Social Media Safety Tips

Is social media safe?

Websites known as "social networks" or "social media" have become popular lately as a way to stay in touch with family and friends, old and new, as well as to connect with the things that we care about in life.  However, there are some who would caution that social media is bringing us too close together, causing people to rather carelessly share information that they normally would keep private.  This is not only due to the nature of social media and its emphasis on sharing, but also sometimes because many think that social networks are more private than they actually are.

Like we have said before, this is not at all to suggest that social networks are dangerous places.  We are only asking you to remember that social networks are largely public forums, and that a desire to express yourself and connect with others has to be weighed against your preference to keep certain information private.  It may seem difficult to strike that balance when you're having fun chatting with new friends and people you know on social media, but there are a few common-sense things that you can do to make sure that you aren't being overly candid when you use a social network like Facebook or Twitter.  The following are five important tips to consider.

5 tips on how to stay safe on social media sites

1.  Remember that once information is shared, it's largely out of your control.

Before you post anything on social media, you should understand this fundamental rule.  Even if you limit what personal information you put on social media, or who can find your information at all, not everyone with whom you interact on social media will be as privacy-wise as you.  For the most part, as long as you keep things respectful, people will generally be good about not incessantly sharing information that you post on social media (often only doing so when they find it personally interesting  and, of course, appropriate).

However, just remember that once someone else shares your information, it can be shared with anyone whom that person knows, and any people those people know, and so on.  Information shared in this manner is nearly impossible to erase, mostly for the sole reason that you can't control what other people do (or have done) with it.  Therefore, if you're unsure about whether you should post something on social media, ask yourself these two rule-of-thumb questions:

  1. Would I be comfortable saying this at a party attended by people whom I may or may not know?

  2. Would I be comfortable if someone at the party overheard what I said, and told it to someone else whom they know?

If you can't answer "yes" to both of these questions, then it's probably not a good idea to post whatever you were planning to post on social media.

2.  If possible, limit the amount of personal information that you post or share.

There are certain credentials that you have to enter when you sign up for a social network account.  You will usually be asked for your email address, but depending on the particular social media website, you may also be asked for your gender, birthday, phone number, or even your real name.  Generally,  this information is requested in order for the website to verify that you're a real person, and not just a computer program or other fake account whose intention is to cause trouble. 

However, sometimes this information is optional, and is used to fill out your profile so that people who visit you on social media can get a sense of who you are.  If this is the case, then it is perfectly fine to avoid posting this information if you feel that it will impact your privacy too much.  At the very least, if it is possible, adjust your settings on the social network to control who can see the personal information on your profile, regardless of whether said information is optional or mandatory (see the next tip).

Of course, it should go without saying that if you wouldn't share something about yourself on your public profile, you probably shouldn't share it in a regular post, either.  In the same vein, respect the privacy of your friends and family.  Don't post personal information about them on your social networks, and if they post something personal about themselves out of carelessness, don't compound their mistake by sharing that information with anyone else.

3.  If possible, control who can find or view your information.

Many social media websites have settings that allow you to control who can find and view the information that you post on them, including your profile information (mandatory or otherwise).  For instance, you can let everyone see it, only people whom you have personally connected with, or just yourself.  Or, you can share your information and posts with specific lists of pre-approved people.

In addition, many social media websites also allow you to control how people can find you on the website if you haven't already connected with them.  For example, they may be able to look up your profile based on your email address or phone number, or even find you by using a search engine such as Google Search or Bing.  If you aren't comfortable with people finding one of your social network profiles in this manner, adjust these settings to disallow it.

Facebook and Twitter are two popular social media websites that have features like this.  To learn how to control who can find and view your Facebook profile or posts, see our How to Change Facebook Privacy Settings and Facebook Lists (for Privacy) tutorials. To learn how to control who can see your tweets (i.e. messages) and other information on Twitter, see our Twitter Privacy tutorial.

