7 Ways to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft and Viruses on Facebook

“In a speech recently, someone asked me what the difference was between LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.  I said, “Facebook is a Bar; LinkedIn is a Business Club, and Twitter is a Megaphone attached to a Water Cooler.  The one most likely to be hacked and spammed is Facebook.”  Beth Terry, The Cactus Wrangler, Professional Speaker”

With close to 700 million active users, Facebook is the number two most visited website in the world after Google.  The popularity of Facebook by the general population also makes it one of the most popular websites for hackers.  A recent news story said that over 5 million households have been affected by some sort of Facebook attack in the last year, with the biggest issues being identity theft and virus infections.

You can’t go a day without seeing evidence of another attack on Facebook.  In fact, as I write this post, two of my Facebook friends were tagged in a post labeled “Wera Pola’s Album.”  The tag shows two photos of some scantily clad women with a link that says “Want some naughty fun?  Join now (website link).”   I know my two friends on Facebook well enough to know that they did not put up this content, so obviously they were hacked.  This very easily could be a virus.

It appears to me that security issues of that scope would cause users to get fed up and abandon using Facebook because the risk is greater than the benefit.  Indeed, while Facebook is still growing, users are abandoning Facebook at record speed.  In May of 2011 alone, according to Inside Facebook, the United States lost 6 million users, and Canada lost over 1.5 million.  While the statistics do not state why users have abandoned Facebook we can only surmise that it has something to do with concern about online security in addition to other factors.

For the rest of us who think the risk is worth the reward of using Facebook, how can we protect ourselves from identity theft, virus infections and other security issues?  Here are some tips:

1.            Regularly update your privacy settings. Facebook’s default privacy setting for all users is “Everyone.” If you don’t want the whole world to see every post, photo, and link you like, share, or post, change your settings to “Friends only.”  Privacy settings can be changed under the “Account Tab” which is located on the top right of your Facebook screen.  It’s important to update your privacy settings regularly because Facebook adds new features often and when they do, you’ll want to make sure have updated privacy settings.

2.            If you don’t want a stranger (or your boss) to read it, don’t post it, period.  Like the old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” it’s a lot easier to be safe on Facebook if you don’t post it.  Refrain from putting up your email, address, phone numbers, and other personal information.  Even if your security settings are set to “Friends Only” there are no guarantees that your information is safe.  Better not to post it than to worry about it.

3.            Don’t click on links from within Facebook. A link can be disguised to look like it’s coming from a reputable source even when it’s not.  If there’s something that you’re interested in from that source, go directly to the source.  This one is worth repeating: don’t click on links from within Facebook.

4.            Use a secure password and change it regularly. Now I know that it’s difficult to remember a hundred different passwords and that’s why you use the same one for everything you do online, but that’s a very bad idea.  You only have to get your identity stolen once time to know how much of heartache it is and how difficult it is to get things cleaned up.  Use secure passwords and change them regularly.

5.            Just say no to Facebook applications and games.  In October of 2010, the Wall Street Journal found that popular Facebook game Farmville, owned by Zynga, as well as other games, was transmitting Facebook users’ private information to Internet advertising and tracking companies, even though the users had set their privacy settings to the strictest setting of “friends only.”  While Zynga and Facebook took immediate action to remedy this situation, the fact that it happened still remains.  Do you really want to trust your private information to Facebook and the third party companies who create these applications?

6.            Change your browser settings on Facebook to the more secure “HTTPS” setting. HTTPS or Hyper Text Transfer Protocol works on Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), a protocol primarily developed with secure, safe Internet transactions in mind. The protocol encrypts your login cookies and other data so that other programs are not able to access it.  However, just like the default privacy settings in Facebook are set to “everyone,” the default browser setting is the less secure version of http.  To change your security setting, go to the “Applications” tab on your Facebook page and click on “Account Security” Note: if you use this secure setting you won’t be able to access applications or games.

7.            Use Facebook on a secure Internet connection. Free wifi isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  According to Peter Shankman, Founder of Help a Reporter Out, free wifi is “not safe at all.”   Shankman says, that with a “..run of the mill password crack program..someone can start grabbing every single packet you’re transmitting. And yes. People do. All the time.”  In fact, Shankman demonstrated how easy it is for someone to grab your info with a simple program anyone can download for free.  And while no connection is 100% safe, it’s better to use a secure connection such as a password encrypted LAN, Wireless connection or hotspot.

Security issues are- and will – continue to be a major threat to the users on Facebook as long as it continues to be one of the most popular websites in the world.  Is your security worth the risk or are you ready to abandon Facebook as well?  I’d love to hear your comments.

Wendy Kenney is the bestselling author of How to Build Buzz for Your Biz, Tap into the Power of Social Media, Publicity and Relationship Marketing to Grow Your Business, available on Amazon.com.  She has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street JournalUSA Today, and Newsday. She lives in Mesa, Arizona, with her husband and three very hungry teenage sons.  One of her goals in life is to visit all of the Major League ballparks in the US before she turns 49.  So far she has been to 13. Grab your free ebook; How to Build Buzz for Your Biz; 23 Creative and Inexpensive Marketing Strategies That Will Get You Noticed at 23kazoos.com.

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