Part of the great appeal of Facebook is that people mostly use their real names instead of creating avatars with psuedonyms. While you can find a dozen George Jetsons and a handful of Mickey Mouses (or is it Mice?) in Facebook, in most cases the names you see are genuine.
So doesn’t that increase the likelihood that Facebook users will become victims of identity theft, because your name is “out there” on the internet?
And can you protect yourself?
I’m not convinced that the answer to the first question is “Yes.” I’m fairly certain the second can be answered affirmatively.
Like Naven Johnson, your name is already “out there” if you’re in the phone book. The question is whether identity thieves can piece together enough other information so that a sub-prime lender will grant them credit in your name.
I guess it’s theoretically possible for someone to use information about you that they get on Facebook to open credit card accounts in your name, but a few basic precautions will go a long way toward stopping identity thieves in their browsers:
- Don’t publish your Social Security number in your Facebook profile. Did I really need to say that? This admonition ranks right up there with the “Do Not Eat” labels on the dessicant packages you find when you open your new electronic equipment, but obviously somebody did ingest them once and now, thanks to our tort system, this is a standard warning. But if you’ve published your Social Security number on your Facebook or MySpace profile, please just deactivate your account immediately and refrain from using the internet. Web 2.0 isn’t for you. Neither is Web 1.0.
- Don’t get hooked by a phishing scam. I haven’t heard of this actually happening in Facebook, but considering how the crooks have used eBay and various banks as fronts to gather information, I expect it’s only a matter of time before someone starts sending emails like this: “Dear Daniel A. Nimrod: It has come to our attention that someone may be fraudulently using your Facebook account. We need you to verify that you are, in fact, Daniel A. Nimrod. Please click the link below and enter your Social Security number to prove your identity.” Solution: see #1 above.
- If you choose to show your birthday in Facebook, have it display just the day and not the year. I read some articles in which a computer security expert recommended this, and I decided to take his advice. I still can get birthday greetings on my wall from my Facebook friends next May 15 (or you can just mark your calendar now, so you start saving for my present), but if my year of birth isn’t available, I guess that makes it harder to steal my identity.
- If you’re really, really concerned that some evil genius might use your Facebook data to steal your identity, maybe you should refrain from mentioning your mother’s maiden name, your favorite pet or your elementary school in your profile. Those are the security questions web sites often use in their “forgot password” functions. I personally think this is a little paranoid, but it would be an additional safeguard.
The most important fact to remember about identity theft is that if someone uses your name and personal information to set up credit card accounts or secure loans for the purposes of stealing money, you don’t owe the money. If you didn’t apply for the loan or credit card, you are not liable. The criminal is. See Dave Ramsey for some good advice on this, including insurance protection you can buy that pays for someone else to go through the hassle of cleaning up the mess.
The other key thing to realize about identity theft is that most perpetrators are relatives; most cases don’t involve a stranger trolling the internet for Social Security numbers.
It’s like the mythical poisoned Halloween candy stories, or the stories of strangers hiding razor blades in apples to maim the mouths of unsuspecting Trick-or-Treaters. As detailed in Made to Stick, the reality was that the only documented cases of Halloween poisoning involved:
- A father whose child accidentally got into his drug stash and overdosed, and who initially claimed the child had eaten poisoned Halloween candy, and
- Another parent who purposely poisoned a child to cash in on a life insurance policy, and who used the same story.
Yet for a couple of generations, kids have been warned not to take candy from strangers, and some hospitals have offered x-ray services to find cleverly inserted needles and razor blades. So cleverly inserted that none have ever been found. The real danger wasn’t from the great mass of strangers, but from a few parents.
Still, it’s probably not a bad idea for parents to carefully examine their kids’ candy stashes two weeks from now, and to sample some of the fare. Especially the Milky Way bars and the Tootsie Rolls. You know, to protect the kids.
And by following these 4 tips to prevent Facebook identity theft, you’ll help keep anonymous strangers from running up credit card debts in your name.
But watch out for your parents.
So what tips did I miss? What other advice would you give people to prevent identity theft?
For related posts on Facebook and other social networking sites, particularly how they can be used for business and professional networking, check out the Facebook Business section.