How to prevent social media identity theft
Robert Siciliano Identity Theft Expert
Two words: you can’t. However, there are several things you can and should do in order to manage your social media identity, which may prevent social media identity theft. What exactly is social media identity theft? It’s a form of cybersquatting using social media sites.
If you’ve ever attempted to join a social media, more commonly known as a social networking site, or applied for an email account, and found that your first and last name were already taken, that may or may not have been social media identity theft, or cybersquatting.
There may be someone out there who shares your exact name and happened to register first, or else there is someone out there who took your name so that you can’t have it, or who wants to sell it back to you, or wants to pose as you and disrupt your life. These are all possibilities.
The most damaging possibility occurs when someone wants to pose as you in order to disrupt your life. This disruption can take on many forms. They may pose as you in order to harass and stalk you, or to harass and stalk people you know. Or they may steal your social media identity for financial gain. Throughout my years working in the field of financial crimes and identity theft, I’ve seen plenty of social media identity theft that led to financial loss. The thieves use a combination of email and social media to extract funds from others, or to open new accounts.
There are hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of social media sites (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube), web-based email providers (hotmail.com, gmail.com, yahoo.com) and domain extensions (.com, .net, .biz). Then there are all the blog portals, such as WordPress and Blogspot. Even your local online newspaper has a place for user comments, and most people would want to register their own names before someone else comments on their behalf.
Social media websites offer the option to provide your real name as well as a user name. The user name may be a fun chat handle or an abbreviation of your real name. The key is to give your real name where requested and also to use your real name as your user name. Even if you don’t plan on spending any time on the site, or to use the domain or email, you want to establish control over it.
The goal is to obtain your real first and last name without periods, underscores, hyphens, abbreviations or extra numbers or letters. Your ideal name, for example would be twitter.com/RobertSiciliano, RobertSiciliano.com, orRobertSiciliano@anymail.com. This strategy won’t prevent someone else from registering with your name and adding a dot or a dash, but it trims down the options for a thief.
Some names are very common, or are also owned by someone famous. If that applies to your name, you can still take actions to manage your online reputation. If there is any uniqueness to your name or the spelling of your name, it’s still a good idea to claim your name in social media and work toward managing your online reputation.
Understand that your name is your brand. Your name is front and center on every document you sign and every website that shows up when your name is searched. The phrase, “All I have is my good name,” has never rung truer than today. If you are a writer, blogger, personality of any sort, or anyone who “puts it out there,” you probably already know enough to do these things. But there is more to do.
If someone, perhaps a potential employer or mate or client, searches your name on Google Web, Google Blogs or Google News, what will they find? Will it be someone else posing as you? Will it be a picture of you doing a keg stand? Or will it be you in your nicest outfit, accepting an award for an accomplishment? Either way, you need to manage your online identity and work toward preventing social media identity theft.
This isn’t an easy task. Nor is it fun. It can be time consuming and almost overwhelming. But I believe that the long term rewards are worth it.
- Register your full name and those of your spouse and kids on the most trafficked social media sites, blogs, domains or web based email accounts. If your name is already gone, include your middle initial, a period or a hyphen. It’s up to you to decide whether or not to plug in your picture and basic bio, but consider leaving out your age or birthday.
- Set up a free Google Alerts for your name and get an email every time your name pops up online.
- Set up a free StepRep account for your name. StepRep is an online reputation manager that does a better job than Google Alerts does of fetching your name on the web.
- Consider dropping $65 on Knowem.com. This is an online portal that goes out and registers your name at what they consider the top 120 social media sites. Their top 120 is debatable, but a great start. The user experience with Knowem is relatively painless. There is still labor involved in setting things up and with some of the 120. And no matter what you do, you will still find it difficult to complete the registration with all 120 sites. Some of the social media sites just aren’t agreeable. This can save you lots of time, but is only one part of solving the social media identity theft problem.
- Start doing things online to boost your online reputation. Blogging is best. You want Google to bring your given name to the top of search in its best light, so when anyone is searching for you they see good things. This is a combination of online reputation management and search engine optimization for your brand: YOU.
- If you ever stumble upon someone using your likeness in the social media, be very persistent in contacting the site’s administrators. They too have reputations to manage and if they see someone using your photo or likeness they would be smart to delete the stolen profile.
- Or do nothing and don’t worry about it. But when some other John Doe does something stupid or uses your name in a disparaging way or for identity theft, and people assume that it’s you, remember that I told you so.
- Despite all the work you may do to protect yourself, you still need identity theft protection and Internet security software.
Robert Siciliano, identity theft speaker, discusses social media privacy.