks. Some sites, such as Ning and Meet Up, are focused on serving small groups.
  9. Beware of malware: Social networking sites are vulnerable to viruses, spyware and other malware. Koobface, a computer worm, targeted Windows users who were on sites such as Facebook (of which its moniker is an anagram), MySpace, hi5, Bebo and Twitter. The worm tried to gather confidential information, such as credit card numbers. Be careful where you click as external links could be hiding malware, Segura said.
  10. Consider identity options: You can use various methods to try to protect your identity while using social networking sites. For example, when signing up for these sites you can use an email account that you have specifically for this purpose. That way will keep it separate from your regular work or personal email account. If the site's privacy policies allow it, you could also set up profiles using a fake name. You could utilize your maiden name or that of your pet. Another option is using an OpenID account, which is like a driver's license for the whole Internet. It allows you to create a single sign-on for various services, choose how much various sites get to know about you and unifies your web identity.

These tips can take a bit of time to follow and to make into habits. However, they certainly are worth it to protect your identity, bank accounts, privacy and safety.

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