Finally, some social media websites have the ability to connect your account and/or profile to your account on another website, and vice-versa.  This can be useful, for example, if you want to copy information from your email service to a social network to see if anyone you know through email uses that social network, and save yourself the trouble of looking for each person manually.  You may not want to use this capability, however, as it may result in you connecting with certain people whom you normally wouldn't want seeing your activity on social media, such as your boss or doctor.

4.  Keep things positive, especially concerning your personal life.

Generally, you won't run into problems on social media if you're nice to people.  It's okay to have differences of opinion, and maybe even a healthy dose of debate or constructive criticism once in a while (if you feel that it's called for).  But you should by-and-large stay away from posting information or comments that are deliberately insulting or offensive towards a certain person or group of people. 

By the same token, it's also usually not a good idea to impulsively express your anger at something that you find insulting or offensive on social media.  It's difficult to convey tone over text messages or comments, so what some people say or post can easily be taken out of context.  Plus, the subject matter is almost never directed at you personally, so you might stand out in a bad way if you get angry at something when nobody else who is commenting on the subject does. 

Another thing to remember is that social media generally isn't an appropriate place to complain about your personal life.  This includes your job and your relationship with your co-workers or clients, or your home life and your relationship with your parents, spouse, siblings, children, or other family members.  Even though the people you're complaining to may generally be your "friends", they may also have a reason to report what you say to the person you're complaining about.  For example, they could also be "friends" with that person.  Or, they just generally think you're a jerk, and embarrassing you by exposing something mean that you did is their way of putting you in your place.

If you act nasty or grumpy around too many people on social media, you can quickly gain a bad reputation.  This may cause your friends — and even their friends or anyone else who knows about you — to turn the tables on you and start ignoring you or otherwise treating you with disdain.  In addition, people have been fired from their jobs in the past because they complained about or were mean to someone on social media.  The moral of the story is to make sure that your behaviour on social networks is courteous for the most part.

5.  If you have something private to say, use private channels.

Many social media websites have functions that allow you to quickly send private messages back and forth between you and other people or groups of people, without anyone else being able to see what you wrote.  This can be one way to share information over social media without allowing other people to snoop on it.

Again, Facebook and Twitter are two popular social networks that feature these kinds of private messaging systems.  

An even better alternative, however, is to not use social media at all for conveying this kind of information.  If you want to share something private with someone you know on social media, find the person's email address or phone number (if possible, and assuming you don't already have one or the other), and send them an email or give them a phone call.  Of course, before doing so, make sure that the person whom you're trying to contact is someone whom you trust to tell private information to in the first place!

 

There!  Now you have some common-sense guidelines for how to use social media websites properly.  Don't post any optional information that you're not comfortable with revealing, be respectful of the other people whom you interact with (both on and off social media), and consider alternate communication channels if you really need to say something private to someone.  Now go make some new friends!


Online Dating Safety Tips

What is online dating?

The Internet has no shortage of online dating websites, where people create profiles about themselves in order to stand out and attract potential romantic companions.  They are advantageous in some ways, in that they allow people to expose themselves to hundreds of potential matches at once (with the hopes that one of them will be the right fit), and/or to narrow down what they really want in a companion so that whoever they're matched with has a high chance of clicking with them.

Is online dating safe?

However, online dating websites also present opportunities for criminals to easily manipulate people.  By posing as someone looking for love, a cyber-criminal may be able to trick their matches into giving up personal information, or even meeting with them in a secluded place.  From there, a criminal may be able to steal a person's identity or money, physically or emotionally abuse them, or worse.

Many dating websites know that these sorts of things happen, and have taken measures to weed out potentially dangerous people.  However, there are also precautions that you can take to protect yourself from being targeted by these kinds of people, or at least identify and avoid them before they can take advantage of you.  The following are five important guidelines to remember for online dating.

5 safety tips for online dating

1.  If you're not comfortable with it, don't reveal any personal information on your profile that you aren't required to.

Often, dating websites will require you to provide certain credentials when you sign up for an account.  You will usually be asked for your email address, gender, birthday, and perhaps also your real name.  This is information that people on a dating website will generally want to know about you during the matchmaking process.  It also helps verify that you're actually interested in using the website properly, and are not looking to cause trouble. 

