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When is a friend not a friend?

new survey by Harris Interactive suggests that millions of Americans who use social networking sites are willing to accept “friend” requests from members of the opposite sex, regardless of whether or not they know the person. The survey also found that despite a general awareness of the dangers of revealing too much information online, more than 24 million Americans on social networking sites keep their profiles “mostly public,” meaning that anyone can see their personal details.

Perhaps not surprisingly, men are more than twice as likely as women to accept any and all invites from someone of the opposite sex (18 percent for men compared to 7 percent for women). Younger men (aged 18 to 34) are more likely to accept requests than older men.

“American's lack of caution in friending members of the opposite sex online is striking,” said Thomas Oscherwitz, chief privacy officer for ID Analytics, Inc. who sponsored the research. “Friending someone online is not risk-free. Just as in the bricks-and-mortar world, it makes sense to exercise a bit of prudence. Most social networking profiles contain personal information that can be used by fraudsters, and when you friend someone, you are giving them access to this information.”

The survey suggests that thieves and fraudsters who send out friend requests en masse are likely to find lots of takers. Once an invite has been accepted, they can start trawling through their new friend’s account for hints to passwords such as college mascots or names of relatives and pets. In  fact, a previous ID Analytics study found that 70 million Americans reveal their place of birth on social networking sites, often a key piece of information if someone is trying to recover a “lost” password.

The other concern for privacy advocates is that social networking friends are usually friends for life. If a complete stranger keeps quiet and doesn’t make his presence felt, then he is unlikely to be "unfriended," particularly as an individual’s friend total grows over time to several hundred or more. And the longer someone remains on a social network like Facebook, the more open they become, divulging evermore valuable information along the way.

All this despite the fact that we generally have a healthy level of mistrust when it comes to our online friends. The survey found that half of all social network users don’t trust their friends to keep personal information safe. Women have a slightly less cynical attitude here: only four in 10 said they didn’t trust their friends compared to six out of 10 men.

Here are three basic tips when it comes to friending online:

1. Be selective. When you receive a friend request, take a moment to consider whether you actually want that person as an online friend. If you don’t know the person or you don’t want him to have any of your personal information , then just ignore the request.

2. Review your privacy settings. Make sure that only the information you want to share with everyone is what shows up on your public profile. When it comes to individual posts, Facebook and other social networks allow you to organize your friends into groups, such as family, close friends, etc., so you can exclude casual acquaintances from more personal posts.

3. Review your friend list. Every few months take a moment to review your friend list to make sure you are comfortable with everyone that’s included. Having 500 or more online friends may be good for your ego but it’s definitely not good for your online security!

Comment by Ellen Lebowitz, posted 3/22/2011, 3:59 PM:

Virtual or online friendships are exactly that. Illusion. Online connections are different from human interactions. True friendships involve trust, intimacy, loyalty and actually knowing the person. The latter normally requires real live conversation and at the very least, some degree of face time. The web has endless possibilities of illusion, most of which are wonderful and engaging. Endless risk should not be one of them. This is when a friend is not a friend.
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