Facebook Users: How Not to Get Hacked

Last Updated May 10, 2011 8:26 AM EDT

Just a few weeks after the troubling news that Sony had been the target of a hacker attack that may have compromised a hundred million customer accounts, Consumer Reports has released some disturbing findings about online privacy and security-or the lack of it-among Facebook users. According to the Consumer Reports survey:
  • A large number of Facebook users are too young to be using the site. Some 20 million minors used Facebook within the past year, and of those, 7.5 million were younger than 13. Facebook requires users to be at least 13 years old.
  • More than five million Facebook users are younger than 10, and their parents aren't paying particularly close attention to their accounts.
  • Facebook comes with frightening security risks. In the past year, using Facebook has exposed more than five million U.S. households to risks such as virus infections and identity theft. More than one million children have been bullied because of their use of the site.
It's not just Facebook that's to blame, of course. Consumer Reports also found that, overall, one third of U.S. households had experienced a malicious software infection in the past year. The total cost? Some $2.3 billion, largely because about 1.3 million PCs had to be replaced.

Staying Safe
There are plenty of things Facebook users, and others, can do to protect their personal information online. Consumer Reports recommends:

  • Keep tabs on your kids' accounts. Some kids won't 'friend' their parents, of course, but they just might fork over their user name and password. Other parents can keep up on their children's online activities via siblings or other friends.
  • Use privacy controls. Consumer Reports found that one in five adult Facebook users don't use privacy controls. Whenever Facebook gives you a choice, set the information to be visible only to your friends. Otherwise your profile picture, friends list, activities, and other info can be seen by anyone who does a public search on your name.
  • Turn off Instant Personalization. Instant personalization shares your location information with sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor (and the list is growing). The default setting for "instant personalization" is "on," but you can turn it off.
  • Be careful with apps. In most cases, you can decide which information an app can see. Facebook says it doesn't share identifiable information with advertisers, but using an app does make general information available.
  • Set a PIN number for your phone. Most smartphones allow you to set a four-digit PIN for your phone, but only about 20 percent of people-even those who store sensitive information on their phones-actually do this.
  • Protect your phone. The PIN is just the start. Many manufacturers offer over-the-air backup, remote phone locating, remote phone locking, and erasing of data and account info. You can also get software to lock your phone or erase data remotely. Turn off the phone's GPS feature if you don't need it.
Do you think Facebook does a good job protecting its users' privacy and data?
Image courtesy of flickr user Hans Pama
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.