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Author: Vanessa Taylor, NASBA Risk & Compliance Manager
Posted: January 19, 2012

With more than 800 million people active on Facebook and 145 million Twitter users, it’s likely that social media is an intimate part of your daily life. From checking in at a local restaurant for dinner with your friends to tweeting about your latest find at your favorite store, social media enhances the way we communicate, and makes it easier than ever to share information.

This can be a blessing and a curse. With the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr and many other social media sites, information is freely shared with friends and family across the globe. However, in addition to the information you voluntarily place on the Internet, it is possible you could be broadcasting a wealth of information to people you don’t know – without your knowledge. For example, you may not allow your address to be publicly available on Facebook, but did you know your profile picture may contain the exact GPS location where it was taken? It’s part of what is known as “geotracking,” and it gives anyone the ability to track a user’s location through photos or use of coupon sites.

Don’t be alarmed. You don’t have to quit social media all together to keep your personal information safe. We’ve compiled a few easy steps to help limit the amount of personal information you have online, and control who has access to it.

  1. Google yourself. Searching your name in Google is a quick and easy way to find out what type of information is out there about you. There's also a blog that provides a listing of sites that maintain personal information databases (WhitePages, Intelius, etc.). You should be able to remove your information from these public databases. It may take some work, but it may be worth it in the long run. Click here for more information.
  2. When in doubt, check it out. Be cautious; don't click a link in an email just because it is from a seemingly trusted source. Rather than clicking the link, go to the company's main website and do some research. Another alternative is to call the company's customer service line to verify the information. Most banks and other institutions will not request personal information via email, because it is not secure.
  3. Use multiple passwords. Don't use the same password for all of your online accounts, and never use personal information in your passwords. Creating a password that's easy to remember, but hard to guess, may seem daunting, but is worth the trouble to safeguard the information that bypassing the password gets a hacker. Some tips for creating stronger passwords include using symbols or numbers in place of letters (a=@, t=7, s=5, i=1, etc.). Another trick is using the first letters of each word from a favorite quote or song lyric. For example, in using Dr. Seuss' "I do not like Green Eggs and Ham," a resulting password may be "IdnlGE&H" or "Idn1G3aH." This method creates many potential variations, especially if you substitute numbers for a few of the letters.
  4. Don't store personal information. While many people are tempted to save a credit card or other personal information on a frequently visited website in order to save time, this can increase your risk. Also, don't store information in a file on your computer (unless the file and/or your computer is encrypted or secured).
  5. Look for the padlock. Before submitting personal information (such as a Social Security Number, credit card and other payment information), verify the website is secure. You can do this by looking at the bottom-right corner of the computer screen. When a website is secure, there should be a small padlock displayed there. In addition, many sites now provide a "Certified by" or "Authenticated by" logo or graphic on secure pages.
  6. Install anti-virus tools. Make sure your PC has some type of anti-virus software. Without it, your personal information, as well as your computer's hardware, software and files are susceptible to attacks from hackers and other malicious individuals. Anti-virus software also prevents your computer from passing on viruses and spyware, should it be compromised. There are many great options to choose from – some are even free, such as Avast!, AVG or Microsoft Security Essentials. Just do a little research or ask a local resource to help you find one to fit your needs.

These steps are a great start and should become regular practice, as keeping your information secure is an ongoing process. The rapid emergence of new technologies forces users to be more active than ever in protecting personal information, as the line between what you willingly post online and the information you want to keep offline is constantly shifting.

If you are concerned about your personal information or believe your information has been compromised, you should contact the company, or companies, individually. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is also a great resource for individuals and businesses. Its website provides information about fraud and identity theft.

Social media can continue to be a fun and worthwhile enhancement to your life without becoming a security nightmare, but your personal information is only as safe as you keep it. Following the steps outlined in this article is a great start to keeping your information safe and secure in 2012 and beyond.

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