Are You Overexposed Online? 7 Tips for Social Media Butterflies

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Screenshot of the Please Rob Me website which highlights the danger of revealing personal info on social networking sites.
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You know better than to tell the stranger behind you in the Starbucks line your Social Security number, right? What about your mother's maiden name? You know, that little personal detail that's answers a common security question for many banking and credit card accounts? You wouldn't share that either, would you?

It turns out some of you would.

According to survey results just released by Visa, 14 percent of respondents admitted to sharing their mother's maiden name over social media -- and a shocking 7 percent had shared their Social Security number.

The good news is most of us know that those pieces of information should be kept close to the vest, but what about sharing vacation plans on Facebook (FB)? Seems harmless, right? In the survey, 15 percent of folks had posted upcoming travel dates, and 20 percent shared their home address.
Well, guess what? Your friends aren't the only ones who might want to hear about your vacation; Burglars do, too.

Most of us make an effort to protect our homes while we're away -- setting alarms, putting lights on timers, having neighbors check in -- so why are so many of us giving criminals the dirt on just when and where to find a vulnerable house to hit?

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We live in an increasingly open society, where it seems natural to share everything. While it might seem like no big deal to share your birth date on Facebook (how else to get a wall full of birthday wishes?), your address on Twitter, and Instagram shots of your vacation, but all those bits of information could add up to enough for criminals -- cyber and otherwise -- to open an account in your name or gain access to ones you already have.

So how do you avoid being overexposed?

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Think about the big picture. Decide up front what you'll share and what you won't and stick with it across all sites. (Hint: Your Social Security number, mother's maiden name, and passwords should never be shared.)

Check privacy settings. It's safest to share just with friends, not friends of friends. Who knows who's lurking around, or whether all of your friends are being as careful with their connections as you are? Recheck those settings regularly. Sites like Facebook change their policies all the time, so make sure your settings stay up to date.

Be a little less friendly. Speaking of friends ... while it's nice to be popular, if you have hundreds or thousands of "friends" you've never met or barely know, you're at risking that some of them may be less than trustworthy. Consider doing a little housekeeping, or at least taking advantage of tools like Facebook's Lists, which allow you to identify your close friends, family members, coworkers, etc. and determine who can see what information.

Save vacation snaps to post after you get back. Even if you don't explicitly say where you are or how long you're gone, some photos have location data attached that could give you away, and "check in" sites like Foursquare will tell people exactly where you're not -- home. When you're out of town, it's best just to give your social media accounts a vacation too.

Beware of bragging. Got diamond earrings for your birthday? A new TV for the big game? Lucky you! Now keep it to yourself. Posting photos of expensive items online is the new-fashioned equivalent of leaving the TV box out on the curb -- it tells thieves just whose house has the best loot.

Get more clever with those security questions. We're increasingly being asked to provide answers to questions such as what your first pet's name was or where you went to elementary school. It isn't as hard to find some of that information as you might think, especially if you are very active on social media or have a blog. Here's a hint: When you set the answers to those questions, spell them backward to thwart imposters.

Google yourself. It's not vanity if you do it in the name of security! By doing a few searches on yourself, you can check out what information is available to anyone for the asking.

Social media has changed the world, and whether you are an avid Instagrammer or a Facebook-phobe, it's essential to be proactive in protecting your digital data. If you wouldn't share it with that guy behind you at Starbucks, better to keep it quiet online, too.

Are You Overexposed Online? 7 Tips for Social Media Butterflies
For years, security professionals have emphasized the importance of shredding your personal documents before you throw them out. But Holland notes that shredding isn't as much of a priority as it used to be. "There aren't nearly as many documents with personal information out there as there were even just two years ago," he explains. "These days, it's much easier to get your information off your computer."

Passwords are your first line of defense against intruders. But, as Holland points out, even the most careful people sometimes have password breaches. "I've helped chief privacy officers from health care and security firms," he notes. "If they're getting hit, then anyone is vulnerable." While Holland notes the importance of having a good password, he emphasizes that the most important thing is paying attention to password breach notifications. If you hear that one of your passwords may have been breached, he counsels, change it immediately. And, because many of your accounts may be linked, he notes, it's not a bad idea to change the rest of your passwords as well.

One piece of advice that you don't often hear is to keep on top of software updates. But, Holland argues, updating your operating system, your software, and your security programs is one of the easiest and most important ways to ensure your security. Software companies spend a lot of time and money trying to stay ahead of online intruders -- it only makes sense to take advantage of their work.
Even if you are convinced that your security is state-of-the-art and your password is unbreakable, it never hurts to double-check your most sensitive accounts. Holland suggests regularly checking your bank and credit card statements to ensure that there aren't any inappropriate charges on your accounts. As a side benefit, this is also a great way to catch any unexpected fees that your bank may try to spring on you.
When a breach happens, a fast response can mean the difference between a minor annoyance and a major pain in the neck. With that in mind, Holland suggests talking to your bank about having transaction alerts placed on your account. Every time your account is credited with a transaction over a particular amount -- $50, for example -- your bank will send you an e-mail or text notification. If it's an expected transaction, you can discard the message; if not, you'll be able to respond immediately.
Every year, you are entitled to a free credit report from each of the reporting bureaus. Holland suggests taking advantage of this free service, noting that your credit report is a great way to track your outstanding debts and ensure that nobody is trying to open false accounts in your name. He emphasizes, however, that the best way to get your free report is by going to AnnualCreditReport.com, not FreeCreditReport.com. "That site's a scam," he laughs.
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Motley Fool contributing writer Robyn Gearey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Facebook and Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook and Starbucks. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.
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