Would you keep personal information like your birth date or your address displayed on a wall in your office or cubicle—someplace where everyone could see it, copy it down and use it however they wanted? You're doing something very similar to that when you provide personal information to social media sites like Facebook. If the wrong person finds that data, you could have problems with identity theft and ultimately with your credit record.
It turns out that about half the people who use social media understand that they’re putting themselves at risk for identity theft. According to a recent Google consumer survey commissioned by TransUnion, one of the three major credit bureaus, 45.4 percent of Americans interviewed said they were concerned about having their identity stolen from the personal information available in their social media accounts. The problem is they don’t behave as if they considered it a real threat. More than one-third of respondents (35 percent) admitted to including important personal information such as their birthdate, address, employer and phone number in their social media accounts.
“While social media is a great way for individuals to connect with others and exchange ideas, consumers should be careful what personal information they include in their profile,” said Heather Battison, vice president at TransUnion responsible for consumer education. “The general rules of connecting and engaging with someone online remain the same in social media as they do everywhere—use common sense when giving someone else information.” That means concealing information that you don’t want everyone (especially not potential thieves) to know.
TransUnion suggested that social media users take these precautions to protect their identity:
- Remember that less is more. Avoid giving out personal information such as address, phone number or your birthdate. Identity thieves can open accounts and commit a number of financial crimes using only this basic information.
- Do not leave a trail of cookies. Saving your password when you are on a public or work computer is almost like inviting identity thieves to browse through your wallet. Unfortunately, some social media sites automatically check this box when you sign in, so you have to be proactive and look to make sure that your user name and password are not saved. If those identifiers are left on a public computer, the next user who goes to that social media site may automatically get taken to your account.
- Lock it up. Do you really want ever Facebook user to be able to see what you’re doing at any point in time? Change your privacy settings on Facebook and similar social media accounts so that you’re in control of all the information that is posted. Set your profile to private and make sure that you have to approve any friend requests, comments, photo tags, links or posts that appear on your page.
- Get creative with your passwords. If you want to make it easy for identity thieves, use “password,” “12345678,” “abc123” or some similar, familiar and easy-to-remember words and numbers to log into your account. If you want to discourage those thieves, however, create more intricate, hard-to-guess passwords. Change those passwords every one to three months.
- Do not over-share. Although you may want to give all the details about your upcoming two-week cruise to your social media friends, it’s a better idea to wait until you’re back home to post any information. Social media thieves are known to learn about people’s travel plans from a posting on a site and then rob the posters when they are out of town.
- Home school your kids on social media. Explain to your kids why it’s important for them to keep their information private; although they may be good at navigating the Internet, they may not understand how posting private information, photos or potentially offensive material may harm them now and in the future. Teach them what to post, and what not to post.
- Monitor your credit. Check your credit reports periodically for accuracy and signs of any identity theft. If you’re afraid you won’t remember, consider signing up for a credit monitoring service, which can alert you by email to changes in your credit report.