By Stacy Johnson
April 13, 2011
I recently had to track down the past decade’s worth of my alma mater’s student body presidents for an article I was writing at another publication. Some were still local, while others had moved on. But 90% of them had one thing in common: They participated in social networks, so they were easy to find.
Once you share your birthday on Facebook or brag about your employer on LinkedIn, I can use public records to track down everything from your home address to your home value. But instead of a journalist tracking you down for an interview, a thief could hijack your personal details to steal your identity.
“Friending someone online is not risk-free,” says Thomas Oscherwitz, chief privacy officer for ID Analytics. “Just as in the bricks-and-mortar world, it makes sense to exercise a bit of prudence. Most social networking profiles contain personal information that can be used by fraudsters, and when you friend someone, you are giving them access to this information.”
A recent study from ID Analytics, a company that analyzes identity risk, shows that we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable to such fraudsters via lax social networking habits:
Nearly 13 million 18-year-olds (and older) using social networking sites will accept any connection request from a member of the opposite sex — even if they don’t know that person.
Men are more than twice as likely as women to accept any and all invites from someone of the opposite sex (18% compared to 7% for women).
Five percent of U.S. adults will accept any friend request they receive — regardless of who sends them.
How are social media butterflies supposed to protect themselves from e-thieves? It may seem obvious, but apparently it’s not:
- There’s no prize for the Facebook profile with the most friends, so take a second to think about whether your next friend request is worth granting before you click. Friending a complete stranger, like picking up a hitchhiker, has risks.
- While you’re spring cleaning your home, don’t forget to dust off your cyber space. Scrutinize every detail you share on Facebook and then purge your profile of unnecessary personal data. Do you really need to list your email and phone number for every last “friend” to see? If they need to reach you, they can always send you a private Facebook message. And what about your birthday? Getting your Facebook wall spammed with impersonal birthday notes one day of the year isn’t worth risking identity theft — which often starts with a birth date.
- When you’re done with your profile, scrutinize your privacy settings. Facebook’s settings are notoriously intimidating — as The New York Times illustrated last year — but step-by-step guides are available online. For example, The Huffington Post has a slideshow about the five most important settings, and the nonprofit Common Sense Media offers a video for parents whose children frequent social networks.