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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

Safeguarding our secrets

How social networks are encouraging us to let our guard down

You go on Facebook one day and you have a friend request from a complete stranger who claims to have attended the same high school as you. You check him out and sure enough he's from the area and he's also a member of the high school alumni group. Although nobody you know seems to have heard of him, you happily welcome him into the fold. Besides, he only has ten friends of his own and you feel kind of sorry for him! (You, on the other hand, have 160...and counting!)

Now he's reading your newsfeeds and checking out all your posts. He reads that your husband just got a promotion at his Wall Street bank and you can't wait for the year-end bonus! He finds out you're an avid art collector and that you just installed an expensive home movie theater in the basement. He also reads that you ran into your old teacher at the supermarket, so now he knows you're still in the area. A quick look in the White Pages and he has your address.

Next he finds out from your Twitter feed that you hate airlines – you're at the airport and your flight to Vail for the family vacation has just been delayed! And then finally, he gets what he's looking for – Facebook pictures confirming that your entire family is two thousand miles away, happily skiing the slopes by day and hanging out by the hot tub at night! Your only worry – again, shared with all your Facebook friends – is that a pipe doesn't burst in your empty house because of all that cold weather back East!  

What's wrong with this story? Well, you guessed it: your new Facebook friend is not a friend at all. In fact, he's not even a high school alum. He's part of a professional house-breaking crew that is targeting your area for a month before they move on somewhere else.

The meteoric rise of online social networking over the last two years has caught a lot of people off guard. They are disclosing private information in a way they would never dream of doing if they were face to face with people. With little more than a name, an identity thief can go to work. With the kind of intimate personal information that is freely circulating the web, it's a treasure chest for every crook and conman that knows how to plug in a computer.

Follow these golden rules for keeping your information private and your family safe:

  • Don't be naïve
    Just because you can share private information with the whole world doesn't mean you should. Your potential audience is far broader than your inner circle of family and friends. If you need to share private information with certain individuals, use the groups and private messaging features that most social networks have, rather than the public message boards.
  • Don't be too friendly
    Be discriminating about who you invite into your social network. No-one is obligated to accept friend requests. If you have to think twice about someone, decline their request or just ignore it.
  • Use the security tools
    Facebook and the other big social networking sites have become much more security conscious and offer a host of features to lock down your profile and keep your information secure. Get to know them and use them.
  • Update your software
    Even with enhanced security tools, your social networking account could still be vulnerable through your web browser or e-mail. (Most social network updates are still delivered via e-mail.) Make sure your Internet browser and other programs are up-to-date with all the latest downloads and patches. If you are running Windows, get the free Microsoft Security Essentials download.
  • Never respond to unusual e-mails or click unknown links
    Facebook scams
    and phishing attacks are commonplace and many of them use our openness about social networking to trap us. Never open or respond to e-mails from unknown sources. And never open a link or log-on to a web site unless it is from a trusted source.

Comment by sherry, posted 11/8/2009, 7:58 PM:

i am a mother of six is there a program that u can install on the ocmputers to monitor what the kids r sayin and doing and where they go to.
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