Is How You Use Social Media Setting You Up for Identity Theft?


Are you setting yourself up to be among the nine million people that the Federal Trade Commission estimates have their identities stolen each year? You may be doing so by the way you use social media, especially Facebook.

At last count, according to TechCrunch, there are nearly 1.4 billion users on Facebook alone. Of those, 890 million are daily users. Not all users are honest users. Moreover, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center  study, 58% of adults use Facebook just in the United States. And most of them use multiple platforms. Yet Pew found that most people on Facebook only know about 50 of their (average) 155 friends. Two-thirds of their connections on Facebook are strangers. And this is true across social media platforms.

But it’s not really the frequency with which you use social media that leads to identity theft. It’s how you use those social networking platforms. Remember, you don’t know most of the people you’re connected to well. But based on what you share—which is often shared by others, too—identity thieves may use your social media platforms to get to know you very well. Then, they can assume your identity.

Being a Tell-All Makes You a Target for Identity Thieves

You may be making the common identity thief’s work easy by what you reveal on social media, especially if you use poor security. You may think sharing pet pictures and names, favorite stores, purchases or intended purchases, or family pictures is no big deal. But that’s like walking through a mall showing everyone everything in your wallet. Did you know that identity thieves can use that information to build a personal profile on you?

“People share way too much on social media,” says credit expert Beverly Harzog. Her latest book, “The Debt Escape Plan: How to Free Yourself from Credit Card Balances, Boost Your Credit Score, and Live Debt Free,“ discusses identity theft through social media.

“Very little is needed by identity thieves to break into someone’s accounts,” she continues. “What you share can be used to hack your credit card, bank and other financial accounts.” Those accounts, of course, contain even more information about you that can be used to create a complete profile. Thieves use that information both to steal other assets and create ID documents that can be used to commit other crimes.

Harzog gives the example of giving your dog’s name on social media. “Some people use their dog’s name on Facebook or other social media and then use the dog’s name as part of their password someplace else,” she states. She says it’s common for people to use personal information they share—like kids’ names and birthdays and those of their significant others—on social media as part of passwords, too. Then the most determined identity thieves, who are adept at using that information to determine your complete passwords, can hack your accounts.

Moreover, weak passwords coupled with poor social media security settings make you a bigger target. So what’s the solution? Clam up online and lock down your social media profiles

You Do Have Things to Hide on Social Media

Thieves of all kinds like easy victims; identity thieves are no exception. Therefore, don’t make yourself one. Maintain some mystery about your life online and hide information you don’t want stolen. Says Harzog, “Determined thieves will scan a year of your social media postings and piece a lot of things together about you that can be used to steal your identity.”

So if you’re a private citizen, stay that way. To maintain your privacy, there are lots of things you shouldn’t talk about or share on social media. Many of them are pretty obvious by now, like your travel plans, schedules, full birthdate, social security number or credit card or bank account numbers. But what else should you avoid sharing on social media or, if you must, share with care?

  • The types of credit cards you use and how you make purchases. You can talk about where you bought things but not what you used to make the purchase, particularly if you’re naming your credit card carrier.
  • Your banking information. Don’t reveal where you bank or the name of your credit union. Have those conversations privately, using secure email or phone.
  • Your home phone number. This is especially true of it’s the phone number you use for your credit card or bank accounts. Even if that’s not the case, that information can be easily used to determine your carrier and, ultimately, your address, which for most people is the one they use on their bank accounts or credit cards.
  • Your full address. It’s okay to say where you live generally, like your city, but not specifically, like your street and house number. Even revealing your neighborhood may put you at risk of identity theft. Stick with the closest metro area when revealing where you live.
  • Your hometown. Again, stick with metro areas, especially if you’re from a small town. And if you do reveal your hometown on your social media profiles, don’t use it as an answer to security questions online or part of a password.
  • Your high school or college alma mater. Be careful sharing this information if you use it as part of your security set-up on any other accounts, especially financial accounts.

Doubling Down on Security

Harzog says. “Don’t use any part of the information you share on social media as part of your passwords.” Use strong passwords and don’t use any information revealed on social media as answers to security questions, either. Make up your own randomized passwords, where possible.

Also, make sure your privacy settings are strong on social media and vet every online connection you make carefully. Using these strategies, you can protect yourself from the prying eyes of those who would rob you of your financial security by stealing your identity.

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