Be Careful Online: Not Everyone Is a True 'Friend'

Avoid identity theft by limiting the personal details you post online.
Avoid identity theft by limiting the personal details you post online.
By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, May 14, 2009

After much hesitation, I finally set up a Facebook account.

So I wouldn't be seen as a dinosaur, I've also registered on I haven't been tweeting much, but I'm now part of the throng of folks socializing with their keyboards.

Like many other columnists, I share personal stories to make a point. However, on the social networks I've limited my communication to my professional persona. For example, I don't list my date of birth. Heck, my kids are not even sure how old I am. I've been 29 for many years. If I want my friends to know where I'm vacationing, I'll call them. Ditto on my dinner plans.

My fans or critics will just have to contend with professional conversation because, in a nutshell, I'm paranoid. And you should be too if you're gabbing about your life on various online social networks. Like a pickpocket working a crowded public venue, cyber thieves may be collecting information that makes victimizing you so much easier with all the personal data you provide.

Consumer complaints of online crime hit a record high in 2008, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. The center is a partnership between the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The center received more than 275,000 complaints last year, up 33 percent from 2007. The total reported dollar loss from such scams was $265 million, or about $25 million more than the year before. Of those complaints with a reported monetary loss, the average individual was scammed for $931, the center noted in its annual report on Internet-based crimes.

Though identity theft falls into an area of Internet crimes that together represented less than 10 percent of all online-related complaints, federal and private experts caution people about increasing their exposure to Internet criminals.

The more a criminal knows about you -- your likes and dislikes, your friends, where you grew up, your drama -- the easier it is to con you. The vast majority of perpetrators contacted complainants in the federal report either through e-mail or via Web sites.

"Sophisticated computer fraud schemes continue to flourish as financial data migrates to the Internet," said Shawn Henry, assistant director for the FBI's cyber division. "It also underscores the need for continued vigilance on the part of law enforcement, businesses, and the home computer user to be aware of these schemes and employ sound security procedures."

The Chubb Group of Insurance Companies recently issued a warning about divulging too much information on social networks.

Tweeting about your Memorial Day getaway plans?

One of your Twitter followers, some of whom might be strangers, may see it as an opportunity to burglarize your home. If you want to tweet about your vacation or holiday plans, do it after the fact.

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