As more and more people embrace social media, from teens communicating with their friends to grandparents who want to keep abreast of what their family are up to, social networks are growing fast.
Unfortunately, like with any popular medium, these sites and their users are also being targeted by spammers, scammers, hackers and identity thieves. However there are steps that everyone can take to help to ensure that they can enjoy these sites safely.
Many social media users are keen to get as many friends, followers and connections as possible, but this desire for popularity can cause problems. Many feel it is necessary to make their accounts as visible and open as possible to achieve social media fame, but keeping updates private is a much safer way to use these sites. Making too much personal information publicly available puts you at risk of many things, one of which is identity theft.
A lot of the information that is needed to get through a bank or email account’s security questions could be quickly available to a hacker if your social media accounts are not sufficiently protected. Your pet’s name and your date of birth, for instance, can help someone get access to your private accounts, so missing out your birthday details and putting privacy settings as high as they will go will help.
You may also have noticed that some of those viral social media games, such as ‘What’s your movie star name?’ or ‘What’s your rock star name?’ involve publicly stating the street you grew up on, or your mother’s maiden name: both very common security questions. Because of this you should always think carefully before participating in these memes.
Making sure your computer’s general antivirus software is up-to-date will also help to protect you against scams, as it will warn you if you are on a questionable website or if you download a file infected with a virus or malware. This needn’t be expensive, as there are companies who offer free virus protection which is really comprehensive, and can help to safeguard against threats like identity theft, as well as trojans, viruses and phishing scams.
Parents and children
Parents should make sure that if their children use Facebook, Twitter or MySpace, their privacy settings are high and all their posts are visible only to their close friends and family. You should also discuss with your children why they should only accept friend requests from people they know well, in real life.
In addition to privacy settings, parents and their children should stick to rules like never talking about where your child goes to school or using location-based services.
Services such as FourSquare, as well as location check-ins on Facebook can be a good way of seeing if friends are nearby or finding special offers, however they present many privacy and safety problems. Checking in at home has the potential to share your home address with everybody, and checking in elsewhere lets the world know that you have an empty house. Turn off all check-in services for maximum security.
Most users of Facebook and Twitter will have seen people whose accounts get hacked. Whether they are suddenly posting about special offers for pharmaceuticals, or sending a Direct Message warning that there are suggestive photographs of you online, this is becoming incredibly common. The danger lies in clicking on the links they suggest, which puts you at serious risk of being hacked yourself. Anti-virus software is essential, as is simply never, ever clicking on those links.
Other hackers or phishing scammers are more subtle. They understand that most people are already suspicious, and they make an effort to make the malicious sites they build look professional. Tony Anscombe, from AVG, explains, “It’s possible for even legitimate sites to have been hijacked to serve up malicious code to your computer, so make sure your online security software includes link scanning technology and is always up to date”.
Because of this problem, Facebook has been working with antivirus specialists like AVG to build a system where it uses the extensive information about malicious URLs gathered by the antivirus organisations and blocks them.
By combining forces, Facebook and the antivirus companies are creating a structure in which it is more and more difficult for those trying to exploit the site to succeed. Taking that power and expertise and installing free virus protection software on your computer, as well as hoping that individual sites have their own security built in, will help to protect you no matter where the link you click is situated.
Social media sites should be enjoyed, not feared, but that is no excuse for not taking basic precautions. Being careful what you say, and who you say it to, thinking about what you click on, and installing sensible protective measures onto your computer will enable you to enjoy networking online with friends and family, safe in the knowledge that you are lowering your risk of online attacks or exploitation.