8 Ways to Protect Yourself on Social Networks
Key tips to help keep you and your personal information safe
Using sites like Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn help people stay connected. But 81 percent of us don’t feel our private information is secure on social networking sites, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.
We’re probably right to feel this way: It takes only a few pieces of personal info, including your name, birthday and hometown, for someone to steal your identity. More than 12 million Americans were victims of identity fraud in 2012.
One of the most important things you can do to protect yourself is to not over-share information, say cyber security experts. When creating public profiles, you don’t need to enter all of the information a site is asking for. Include only your name and e-mail address.
Even sharing seemingly innocuous details, such as your favorite sports team, can tip off a hacker to a possible password, says cyber security expert Gary S. Miliefsky, founder and CEO of the counter surveillance software company SnoopWall.
He offers eight tips for how to share less and stay safer on social networks.
1. Create a unique password. Choose hard-to-guess and different passwords for each of your social networking accounts. Your password should be at least eight characters long and a combination of capital and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. The less unique your password is, the more frequently you’ll have to change it (at least every few months).
“If you don't want to worry about changing them as often, use sentences, phrases or any characters such as a dollar sign ($) or exclamation mark (!), or replace an "O" with a "zero" (0) in your passwords," recommends Miliefsky. “This will go a long way in preventing attacks against your password.” You can test how weak or strong your password is at Microsoft’s Password Checker and learn five smart ways to choose and manage online passwords here.
2. Clue in to your privacy settings. “You should manage and regularly check your privacy settings, and make sure that you’re only sharing private information with friends and family,” says Miliefsky.
3. Never allow automatic logins. Make sure that your apps aren’t set to automatically log you in and that you don’t have your computer’s browser “remember” your login and password. That way if someone gets access to your devices, they can’t automatically access your social sites. “And never store passwords on your smartphone,” says Miliefsky. “Smartphone data can be easily be hacked into via your e-mail account, shared data through your apps as well as your iCloud account. The most dangerous is the flashlight app because app developers can use it to take personal information from smartphones, like contacts, personal messages, a phone’s video camera and GPS.
4. Disable old accounts. Do yourself a favor and close any social media accounts that you don’t use anymore. “Don’t risk leaving personal data on a site that you haven’t used in years,” says Miliefsky. These sites get indexed by Google, which makes them come up in online searches. “So get rid of that Friendster account or online dating profile and delete as much personal information from them as possible,” adds Miliefsky.
5. Turn off geotagging. Location-based services can be one of the most dangerous features provided by social networking sites since they reveal where you are and who you’re with (if you tag them). Most people don't realize Twitter and Instagram both use geotagging (which stores the latitude and longitude of your Tweet or image) for everything you send out. Pictures you take on an iPhone usually store geotagging information as well.
While it can be fun to share your location with friends and family, it makes you more susceptible to predators since they can better determine whether you're alone or your house is empty. “Protect your smartphones and tablets by turning off location-based services, like Bluetooth and GPS, except when you need them,” advises Miliefsky. “That way, if you’re at a local restaurant or store, no one can track where you were and where you’re going on your GPS.” It’s also safer to use a 3G or 4G connection instead of public WiFi to keep your network secure.
7. Be selective when accepting friends, posting and clicking. Social networking sites make it easy to create fake profiles and pretend to be someone else, so make sure you only accept friends who you know in the "real world." If you’re trying to create a public persona as a blogger or expert, create an open profile or a “fan” page that encourages broad participation and limits personal information. Use your personal profile to keep in touch with your real friends.
If you ever happen to see a strange message from a friend or relative asking you to click on a link in a social media post, or requesting financial information from you, consider it a red flag. “Hackers prey on social networks because you’re more likely to click on something from your friends," warns Miliefsky. "If it looks suspicious, even if you know the source, don’t click on it.”
8. Think twice before you post. Carefully consider the content you post on any social networking site. You may not want your co-workers to see bathing suit photos from your last vacation or discover your strong political views while scrolling through their news feed. Make sure you know how to use the privacy tools to manage the information your share with different groups, says Miliefsky.
"You don't want the wrong person to get a hold of your private photos and use the images any way they want to," he adds. "We also learned from the Sony Pictures breach how damaging comments that someone thought were ‘private’ suddenly became when made public. So use your best discretion when posting your opinions online."