2010-10-22 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Social Networking Sites
Commentary By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

Having an account with a website like MySpace and Facebook gives us an easy way to connect with not only family and friends but also hundreds of millions of people from around the globe. However, you should be cautious when deciding what information to post on social networking sites, as that information could be seen by scam artists, identity thieves, and current and potential employers. Even if you set your account’s privacy settings to restrict the visibility of your information, it is impossible for you to completely control who is viewing — and sharing with others — what you post on social networking sites. By keeping the following information in mind while networking online, you can help to keep yourself safe.

When you create a new account, many social networks will ask for your e-mail address and account password so that they can gain access to your address book. Some of these sites will then solicit your e-mail contacts to create their own accounts. If you are asked for your e-mail address by a social networking site, be sure to read that site’s privacy policy first. In addition, never provide your work e-mail, as many employers frown upon using work resources for such activities. If you are going to provide your e-mail address to a social networking site, create a new one just for that purpose.

Once you have created your social networking account, be wary of posting identifying information about yourself. If you decide to post your birthday, never provide your year and place of birth. Identity thieves looking for your Social Security number can determine most, if not all, of the digits using your complete birth date and place of birth. You should also avoid posting your address, phone number, or e-mail address, as not only scam artists but also marketing companies seek out this information.

Some sites allow you to provide GPS location of yourself and your home. You should be especially leery of taking advantage of this service, as people will know when you are not home, making your house a potential target for thieves. Likewise, never publicize your vacation plans, especially the dates you will be traveling.

Compromising, embarrassing, or inflammatory pictures and posts should not be posted on social networking sites. An increasing number of employers are using the Internet to conduct background searches and find out information about potential new hires. Even if you utilize your account’s privacy settings, many employers hire third-party screening companies that have the ability to circumvent these settings. In addition, private information can sometimes show up when performing informal Internet searches, like a Google or Yahoo! search.

There are currently few legal protections safeguarding the information you post on social networking sites. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, which sets national standards for employment screening and background checks, only applies to information obtained by employers from third-party screening companies; information that employers gather themselves, including from informal Internet searches, is not covered. As a rule of thumb, before you post something on a social networking site, consider if it is something you would tell your employer, or if you would want it posted on a highway billboard. If it is not, do not post it.

For more information about protecting your privacy while using social networking sites, you can visit OnGuardOnline at www.onguardonline.gov. This website, which is maintained by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), provides tips that will help you guard your personal information. In addition, the New York State Attorney General has an Internet Bureau that compiles information about online threats. You can view the Bureau’s website at http://www.ag.ny.gov/bureaus/Internet_bureau/about.html. Finally, if you are concerned about your children’s use of social networking sites, you can check out the FTC’s brochure “Net Cetera: Chatting with Kids About Being Online” at http://www.onguardonline.gov/pdf/tec04.pdf or by calling 1-800-FTC-HELP.

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