However, you will also often be invited to enter other information, such as your body type or dimensions, whether or not you drink or smoke, your faith or religion, your political views, and so on.  Some of this information may help you get more accurate matches, but on the other hand, you may not feel comfortable revealing it.  So if it isn't mandatory, then you can leave it blank.  It also isn't a bad idea to make sure that your profile picture — if you are required to include one — doesn't include any recognizable features or information concerning where you live, nor do any other pictures that you upload (if this is an option).

2.  If you find someone whom you like, research the person.

Just because someone seems right for you doesn't mean that they are who they say they are.  Even if some dating websites say they do background checks on a person, it's sometimes not a guarantee of security, so do a "background check" of your own.  Look at the person's profile and see what they have to say about themselves.  You may be able to tell whether or not things add up about them right away.  If you're still not sure, see if you can privately message some other people on the website, and ask about your match and their reputation.  It might also not be a bad idea to type your match's name, user name, or other profile information into a search engine and see what comes up.  If you see too much of the same information too many times, it might be a hint that the person isn't genuine.

3.  Use private, secure communication to talk with your matches.

Many dating websites have secure internal messaging or chat systems that allow you to talk with other people in private.  It is advantageous to use these systems if you can, as it means you don't have to use regular email and possibly reveal your email address to someone whom you don't fully trust.  There are even some websites that have secure phone lines that you can use to make phone calls to matches without either of you revealing your personal phone numbers.  These may require an upgraded paid account to access, but this can be worth it if you value your privacy.

If you don't feel like shelling out money for anonymous phone connections, a possible alternative is to use an Internet phone — or VoIP – service such as Skype.   Many of these services only identify you by a user name, so you can call someone without revealing any other information about yourself.  Be careful, though, as some will still allow others to view your email address, and perhaps other information you have posted on your profile.

See our Internet Phone article for more information about VoIP, and some examples of it.  Also, see our Skype Course for information on how to use this particular VoIP service.

4.  Don't be afraid to call things off if your match makes you uncomfortable.

The most important thing to remember in dating — whether in real life or in cyberspace — is to maintain control over the situation at a pace with which you're comfortable.  Through communicating with your match, you may be able to notice some signs that they want to move too fast, or are otherwise just not right.  For example, they may be overly demanding, and always want things to be done a certain way.  Or, they may get offended or angry too easily, perhaps as an attempt to dodge certain questions that you ask them.  They may take out their frustration by badmouthing other people, or even you.  Or, they may bring up issues of sex or money unusually early in the dating process.  These are all warning signs that your match may be trouble.

If something that your match is doing or saying makes you feel uncomfortable, you have every right to tell them so.  If they are a genuine person, they will be responsive to your needs, and stop the unwanted behaviour.  If they do not, however, and you notice a pattern of the same alarming behaviour over and over, then you also have the right to walk away and stop communicating with that person.  You don't even need to explain why you are doing so; again, if the person was sincere, they would understand that you don't want to be pressured into doing something that you're not comfortable with.

5.  If you want to meet the person in real life, don't do it alone.

If something clicks between you and your match, you may want to meet for a date in the real world.  This is fine, but remember that you should still take precautions and not let your guard down.  For starters, don't allow your match to persuade you into going somewhere isolated, such as hiking into the woods, or meeting at either of your houses (which includes picking each other up).  Instead, suggest a date in a crowded, urban area, such as at a mall or restaurant, where there will be people who notice if something suspicious happens.  Also, don't agree to meet at a place where you hang out all the time.  If things don't work out, you don't want to make it easy for your match to find you again and possibly stalk you.

Another important tip is to let someone you trust know what you're doing and where you're going, and share what you know about your match with them.  If possible, get that person to come with you on the date as a chaperone, and ask them to help you watch your match for any suspicious behaviour.  If your confidant can't come with you on the date, make sure that you have a way to contact them during the date, such as a mobile phone (and make sure it's fully charged before you leave), in case anything happens.  When the date is over, don't leave together with your match (e.g. don't offer them a ride home or accept their offer to drive you home), and don't let them see you get into your car (as they may use your car's license plates or other defining characteristics to tail you).  Also, check in with your confidant and let them know how things went.

