The days of anonymous online handles are pretty much over. Facebook demands that its users use their real names (although many don't), and many users of other social-media services, like Twitter and Instagram, choose to dispense with anonymity.
That may make the Internet seem like a safe place, but oversharing on social media can have real-life consequences on a user's reputation, bank account and even physical safety.
Think before publishing
"Never post anything on the Internet that you don't want your mother-in-law or boss to see, even if you're trying to share something discreetly or privately," said Graham Cluley, an independent security expert based in Oxford, England.
"Be very, very careful, because social networks have goofed up before and suffered from vulnerabilities," Cluley added. "Even when you think you've made something private on a social network, it may be that they've screwed up."
In 2008, Cluley discovered a glitch in Facebook's code that revealed the birthdays of all of the social network's then-80 million users.
Cluley simply noticed that friends of his, who would not normally share such information, had their birthdays publicly posted.
The site was essentially ignoring the privacy preference to hide users' birthdays, information that could potentially be valuable to fraudsters.
"I lie about my date of birth on Facebook, even though I told it [to] never ever display this to anyone, because I don't necessarily trust them to keep it private," he added.
Having a firm grasp on how the privacy controls work on every social network is important, but as Cluley demonstrated, privacy controls aren’t foolproof, or even easy to understand.
Pick your friends
Former Facebook employee Randi Zuckerberg, who happens to be the sister of Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, was famously embarrassed after reporter Callie Schweitzer tweeted what was supposed to be a private Zuckerberg family photo.
It turned out that because Schweitzer was a friend of a friend of Randi Zuckerberg, the photo had rightly come up in her Facebook news feed. Even the former head of marketing for Facebook hadn’t quite understood her Facebook privacy settings correctly.
"The first thing users should do on their social-media accounts is to go into their privacy settings and limit their sharing to 'friends only,'" said Sarah Downey, attorney and a privacy analyst at Boston-based online privacy company Abine.
"Sharing with 'friends of friends' can expose your info to more than 150,000 people," Downey said. "That's how big our online networks have become."
It's also a good idea to periodically prune out "friends" you don't actually know, Downey suggested, and to accept friend requests only from people you know in real life.
What happens on Facebook doesn’t stay on Facebook
It's important not only to manage your friends list and settings, but to also Google your own name, just to see what others can potentially dig up.
Posts on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Google+ and others are potentially searchable by the likes of Bing, Yahoo and Google. Social-media privacy settings and options have changed over the years and may be set differently than they once were.
"Search, delete, untag and lock down," said Reputation.com director Leslie Hobbs. "Search your name on all the major search engines [and] delete questionable posts and photos you've uploaded. Untag yourself from any photo that's not completely innocuous, and lock down your privacy settings."
So what is and isn't okay to share?
Whenever you share information online, assume strangers are going to see it. Before posting anything on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or any other social media site, think about how it could be used against you.
For example, it's probably not a great idea to brag about your upcoming two-week vacation, with the exact dates, or to post your phone number to public "lost my phone, give me your numbers" type of group.
"Do your 536 Facebook friends need to know that you're out of town while your house is unguarded and full of valuables? No," Hobbs said. "Do your Twitter followers need to know that you're home alone while your spouse is on a work trip? Absolutely not."
"It's not just about the people you're friends with," Hobbs added. "It's also who they're connected with, and what they can see."
Burglary through Facebook
Cluley said that in one case he knows of, a woman boasted about attending a concert and was burgled while she was out.
When the woman saw the security camera footage of the break-in, she realized the burglar was an old college acquaintance with whom she hadn’t been in touch for years. He had befriended her on Facebook, out of the blue, a couple of months prior.
"On Twitter, [people will] say something like 'I'm at Terminal Five at Heathrow, about to go on vacation to Barbados for 2 weeks,'" Cluley said.
"That tells burglars when they need to get out by," he pointed out. "I never post up that I'm going to New York or that I’m attending a conference in Berlin. I'd much prefer to wait until I got home and say, 'I had a great time in Barbados,' and that way it’s much more secure."
It's important to strike a balance between sharing openly and sharing safely. Too often the temptation to brag or show off overcomes users' sense of good judgment and can, unfortunately, have negative outcomes.
But with a little bit of foresight and hesitation, social media users can unlock its great sharing potential without suffering the consequences of divulging too much.
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