How To Stay Safe on Social Media

Learn how to stay safe on social media by watching out for these common mistakes.

Providing instant communication with friends and family, photo and music sharing, and access to millions of games and apps, social networks affect many aspects of our daily lives to one extent or another.

Facebook has a member base comparable in size to the population of China, and several other social media networks have more members than the United States does citizens. With the vast numbers of social media users on the Internet these days, it's easy to see why networking sites play such an important role in our society.

People share all sorts of information on social media sites. With posts ranging from personal pictures and status updates to rants and raves about local businesses (and other people,) nothing seems to be taboo on social media sites. With the waves of useful — and not so useful — information available on social networks, it's easy to get caught up in the uproar and want to share parts of your life.

While the obvious benefits of social networks are many, they pose potential security risks as well. Therefore, you must consider your own safety, financial well-being, and online reputation when using social networking sites and making parts of your life public on the Internet.

Watch out for links and messages from friends

When chatting even with long-time friends, pay attention to the words and phrases the other person uses. 

If they seem to be using language out of the ordinary or ask you for personal details such as your address or birthdate, be wary of continuing the chat. If you have doubts about the person with whom you are chatting, try asking a question only they would know the answer to.

For instance, ask about a shared experience or memory with your friend. If the person is indeed your friend and not an imposter, they'll respond with the correct answer. If not, someone may be impersonating your friend or may have hacked their account. 

Also, be wary of strange or unfamiliar links sent in chat messages, as they may lead to phishing websites looking to steal your personal information.

Finally, be wary of accepting friend or follow requests from people you do not know. Sometimes, hackers make friend requests simply for the reason of stealing personal information to use in fraudulent or criminal activities.

Info you post could be used to hack your password

When you only friend people you know in real life and have known for a while, it's probably okay to post some personal information about yourself — as long as members of the social media who are not friends cannot see the information.

However, if you friend people you don't know, you should be extra careful about the type of posts and information you share. The reason is simple; hackers may be able to use seemingly harmless information to hack your social media account.

One way that hackers hack social networking accounts is by resetting your password or primary email address. This is not nearly as difficult as it may seem if you use common "forgotten password" questions, such as "What was your mother's maiden name?," "What was your first pet's name," or something similar. Experienced hackers are adept at reviewing posts you make on social networks and gleaning a lot of personal information from them.

For instance, if you or relatives comment on pictures or posts, it may be possible for a hacker to find out your mother's maiden name (simply from the last names of cousins or other relatives,) the name of your high school, or other information frequently used as answers for forgotten password security questions

Consequently, you should enter fake information if using a common security question (make sure you remember the fake answer, though.) Better yet, create your own security question with an answer difficult for others to guess. This will make it much harder for hackers that use this method to hack your account or reset your password.

Avoid using GPS location services on social networking sites

GPS-based location services enable users of social networking sites to share the places they visit with friends, family, and other followers. In fact, location services are quite popular with members of social media services such as Facebook and Foursquare. 

The GPS services allow users to post their location when at their favorite restaurants, clubs, or other places of interest. Many users post their locations to invite others to join them or just to let friends and family members know where they are at the time of the post.

While location services are nice ways of sharing with friends and family, they also reveal your location to anyone else able to view your posts. 

Therefore, if someone is stalking you or otherwise means you harm, knowing your location could put you in danger. Unless you're very careful about who you friend on social networking sites (and you should be,) reconsider posting your location for all to see.

Remember that social media posts are mostly permanent

Sometimes, it's easy to get caught up in the moment when posting on social network sites. In doing so, many people share posts they later regret and then delete or make private. 

However, if you delete a post or make it private, you should not assume that it's no longer available on the internet.

Once you a post picture, it is very simple for someone to right-click the image, click "Save As," and then save the photo to their computer. Once the user downloads the image, they can share it just as they would any other. 

The same applies to messages or status updates, if the user presses the "PrtScn" or "Print Screen" key, they can save a screenshot of the message and post it as a photo. Therefore, always assume that anything and everything you post online is permanent, whether you intend it to be or not.

Check privacy policies and terms of use

When you sign up for an account with a social networking site, you must agree to the user terms and conditions for the website before using the service. If you don't agree to the terms and conditions, you cannot create an account or use the social media site. 

Your continued use of the site also means you agree to any subsequent changes the social networking site may make to terms and conditions, including the website's privacy policy. So, before using a social networking site, it is very important that you read any relevant privacy policies very carefully.

While you always have access to posts and media you post on social networking websites, you may not necessarily own all rights to them. This means — depending on the terms set forth in the privacy policy — if you delete posts or photos on a social networking site, the website or its owners may keep backup copies of them on other servers or use them for advertising or other commercial purposes. 

If you review the privacy policy for the social networking site carefully, you will see how the website deals with data or posts you delete or if it saves them (and if so for how long.) 

This is yet another reason you may want to assume that any status updates or photos you post are permanent.

What about children and social media?

Most social networking sites have minimum age restrictions for children that want to use the services. In most cases, children under the age of 13 are prohibited from creating accounts on social media sites. 

If you have children under 13 years of age, do not allow them to create accounts on Facebook, Instagram, or other similar social media sites.

If you have teenagers that do use social media, teach them to safeguard their privacy online and not to reveal too much personal information. Warn them of the dangers of friending and chatting with people they don't know personally and well. Additionally, do not let them use their full names or post their home addresses on social media sites. 

Finally, keep close tabs on your children's internet usage and consider installing parental control software that limits the types of sites they visit and the hours they can use their computers.