A final thing to remember is that you should follow these precautions if you go on more dates in the future with the same person.  Some criminals will hope that you will be familiar enough with them to trust them after only one or two dates, and then strike when you let your guard down as a result.  Until you're absolutely sure that you can trust one of your matches, don't do anything that could reveal any sort of personal information about yourself to them, and never go anywhere alone with them.

 

To wrap things up for this lesson, we'd like to remind you that we're not trying to scare you away from online dating completely.  We're simply letting you know that, while there are certain people on online dating websites who are dangerous, there are also signs you can look for and actions that you can take in order to identify and avoid them.   Most people who follow tips like these by using their instincts and common sense rarely have any problems at all when dating online.  In fact, online dating can be a very fun experience, and possibly one that helps you find that special someone.


Online Shopping Safety Tips

What is online shopping?

The Internet has been instrumental in re-shaping commerce, even on a personal level.  Today, millions of people browse online marketplaces for products that can be shipped right to their door, or even downloaded straight onto their computer.  And just as many people use these same marketplaces to make some quick money — or perhaps even a living — by exposing their products or other unwanted items to a global audience.

Is online shopping safe?

Sadly, there are also people who see shopping websites as a golden opportunity to swindle the unwary.  Some may purposely misrepresent their products, or hide behinds strict policies that do not allow refunds or returns.  Others may not be selling a product at all, and instead rob people blind by making fake payments for items, or luring a victim outside of a website and accepting payment for a item that never existed.

While scams such as these are relatively rare on most popular e-commerce websites today, they have been attempted in the past, and there's nothing to say that they won't be tried again in the future.  That's why it's important to take safety precautions — like the five listed below — when using e-commerce websites, so that you can shop online with confidence.

5 tips on how to shop online safely

1.  Look for the "HTTPS" protocol and other security signifiers.

As we mentioned in our "What is a URL" article, many websites today use the Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTPS) as opposed to the regular Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP).  At the very least, HTTPS is often used on web pages that require you to input sensitive information, such as when you log in with an email address and password, or when you enter information related to your identity, your home address, and/or your credit card or other finances.  When you're shopping on an e-commerce website and go to check out, watch the address bar to see if web pages start using the HTTPS protocol.

In addition, you can check if your browser thinks that the website is secure by looking for a little lock icon in the address bar.  Clicking on it should bring up the ability to see More Information about the website's Secure Socket Layer (SSL) Certificate.  This is kind of like a digital ID card that tells you that the website or web page is genuine, and that — along with HTTPS — it will encrypt the sensitive information that you enter so that it will appear as gibberish to anyone who tries to steal it.

2.  Read the ratings and reviews on items and sellers.

Before you buy an item, you should check not only to see whether or not other people have been happy with the item, but also how trustworthy other people think the actual person selling the item is.  Many online marketplaces will not only allow people to rate and review specific items, but also rate and review the sellers themselves (based on speed of item delivery, accommodation of payment options, helpfulness in resolving a problem, etc.).  Comparing these ratings and review can be a useful tool in weeding out potential scammers or phony products.

However, different people have different benchmarks when it comes to how well-rated and reviewed an item has to be before they buy it, or how well-rated and reviewed a seller has to be before they buy from them.  We can only recommend that you shop around, compare and think carefully about what people say about a product or vendor, and then use your best judgment from there.

3.  Before you buy an item, read its returns and refunds policy carefully.

Some online marketplaces have standard return and refund policies, but others leave these up to the individual sellers on the website.  Unfortunately, some scammers may use the latter to their advantage by attempting to trap potential buyers with strict policies.  For example, they may only offer a return or refund for a limited amount of time, or they may only allow an item to be replaced instead of refunded or exchanged.  Some may not offer refunds or returns of any kind (though this is usually rare).

