Know Your Online IdentityMichelle V. Rafter
When someone on Twitter impersonated Britney Spears it was kind of funny.
But nobody laughed when someone claiming to be St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa used Twitter to make insensitive remarks about the team -- remarks that led the real La Russa to sue the company for a damaged reputation and emotional distress.
Twitter and La Russa quickly settled their differences. But the incident is one of the latest reminders that not everyone online is who they say they are.
As you and your brother, father and grandfather join social networks, leave comments on blogs and spend more time on the Internet, it’s become important to protect your online identity, including verifying yourself in the electronic communities you frequent. If not, you leave yourself open to social media identity theft, says Robert Siciliano, a Boston-based Internet security consultant. “Anybody can adopt anybody else’s name if it’s available,” Siciliano says. “They could take your picture if it’s online somewhere too, and write a blog as you and post comments as you.”
If you’re applying to colleges or searching for a job, and someone appropriated your name to post nasty comments, “it could do some serious damage,” Siciliano says.
Protect your online persona
Twitter’s first step toward a solution was to offer verified accounts to celebrities, politicians and other public figures such as La Russa. Verified accounts for all Twitter users are rumored to be coming soon.
Other social networks are taking different approaches. If you’re on Facebook, you can now sign up to use your name as your Facebook URL, one way to prevent someone else from grabbing it first. On LinkedIn, you can alert the customer service team if you see an inappropriate member profile, including profiles that look like fakes.
Internet security and personal branding experts also suggest taking these actions to protect and verify your identity online:
- Claim your name. The best defense is a good offense. Beat potential imposters by opening accounts on popular social networks, even if you don’t think you’ll ever use them. When you create accounts, use your first and last name instead of a made-up screen name -- if you wouldn’t use Ellen2334 to sign an email, don’t use it online either, security experts say.
- Be consistent. Use the same name everywhere so your name becomes your brand, says Dan Schawbel, a personal branding expert and author of the book, Me 2.0. Use a service such as Knowem, a website where you can check whether your name is available on dozens of social networks and websites. If you have a common name -- Jane Smith or Miguel Hernandez for example -- or if you share a name with a public figure, your name may be taken. In that case, add your middle name or initial to your online identity, Schawbel says.
- Link to yourself. One way to show people you’re legit is by linking your social media persona to other online accounts -- a website if you have one, or a bio on your employer’s website or organization where you’re a member or volunteer. But be careful. There’s a fine line between sharing enough to confirm who you are and giving away information a thief could use to impersonate you to get a fake ID or open a bank account, according to security experts.
- Find out what people are saying about you. Keep tabs on your online identity by doing regular Google searches of your name to see what turns up. Set up alerts on Google, Yahoo or other search engines to get daily or weekly notices when your name’s mentioned. Or use a service such as StepRep, which tracks if your name pops up online in photos, videos, or messages on social networks.
- Use online ID verification services. To speed up the process of logging onto the websites, retailers and others have begun endorsing digital IDs, a kind of electronic passport that lets you enter your user name and password one time to visit thousands of participating websites. A side benefit of this simplified sign-on process -- it also makes it easier to verify your identity. One of the most popular of these services is OpenID, which has more than half a billion users and 30,000 member websites, including AOL, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo. According to news reports, the federal government is looking into using OpenID on government websites. If that happens, you’d be able to link your online identity to all kinds of government services such as Social Security and Medicare, says Scott Kveton, a Portland, Ore. online ID and open-source computing expert. “Some people may worry about that being too Big Brother,” Kveton says. But OpenID advocates familiar with the project say protecting individuals’ privacy will be a major concern, according to news reports.
What if you catch someone impersonating you online? Notify the social network, website host or service provider immediately and “bother the heck out of them until they do something about it,” says Siciliano, the identity theft expert. If someone’s stolen your identity online and used it to create a fake ID or open a bank account, contact your local law enforcement department, Siciliano says. “It’s the wild, wild Web and you need to learn what’s going on out there and what you can do to be proactive so when your information is compromised you have a plan of action in place.”
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