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Beware of a New Kind of Business Identity Theft

Cyber criminals are hacking into review sites to post false information about a business or illegitimate reviews. Find out what you should do.
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For many business owners, avoiding identity theft means taking steps to prevent the loss of data that could lead to financial fraud. But there is another type of business identity theft emerging: online identity theft related to review and social sites such as Yelp, Google, Facebook and UrbanSpoon.

Cyber criminals or other businesses hack into these sites to post false information about a company or illegitimate reviews -- all with the intent to harm the organization.

More and more small businesses rely on the online listings posted to social and review sites that share information about their companies and provide recommendations. Yelp alone reaches 132 million users. And 90 percent of consumers say positive reviews on sites such as Yelp affect their purchases. With social sites having such a significant impact on consumer decisions, people hoping to harm a competitor's business often target such sites.

The challenge of having to managing a business reputation is not new for company owners. Yet the Internet has changed the way people make decisions and how reputations are spread. While these days it's easier for the advocates of a business to sing its praises, the converse is also true: It's easier for competitors to post false information and reviews in an anonymous way through the Internet.

As this type of online identity theft spreads, business owners should keep a close eye on what's being posted online about their companies. Here are some tips for doing so:

Related: Taming Online Customer Bullies, Cranks and the Like

1. Consider use of a reputation-management service.

While reputation-management services have been around for a while, historically they've been used by enterprise firms because of their high cost. But technological advances have made these services more automated, bringing down the price to a level that's more attractive for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Business-reputation management services monitor the most popular social and review sites, correct inaccuracies in online listings and alert a business owner to reviews that may be inaccurate or harmful.

Related: The Risks of Business Travel in a Wired World (Infographic)

2. Set up a social media presence.

Even if a business doesn’t currently have plans to actively post to Facebook or engage on Twitter, it should create social accounts in the company's name. This will prevent others from creating accounts and posing as the legitimate business.

3. After an unusual drop in business, check online.

Recently there have been instances of hacking into Google Map’s verification system and posting false information about a business. This includes updating the hours of operation for a business to give the impression that it's closed or even posting a false company location.

If there's an unusual drop in the company's ledgers that can’t be explained by the typical highs and lows of the business cycle, check online. The cause could be as simple as a bad review, which can be addressed. Or it could also be that someone has updated the company's business information. Sites to check include Yelp and Google Places.

Small business owners should not ignore what's being said online about their companies. This practice can lead to trouble. Take a proactive approach to online reputation management and build it into the business plan and marketing strategy. Concerned about a lack of time to do so? Explore reputation-management services that can take care of this.

Related: Tips for Keeping Your Travels Identity Theft Free