Not all people who have strict return/refund policies are scammers; they may have a legitimate reason, such as their products being expensive and/or time-consuming to make.  However, it can definitely feel like you're getting scammed if you can't return or get a refund for an item because you didn't read the policies of the shopping website or the seller.  That's why it's important to read these policies, so that you know what you're getting into before you buy.

4.  If you don't feel safe using a credit card, explore alternative payment options.

One of the questions that we get most often here at Techboomers concerning shopping websites and other websites that require users to pay for their services is: is it safe to use my credit card on this website?  For most popular websites like this, the answer is "yes", as they follow the security measures outlined in tip #1.  However, if you're still a bit squeamish about entering your credit card details into every website where you have to pay for something, there are some websites that will allow you to pay for items and services in a manner other than entering your credit card information. 

For example, many accept PayPal, a popular online transaction service used by people who do not want to input their credit card details into different e-commerce websites.  There are other websites that will even allow you to make purchases entirely by using gift cards, so you can ask someone else who is comfortable with using their credit card online to buy them for you, and then pay them back.  Then, you can purchase items just by entering your account (and perhaps your shipping) information, and not any financial information. 

An example of a website that offers these kinds of payment options is online movie-watching website Netflix.  To learn how to pay for Netflix subscriptions using PayPal, gift cards, or an iTunes account, see our How to Get Netflix without a Credit Card tutorial.

5.  Never complete or accept a payment for an item outside of the website that it's listed on.

In our Advance-Fee Fraud article, we went over an example of why paying (or accepting payment) for an item outside of the e-commerce website where that item is listed is a bad idea.  It is a very easy way to get scammed, not only because you've possibly lost the protection of a secure transaction environment (as was outlined in tip #1), but you've also likely lost the protection of having the e-commerce website receive a record of your transaction.  This means that your financial information might be vulnerable to being stolen, and it may be difficult for the e-commerce website that you bought the item on to catch and take action against the scammer (since they don't have hard evidence of the person doing anything wrong).

Also of note is that paying (or accepting payment) for an item outside of the e-commerce website where that item is listed is often against that website's rules.  This is because many e-commerce websites charge commission fees when items are bought or sold, and so completing transactions off-site is basically cheating them out of their money.  For this reason, it might not be a bad idea to report anyone who tries to take a transaction outside of an e-commerce website, since if they're not an outright scammer, then at the very least they're not using the website properly.

 

Okay!  Now you know what to look for when you're shopping online in order to know if a website is trusted and safe.  You also know how to spot and avoid online shopping scammers and their tricks, and that there are websites with alternative payment options available if you don't want to use your credit card all the time.


Web Safety Tips for Safe Internet Browsing

One of the things that you'll most often be doing on the Internet is using your web browser of choice to explore and navigate the World Wide Web.  Not surprisingly, this is where a lot of Internet security threats can pop up.  Computer programs can track where you go on the Web, usually just to show you advertisements for things you might like, but sometimes for more sinister purposes.  And clicking on the wrong hyperlink, visiting the wrong webpage, or downloading the wrong file can spell trouble for you in the form of viruses and spyware.

Fear not, though!  Many of these threats can be avoided through common sense, or with tools that are easily available over the Internet or right on your web browser itself.  Here are some of our top recommendations for general precautions to take in order to surf the World Wide Web safely.

1.  Learn how to browse privately.

Most popular web browsers today have the ability to let you enter a special private session.  It's called different things depending on which browser you're using; Google Chrome calls it "Incognito Mode", Microsoft Internet Explorer calls it "InPrivate Browsing", and Mozilla Firefox just calls it "Private Browsing".  They all work in pretty much the same way, though: they allow you to browse the World Wide Web without leaving a record of what you do on your browser or computer.

This means that things such as records of websites and pages that you've visited, records of terms you've entered into search engines or other input boxes, records of files you've downloaded (but not the files themselves), and cookies (small files that websites put on your computer in order to "remember" you) will all automatically be deleted when you close all private windows in your web browser.  This is an especially important skill when using public computers, as you don't want a stranger snooping on what you've been doing on the World Wide Web.

