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10 Ways to Control Your Privacy on Social Networking Sites

Social networking sites are growing in popularity at an exponential rate. With 500 million users, Facebook has become a common occurrence in our daily lives — among all generations. In fact, according to a study by Nielsen research, Americans spend a third of their online time (36 percent) communicating and networking across social networks, blogs, personal email and instant messaging.

And while they are a great way to stay in touch with old friends, find new friends, keep family up-to-date, post pictures, and so on; they are also now very popular places for people who have bad intentions. Just think about what your account may contain — email address, home address, date of birth, pictures — the list goes on. That's valuable information to cyber criminals and scammers.

Twitter's global surge in popularity has encouraged spammers and other online criminals to take advantage of the tiny URL links used within Twitter to target unsuspecting users. New Facebook scams seem to make emerge on a daily basis.

According to Consumer Reports' 2010 State of the Net survey, more than half of social network users share private information about themselves online, opening themselves up to a variety of online dangers, including identity theft.

So what can you do to stay safe one these kinds of sites? Here is our top 10 list of the ways you can restore or maintain your privacy on social networking sites.

  1. Check your privacy settings
    Make sure you know what information is being shared publicly — and what information can be accessed by applications. You may be sharing more than you intended. Keep in mind that without taking the precaution of adjusting your privacy settings, when you visit partner sites, they may able to obtain information from your Facebook account, including your name, profile photo, and information on your interests. For more information on Facebook settings, please visit "A guide to privacy on Facebook"
  2. Create strong passwords
    Create complex passwords that are at least 10 characters long by mixing letters, symbols and numbers (don't just use words that can be found in a dictionary). When creating passwords, think about the information that you have available about yourself online (a pet's name, your place of birth, etc); make sure that you do not include obvious references like these as part of your password.
    You should also keep from including this kind of personal information about yourself when answering security questions on websites; most of these questionnaires are only used by the site to help identify you and allow you to regain access to your rightful account. Revealing the correct facts (like you mother's maiden name or the last four digits of your social security number) is not necessary... Just make sure to remember what information you entered!
  3. Have a clear understanding of what sensitive information is - and don't share it
    Always remember, once shared online, your information is no longer private. Before posting any personal information, think about how much data you want available about yourself online. Even facts that may seem mundane to you at first glance can be valuable to scammers, who are able to mine information, and connect the bits of personal data you make available. This can be used for a variety of scams and even identity theft.

    In order to limit the amount of potentially sensitive information about yourself — and to limit your susceptibility to theft or abuse — reconsider publically posting the following:
    1. Your full name
    2. Your full date of birth
    3. The names of your children or family member
    4. Your full home address
    5. Dates and details of trips, vacations and time spent away from home
  4. Think twice about who you add, follow, or connect with
    It's a good rule of thumb is to only connect and share with people that you know in real life. By 'friending' people online that are strangers, you open yourself up to added privacy and security risks. According to a study from Cloudmark, nearly 40 percent of new Facebook profiles are fake, created by malware writers and spammers.
  5. Think before you post
    Always remember, once shared online, your information is no longer private. Personal information like date of birth, home address, and email address can be used for a variety of scams and even identity theft. And just think how valuable it would be for the bad guys to get a hold of your dates and details of trips, vacations and time spent away from home.
  6. Be careful what you click
    Never, ever click on suspicious links, even if they look enticing. A lot of scams and malware in the social network world is spread through links and rogue applications. You may have seen recent posts such as "I just got the Dislike button, so now I can dislike all of your dumb posts lol!!" or "Student attacked his teacher and nearly killed him" with a link attached to it. Take caution when clicking on links — even if it comes from a friend. Many of these applications are given access to post items — without you knowing — when you install them.
  7. Limit your use of applications and extras (like games and quizzes)
    Software applications that are available for download to run on the site may not undergo any type of security approval, verification, or review. These applications can potentially be leveraged by cyber thieves to compromise your information. What's more, you may be handing over private information in your profile to the applications developers when you install the new app, even if you use privacy settings.
  8. Monitor your kids
    Networking sites can potentially open up children and young adults to many unfavorable aspects of the Internet — including bullying, online predators, and cyber scams. Make sure to prepare kids with information that can help them to make safe decisions, and to have an open dialogue about safe and appropriate web use.
  9. Take action if you see suspicious activity
    There are several ways to report potential spam or scams. Check your social network of choice for more details. If you think your account may have been compromised, immediately change your password. If status updates are appearing on your Facebook page that you didn't make, you may have a rogue application. Remove the suspicious application from your Facebook profile as well as the related message from your status, News Feed, and your Likes and Interests in the "Edit my Profile" menu.
  10. Have basic security software in place and keep it up-to-date
    Protecting your PC with anti-virus, anti-spyware and a firewall (and making sure the software is always up-to-date) is critical in keeping safe from malware and online scams. For trusted security solutions from Lavasoft, check the Lavasoft website. Also make sure that your computer is up-to-date with the latest security patches.

Words to live by? If you wouldn't give a stranger the information, you probably shouldn't be posting it online.

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Did You Know?
Facebook now lets you secure your session from hackers and spies by enabling HTTPS encryption. Here's how to enable it:
Secure Your Session Video
Source: Cnet
By The Numbers
Only 33% of Internet users say they worry about how much information is available about them online.
Source: Pew
By The Numbers
Over 40% of social network users posted their full date of birth online, opening themselves up to identity theft.
Source: Consumer Reports' State of the Net 2010
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