Most of us take steps to protect our identity in the physical world. We shred our mail, keep our Social Security cards in a safe place, and treat unsolicited phone calls as suspicious until proven otherwise. However, this caution isn’t as widespread in our social media lives as it should be, which is why identity theft and social media are becoming highly correlated.
You might think that because your social network profiles are private you have protected yourself against social identity theft. Yet privacy policies change from site to site, and all social networking sites make money from sharing your personal information to advertisers and others.
It might seem harsh but with social networking, even your friends could be opening the door to identity theft. If you’ve ever had a picture posted of you when you weren’t expecting it, you know how easy it is to be caught off guard. I’ve definitely been there, and I’ve also had friends post things about me I don’t want everyone to know, like the friend who posted how jealous she was of my recent salary increase. That’s a big flag for identity thieves, and she has a public profile.
Naturally, I asked my friend to take that post down, but it shows how easy it is for others to invite identity theft on your behalf. Social media puts the burden on you to safeguard how your information is being shared.
Social Networking Identity Theft Statistics
Trends in identity theft fueled through information gleaned on social media sites clearly show that there is a lack of awareness by users about how the information they are sharing is being used. Consider these social networking identity theft statistics:
- A study by Javelin Strategy & Research, Inc. found that of those with public social media profiles, 45% shared the full month, day, and year of their birthday; 63% shared the name of their high school; and 12% shared the name of their pet. These are all common security questions at financial institutions.
- A recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that many of the apps, games, and quizzes on social media access the user’s friends’ information based on the user’s permission, no go-ahead required by those friends whose information is now compromised.
- What’s even more frightening is that researchers at Carnegie Mellon University were able to correctly guess the social security number for 44% of individuals born after 1988 using a relatively simple algorithm and publicly available information on the first try.
Common Mistakes Fuel Social Media’s Use in Identity Theft
According to the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), user misunderstanding about which information is public might be partly to blame for the rise in identity theft due to social networking; 63% of respondents in a survey about Facebook thought that their information was only visible to friends if their profile was set to the default ‘private’ setting. In fact, the default private setting on Facebook allows anyone to review a user’s full name, hometown, current residence, employer, and favorite activities.
Users also don’t always understand what a threat a stolen password can be. Just this summer, username and password information from Formspring, LinkedIn, and Yahoo for millions of users has been hacked and posted online. With the personal information saved to any of these sites, identity thieves can easily gain access to users’ financial lives.
Another mistake users make is assuming links on social media are safe. One scam emerging this summer involves a social media message (video) that indicates that the Obama administration will pay the users’ utility bills if they provide their Social Security number in return for a special account and routing number to access the offer. Naturally the account information is bogus, but now the users’ SSN is compromised.
How You Can Protect Yourself
The best way to handle identity theft and social media is to treat it just as you do identity theft in the physical world, with caution and common sense. Just like you wouldn’t leave your PIN number on a sticky note on your dashboard, you shouldn’t let your browser (which is easy to hack) save your passwords. Here are a few more tips to protect your social media presence from identity thieves.
- Watch what’s public. Take the time to learn each of your social networking sites’ privacy policies and dump those that will not let you keep all of your information private or restricted to friends only.
- Be careful who you friend. Considering the deeply personal information that is shared on social media, think twice about friending the person you met in a bar or a former classmate you didn’t really speak with anyway. They, or their friends, could be after your information, or an outright imposter.
- Limit geotagging. Geotagging is when a GPS-enabled device shares the location of a photo taken of you, basically telling identity thieves where you like to go and when you are not close to home. With this knowledge thieves can guess passwords and security questions, or break into your home to gain even more information about you.
Social media is a fun tool for most of us, and can actually be very useful in keeping us connected to friends and acquaintances. Make sure that you’re guarding your social identity so that it’s limited to people you know and trust, and it will remain a fun tool instead of an invitation to identity theft.