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Just 20 years ago, the concept of making the intimate details of your life public would have seemed absurd. But nowadays, it’s commonplace to post your “I Voted” sticker, your health struggles, a picture of your dinner or a cute video of your kids online for the world to see.
Social media has so desensitized us to the personal data that we share, we make our confidential information public with hundreds of people — and countless prying eyes beyond that. The average person’s “harmless” online habits look like glaring red flags to cybersecurity experts, who see much of it as an open invitation to fraudsters.
“Anything you provide on social media is something that gives someone a reference point,” says cybersecurity expert Adam Levin, founder of Cyber Scout. “Don’t look at any one particular piece of data that you put out there in isolation. You have to think of it as a tile in the mosaic of your life. People are trying to gather every morsel of information and use it to steal your identity, run scams, all these kinds of things.”
So how can you become a smart social media user? Avoid these 5 common overshares (spoiler alert: you’re probably already guilty!).
Social media scam tip #1: Don’t post a photo of the exterior of your brand new house
You’ve just been handed the keys to the fairy tale Victorian-style home of your dreams or the 1950s sports car that’s officially your new baby. What’s the first thing you do? Take a picture with it for social media, of course. Therein lies the rub!
Determined scammers can zero in on your address or license plate or examine the photo for other contextual information that provides more pieces to the identity puzzle. They can also easily run scams on you by identifying the needs of a new homeowner and posing as a service provider.
“Now that I know you just got a house, I’m going to try to figure out ways to communicate with you about it,” says Levin. “I might say, ‘Hey, I’m a furniture company,’ or ‘I’m a home improvement contractor,’ or just think of all of the different services that you would use in your home.”
Preying on vulnerabilities — in this case, the desire to protect an investment — is a tried-and-true tactic for siphoning personal data, including payment information, or forwarding phishing links laced with malware.
“They might say to a new car owner, ‘We’re an awesome body shop. If you need us, here’s how to find us. Just click on the link.”
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Social media scam tip #2: Don’t post your COVID-19 vaccination card
The pandemic has produced a lot of “new normals,” and one of them is to proudly, publicly boast about — and post about — your COVID-19 vaccination card. Even if you obscure your date of birth and patient number, you’re still sharing more than you ought to, Levin says.
“Telling somebody the date you were vaccinated, where you were vaccinated and with which vaccine is giving people a lot of information they can use to scam you,” he says. Fraudsters might tease personal information out of you with fake “vaccine surveys” or email you bogus information about the so-called side effects of your particular vaccine, according to Levin. “You might click on the link and suddenly put malware on your computer or turn it into a keystroke logging device.”
Social media scam tip #3: Beware of business recommendations from social media groups
Many of us belong to at least one “group” on social media, and that group might be filled with thousands of perfect strangers who have similar interests. It’s a great way to solicit local recommendations for dentists, real estate agents, accountants and other kinds of service professionals — but it can also be a great way to present yourself as scam bait.
“When you get a recommendation [on social media], make sure you check it out independently from the person who gave it to you,” says Levin, noting that the social media user could either have an ulterior motive or be an unknowing messenger. “They could have gotten it from someone else, they just didn’t realize the someone they got it from was not an innocent person.”
Better yet, default to sites that have been established as trustworthy online directories for local services. Not only are sites like this more legitimate than a social media site, but they also usually vet the providers that participate on their platform. While you should, “always question, always verify,” according to Levin, starting off on the right foot keeps you one step ahead of scammers.
Social media scam tip #4: Beware of forwarded memes on email
Ah, memes: they bring us together and make us laugh. But not all memes are what they appear to be. Yes, a meme is supposed to bring joy, but a malicious meme invites the total opposite: malware. Criminal hackers embed this kind of malicious code right into the file itself, and then count on users to do the dirty work for them, spreading the meme around and infecting one computer after another.
“Someone might say, ‘This is the coolest meme ever,’ and they saw it, clicked on it, forwarded it to you and had no idea that it had malware on it. Because they’re a friend, you just looked at and said, ‘It looks good.’ But just because it came from your friend doesn’t mean it’s OK.”
Your safest course of action? Have a good laugh, then scroll on by.
Social media scam tip #5: Don’t share photos of your kids or grandchildren
Maybe it’s soccer practice or maybe it’s a ballet rehearsal, a birthday party or the first day of school. Whatever the event, it’s natural to want to document your kids or grandkids striving to be their best — and then, of course, to show them off to your inner circle. But you should know by now that “your inner circle” includes plenty of mischievous strangers looking to commit identity-based crimes — especially if your privacy settings aren’t fully locked down.
The sobering reality is that more than one million kids are victims of identity theft each year. And this kind of fraud can go under the radar for years, and only surface when you receive a phone call that your eight-year-old is late on mortgage or credit card payments — or when they turn 18 and realize they already have a 10-year history of bad credit thanks to a unscrupulous scammer.
“People love to post all sorts of pictures of their kids. And it’s always in context. ‘Here’s my child at the flag football game or at the basketball game or at their birthday party,’” says Levin. “And they don’t realize that there’s other identifying information in this picture and you have now thrown your child into the matrix. That could come back to haunt them one day.”
Levin suggests freezing a child’s credit until they turn 18 to protect them.
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