Social media runs a significant portion of people’s social lives. We use it to connect with far-flung friends and family, send quick messages to co-workers, and announce major (and minor) events in our lives. Many businesses use social media sites to collaborate or share information—for instance, you might discuss a project with co-workers via a Facebook messaging session or plan a conference on a LinkedIn forum. Employers and schools are increasingly using social media to reach out to potential employees and students as well.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 16 million US residents became victims of identity theft in 2012 alone. With more and more of our identities taking shape on social media, protecting our personal information on these sites has become more important than ever. Here are several ways to keep your personal information safe while still enjoying the benefits of making social media connections:
1. Treat the “about me” fields as optional.
Facebook gives you the option to fill in a great deal of information about yourself, from your date of birth to where you went to high school. Just because these fields are offered, however, doesn’t mean you must fill them out. Consider offering a general version of the information requested or simply leaving the field blank. For instance, listing only your state of residence, instead of both city and state, can make it harder for others to figure out exactly where you live.
2. Become a master of privacy settings.
All social media sites give you the option to limit post viewing to specific audiences. Take the time to explore these settings, try different options, and become a master of their use. For instance, both Facebook and Twitter let you create custom lists of people who are allowed to view specific posts. As you get better at using the privacy settings, bear in mind that not all privacy settings “translate” between websites. For instance, some Facebook users have reported that photographs they set to “private” on Facebook were still indexed publicly in Google Image Search—and could be found by searching for their names. If you don’t want it found publicly, don’t post it!
3. Know the people you friend.
Once upon a time, social media users competed with one another to have the largest number of connections. Today, however, smart social media users know that the more people you’re connected to, the harder it is to control what happens to the information you post. Make sure you know the people you add on social media, in real life if possible. Don’t hesitate to use the “block” feature when the situation seems to call for it.
4. Create and use an “off-limits” list.
There are certain pieces of personal information you should never, ever post. These include items like your Social Security and driver’s license numbers and your specific location. Tagging your specific location can seem fun, but announcing to your friends that you are at the beach for the day also announces to strangers that you are fifty miles from home. Don’t make it easier for ill-meaning people to take advantage of you by giving them a map to your whereabouts.
5. Always log out when you’re done.
If you’re using a public computer, make it a ritual to log out—but log out of private devices from time to time as well. Logging out helps ensure that other people won’t “commandeer” your social media profile and use it to attack your friends, change your personal information to embarrassing or slanderous comments, or worse, change your password and lock you out of your own account entirely.
6. Create strong, private passwords.
A strong password uses a combination of words, numbers, upper- and lowercase letters, and special characters that is easy for you to remember, but tough for other people to guess. Skip common password elements like birthdates, anniversaries, and the names of your children or pets. Keep passwords private by memorizing them—and never write them on the device itself.