Privacy Alerts - Online Communities

Online communities: what you need to know to stay safe

What are online communities?

An online community is loosely defined as a group of people that primarily interact over the internet rather than face-to-face. There are multitudes of ways to interact over the internet. Some of the most common ways that average computer users interact are:

Blogs: a term short for web logs. These sites allow users to chronicle entries, that become a type of personal journal posted online to be viewed by the public. Visitors can leave comments for the blog writer about particular entries. Examples are Blogger.com, and many people "in the know" site Facebook.com and Myspace.com as blogs for their blogging features.

Bulletins/Message Boards: These are groups for which you have a profile, and submit information/commentary onto their message boards or forums. PoliticalForum.com and IGN.com are examples.

P2P (Peer-to-peer) networks: are very popular sites that focus on connections between computer users on a network (rather than a large amount of network servers). Kazaa, Morpheus, Napster, and Limewire are examples.

Social Networking: A booming market. Most popular are: myspace.com, facebook.com, and linkedin.com

Usenets: These include online groups you join based on a specific topic. Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups are examples.

Wikis: Are a collaborative form of online community information. The Wiki flagship is Wikipedia, the largest encyclopedia ever (we're talking 7.5 million articles in 253 languages).

Consumer: Allow users to buy from site while interacting. Examples are eBay, Amazon

Rating sites: Allow users to flag, rate, or bookmark articles and websites on the internet. Ideally, this helps users decide and find what's "hot" on the Web. Examples are Digg.com, Rateitall.com.

What can you do to stay safe?

Think about it. Online communities require a username, email, and password (at the least) in order to contribute. Many ask for a lot more information, but these are the essentials. They may ask for gender, birth date, addresses, educational information, phone numbers (home, cell, work), Instant Messenger names, and even more.

Now really think about it. This is a direct marketers (telemarketers, junkmailers, & customer information brokers) dream find. So, first consider, how useful your information (and everyone else's) information would be if it found its way to an information brokers database. Read your online community's privacy agreement to see if it happens. It very possibly does.

Second, consider that many of these profiles are public, or comments you leave are available in public spaces. Is your email address or other information listed in this public space... well isn't that's a spam salvager's dream?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) states that 86% of the e-mail addresses that are posted to web pages and newsgroups receives spam. For email addresses posted to message boards, 27% receive spam.

The bottom line: don't post information that you're not comfortable sharing with complete strangers because that's what you're doing.

Stay aware of how such information might be used by scammers of all kinds, both online and off, and keep yourself from sharing too much.

Remember that comments you post are permanently recorded on the community site. As you feel more comfortable and casual with a community, you will start to loosen up and talk about more sensitive issues. These may be professional (maybe borderline "insider" information), or sensitive personal issues and values. If you have any political ambitions, or you want to move high up in a national company, you should probably keep this in mind.

More importantly for many of you reading this, you may be tempted to talk about your family by name, name your position and workplace, mention your city or neighborhood, or reveal information about valuable collections in your home.

Scammers can build up a sense of trust with you in online communities. You may eventually mention when and where you're going on vacation, leaving your home defenseless.

The bottom line is: the more you reveal in your online profiles, blogs, and posts, the more vulnerable you are to scams, spam, and identity theft.

One last word: password strength is extremely important for online communities. Recall how much information you have stored on your social networking account, blog, message board profile, etc... And I'm not talking about information that is publicly readable like your comments or something. I'm talking about information that only your friends can see (on a social networking site) or information on your non-public account profile (that not-even your friends can see). If your password on your social networking account is just your username repeated, then it is quite easy for someone to hack into your account, and readily copy all that information.

A common Myspace phenomenon occurs when a hacker opens up your account then spam bulletins everyone on your friend list. Also, a hacker can send everyone on your friend list files containing Trojans, spyware or other malware. That's not a very good way to maintain those friendships (look for yourself to get removed from a handful of "Top Friends" Lists).

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