Remember though, these private options delete records of what you've been doing on the World Wide Web from your side only.  They unfortunately do not stop websites, network administrators, your Internet provider, or any curious onlooker from seeing where you're going on the World Wide Web.  Fortunately, there are ways to get around this with certain antivirus software, or other browser features and add-ons (as we'll explain below).

2.  Take advantage of your browser's security features.

Many modern browsers have built-in security features that help alert you to common security threats.  For instance, they will display a lock icon in the web address bar if the website you are on can verify itself as secure; you can click this lock to see more about the website's security credentials.

In addition, most popular browsers will warn you if you are about to go to a website where it is known that there are downloadable files that contain viruses or spyware, or that there are other functions that allow cyber-criminals to manipulate and/or damage your computer.  Some browsers will be able to tell this just from looking at the website's address.

It is important to occasionally check for updates to your browser of choice (or, better yet, enable automatic updating) to make sure that these security features are in tip-top shape.  Also be aware that your browser's security features may not catch every threat you encounter, so have good antivirus software installed as well.

3.  Install add-ons that can steer you away from threats.

You can put extra features on your web browser that can help to deal with certain problematic elements on the World Wide Web.  For instance, many web browsers come with — or allow you to install — a system that prevents pop-up windows from activating (though you can override this if you know a pop-up window is safe).  Pop-up advertisements, besides being annoying, are a prime way for cybercriminals to slow down people's computers or trick them into downloading viruses or spyware. 

Other add-ons work to block tracking programs on the Internet from monitoring what you do, so (for example) you don't see certain advertisements that are eerily tailored based on places you've been on the World Wide Web.  There are many options for most popular browsers to customize them for greater security and performance; ask someone whom you trust who knows a lot about computers to pick the ones that are right for you.

4.  Know how to download with care.

As we've said, downloading infected files is one of the prime ways that viruses and spyware find their way onto your computer.  However, not every file downloadable from the Internet is a bad apple.  There are a few ways to stay safe when downloading files from the Internet.

  • Make sure your computer itself is protected with antivirus software and other security features, which may be able to block malware if you accidentally do end up downloading it. 

  • Use your browser's built-in or added-on security features (as described in tips #2 and #3), as well as our tips for how to spot phishing scams and other phony websites (as outlined in our How to be Safe on the Internet, Phishing Scams, and Advance-Fee-Fraud articles), to make sure that the website you're downloading from is trusted and secure. 

  • If given the chance, choose to save a file that you're downloading instead of opening it right away.  This gives you the chance to use your antivirus software to scan it and make sure that it's safe.

  • Be wary of downloading files from peer-to-peer (P2P) websites or software.  Not only do many of these files hide viruses and spyware, but many of them are also illegal because they break copyright laws.

5.  Cover your tracks on the World Wide Web once in a while.

Sometimes, it's helpful to keep a record of where you've been and what you've done on the Internet.  For example:

  • Your browsing history can help you remember a website that you found but forgot about.

  • Your search history can help you quickly perform a new search for something you were looking for previously.

  • Cookies and form entry history can help you remember the preferences and information you've specified for websites (which can allow you to navigate them faster).

However, all of this information can be used by others to track your Internet browsing habits.  Mostly, it's used by websites to serve you specific advertisements based on what they think you like, but malicious Internet users may actively try to follow you and even manipulate what you do on the Internet (though this is rare).

It is for this reason that it's occasionally a good idea to clear your web browsing history.  Most popular web browsers will have an option in the "History" or "Setting/Preferences" section that will allow you to delete your browsing data.  In addition to helping keep you from being tracked on the Internet, this frees up computer memory, so your computer or Internet connection may run a little bit faster.

 

Great!  Now you know some general precautions to take when using your web browser to surf the World Wide Web.  The other tutorials in this section will give you some specific pointers on how to do specific activities safely on the Internet, such as dating, shopping, and using social media.