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Monday, December 1, 2008

Think Before You Post: The Dangers of the Social Networking Profile … Revealed

By Jeremy Miller

Identity theft expert Jeremy Miller, manager of the Investigation and Restoration Center at Kroll Fraud Solutions, breaks down the typical components of a social networking profile and discusses why what seem like small details about your personal life can amount to a big reward for identity thieves.

Social networking sites … we all know and love them. After all, they keep us connected to friends, family and long lost acquaintances. They introduce us to others who share our interests and activities. In some cases, they even help us get jobs – take LinkedIn, for example. Or we can trace our family history with the likes of Ancestry.com.

But sometimes staying connected comes at a cost. What many do not realize is that the more information you reveal online, the greater your chances of having that information accessed by the wrong person. In fact, the risk of identity theft through social networking can be high. But before you delete that profile, you should know that social networking and identity theft DO NOT have to be synonymous.

There are certain things that you can do to minimize your risk and it starts with thinking before you post.

  • Name – Your name is the first and most recognizable part of your identity. When networking online, it’s better to use your first name only – or better yet, use a nickname that your friends recognize or that you’d be comfortable being called by strangers. If both names must be used, leave out your middle initial. In some cases, individuals may consider altering the spelling of their name or leaving out letters. For example, a woman named ‘Nancy’ might opt to spell it “Nancee” or “Nanci” in the networking space.

  • Birthday – Your date of birth is one key element of what Kroll calls the holy trinity of personally identifiable information (PII). In combination with your name and Social Security number, identity thieves have full ability to open accounts, rent homes and gain employment all while posing as you. It’s best to omit this information entirely, but at the very least avoid including all parts of your date of birth. You can always say March 5 without including your year of birth, for example. But make sure you don’t cancel out this protective measure by including your age in another section of your profile. If you do, an identity thief need only apply simple math to complete your date of birth.

  • Address – It’s never advisable to include your full address in any online communication. To put it into perspective: you wouldn’t hand over your street address to a stranger on the street, would you? For the purposes of online profiles, opt to include only your city and (if Necessary) state. If you live in a large metropolitan area like New York City, you can probably get away with including both city and state, but if you live in a small town, it’s better to leave the information off altogether.

  • Profile Photo – It may surprise you to learn that your profile photo can reveal important information about your identity. For example, a photo of you in your business uniform might tell an attentive identity thief where you work – a key piece of information when it comes to verifying one’s identity. Consider using simple headshots to avoid unnecessary risks. In some cases you may even use alternate profile images – from a beautiful sunset shot to a picture of your favorite actor/actress.

  • Phone Number –It’s best to not post your phone number at all. A thief can easily obtain the corresponding address (see above risks) through a reverse lookup on the Internet.

  • Salary - Particularly in these tough economic times, your salary can make you more attractive to thieves – which in turn can make you more vulnerable. A fraudster is more likely to go after a person who has a higher salary, for example, as the individual has much more to lose and the thief would have much more to gain. And just THINK how easily it could be done if the other information above (profile photo, date of birth, phone number and address were ALSO provided!)

  • Status Updates Regularly updating people on where you are and what you’re doing can put valuable information about you into the hands of an individual with bad intentions. Furthermore, if someone knows where you live by piecing together the above information, telling them you’re “at the movies” or “at the beach for the weekend” can be just the invitation an unwanted visitor needs to come snooping at your place of residence.

As if the above information is not ominous enough, it’s important to keep in mind that even individuals who include just one or two of these features on their Web site are not completely out of the woods when it comes to identity theft. Why? In a tactic known as “synthetic identity theft,” ID thieves piece together different components of a variety of individuals’ personal information to create one unique identity. That means your date of birth could be matched up with another person’s address or Social Security number to create an alternate or “synthetic identity” that may significantly impact victims later on in life. This concoction makes synthetic identity fraud particularly hard to detect and even harder to fix.

We realize that eliminating all of the above from your social networking activities would make for a pretty boring profile. We also know that social networking is here to stay and, more importantly, that it’s a great tool to help people keep in touch and meet across cities, states, countries and continents. While it’s not necessary to remove all details of your personal life from the pages of your social networking profiles, it is essential to think before you post. When in doubt, remember this: if you wouldn’t give this information to a stranger on the street – you probably don’t want to put it online for the world to see.

Kroll’s licensed investigators work with identity theft victims on a daily basis, allowing them to keep their fingers on the pulse of the latest identity theft trends. For more information on identity theft defense and response, visit www.krollfraudsolutions.com

About Jeremiah Miller, Manager, Investigation and Restoration Center, Kroll Fraud Solutions
Jeremiah Miller has unique frontline experience in the areas of identity theft discovery, investigation and restoration. Upon joining Kroll Fraud Solutions in 2002, Miller was instrumental in the development of the division’s restoration methodology and established many of its existing policies and procedures. A licensed investigator himself, Miller leads the team of licensed investigators specializing in cases of identity theft and fraud.