The best ways to protect your identity online

Users should be careful to limit the amount of personal information they give out on social-networking sites

With identity theft on the rise and personal information at a premium, it's never been more important to be cautious about what you reveal online.

Social-networking sites such as Facebook have largely usurped chat rooms and forums -- at least in the grown-up world -- as fun places to hang around online and engage in harmless distractions. Unfortunately, they've also replaced chat rooms in the tabloid consciousness as the place where pedophiles go to pick up victims.

But while we conscientiously monitor our kids' Internet use and apply restrictions to the sites they can visit and the times they're allowed to go online, we may be putting ourselves in other sorts of danger.

Practice what you preach
Having taught your kids to chat only to people they know and to limit the amount of personal information they give out, consider whether you practice what you preach.

Announcing to the world (via your Facebook profile) that you're bungee-jumping at Victoria Falls tells us you're still game for a laugh. If your profile also states your birth date, home town, address, and phone number, along with a reference to your current and past employers, you've left yourself wide open to someone becoming the new you.

In the past, a tell-tale answer phone message stating that you're on holiday would have been brilliant news for an opportunist thief. The equivalent these days is the careless status update or unprotected online profile that enables a cybercrook to sell on your personal details.

Limit your exposure
Privacy options at such sites aren't always enabled by default, although Facebook has taken steps to make users' current security settings far more transparent. Even so, you should check who can see what. The Privacy option at the top right of Facebook's home page lets you dictate who can see details about you and who can search for you.

In February, Facebook made a deal to make postings and profiles searchable via search engines. Fraudsters don't even have to be Facebook members in order to track you down and find out information about you.

While there was plenty of outcry, the fact remains that Facebook's sign-up terms allow it to do this -- while your profile may be all about you and acts as your online identity, Facebook owns the lot. The point here is to ensure you read the terms and conditions before signing up.

Allowing friends to see your e-mail address, photo, status, and musical tastes is fine, but we suggest you disable the search part. Also, if you allow friends of friends and 'Anyone in my networks' to see every online move you make, you've opened yourself up to an audience of thousands, if not millions -- especially if one of your networks is London. Anyone in your network could use what they can glean from your profile against you.

Be wary of seemingly "mutual" friends attempting to add you to their friends list. They may simply want to outdo their mates in how many online friends they have. Or they may want to be your friend to acquire further personal details via your profile.

While this may sound far-fetched, there are plenty of reported instances of publicly and semi-publicly posted personal information being exploited in this way.

Knowing me, knowing you
Similarly, assuming someone is trustworthy because they appear to know one of your friends can be a mistake. Last year, three teenage girls ended up being "groomed" and then stalked in person by a middle-aged man they met on the Bebo message boards. Each had trusted him because of his apparent online friendship with the others.

As one of the girls said after his arrest, the fact that he continued to be friendly to one of her school friends led her to overlook his odd behavior -- including his comments on their shopping trips and other events that they had discussed together online.

The cyberstalker was eventually caught when he showed up at the Tate Modern gallery. He'd learned the girls were going there for a school trip and was recognized while covertly photographing one of the girls he'd met online. They were able to alert security and the police before he escaped.

While this was a particularly nasty and dramatic case, it demonstrates another point. Reputation and the trust implicit in the apparent approval of someone by your peers is a powerful element of both our face-to-face and online interpersonal relations. It's also something that business networks such as LinkedIn and Plaxo trade on.

At LinkedIn, reputation ranking and feedback has now overtaken in importance the original goal of such sites: to build a circle of business associates and stay in touch with them as they flit from employer to employer. Be sure you keep tabs on who's saying what about you.

And reputation is all-important when convincing someone to buy goods from you online. Our own PC Advisor forums show that it's now de rigeur to find out what customers think of a company before buying from it online -- and it's even more important for small retailers.

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the Internet and Internet tools.

Romantic interludes
Let's return to our original warning about giving away your personal information freely, and the Internet acquaintances who have more than friendship in mind. This is something adults need to worry about just as much as kids and teenagers.

Internet dating is notorious as a means of disguising your true age, occupation, weight, gender, and intentions -- that's why it's so popular. If you want to use the Web to meet people, then do so safely. Use a legitimate agency that's regulated and recognized, research what others who've used the service have to say about it, and find out what checks the agency does before taking people on.

Expect some in-depth personal questions and to be asked for proof that you are who you say you are. A passport, driver's licence, proof of address, and birth and divorce certificates were routinely asked for at the bricks-and-mortar dating agency where we used to help out.

Online agencies of good repute should insist on similar assurances. If they don't check you out thoroughly, what's to say they're checking up on your next date?

Acting on impulse and simply taking information supplied by potential dates at face value is more than foolish: it's dangerous in every sense.

PC Advisor is an InfoWorld affiliate.

This story, "The best ways to protect your identity online" was originally published by PC Advisor (UK).

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