What to do
Bite your tongue.
Sure, social networks are fun and you may feel encouraged to say things off the cuff and without too much forethought, but consider this: how could that remark be construed by someone else? An employer, a parent or child, a friend of the family or a stranger? Remarks made in good fun may return to you later, stripped of their context and dragged into sober daylight before unsympathetic ears.
What happens in Vegas...
Do you really want your boss (or a potential employer) to see the photos from Friday night’s party? All social networking sites give you privacy options. Make sure you know how to use them and set them appropriately. Then act as if it’s all public anyway. One day it might be.
Find out just what comes up when people do a search for your name, by doing it yourself first. If anything comes up that you don’t like, you can try to get rid of it. If it’s something that you’ve posted yourself that you’ve had second thoughts about, take it down. If it’s someone else’s doing, try asking them nicely to remove it. If all else fails, you can try ‘Google bombing’, whereby you create Web pages that give the impression you want to and will hopefully occupy the top spots in any searches conducted using your name. (It’s a good idea to Google your pen name and pseudonyms as well).
Think carefully about the information you give to online businesses. Many Web sites will offer incentives (such as discounts and prize draws) in return for you filling out a form that asks for more details than you would usually give out. Ask yourself: is this promotion really important to me? Do I know what this company is going to do with this information? What could someone figure out about me based on what I’m telling them? In whose hands will this information be in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time?
Do I know you?
Remember: on a social network you can usually be sure of who you know, but you can’t quite be sure of who knows you. Don’t give out details of where you are going to be. Don’t give out addresses of parties, restaurants or entertainments you intend to visit.
Know where you stand. When using click-through links, make sure that you’ve actually arrived at the site you intended. If you’ve clicked a link you’ve received in an email (which is never recommended) be especially careful; never enter your password into a site you’ve arrived at from an email link (a common method of password phishing). Ensure that the entire address is correct – if you intended to visit Facebook, don’t be tempted to log in to a site with a URL such as ‘facebook-videos.net’.
You’ve got mail.
Beware of emails that claim to be from sites you’re a member of. Facebook, eBay and TradeMe users are regularly hit by fraudsters targeting user names and passwords. If you’re offered a link in an email, it’s best to ignore it. Instead log into the site by typing the URL address by hand.
Credit where credit is due. Only shop with reputable businesses. If you’re shopping online, chances are you’re going to be asked to give out your credit card number or at least use a service like PayPal. Both systems are flawed and require caution on the customer’s part. Look for the security image of a gold lock in the URL or in the status bar of your browser, or the URL bar turning green. Also, Web addresses for secure sites begin with ‘https’, rather than the standard ‘http’.
C is for cookie.
After a Web browsing session, delete the Web cookies that are tracking your movements. Here’s a guide to deleting cookies after each browsing session: tinyurl.com/u6occ
Use anti-virus and firewall software. These days there’s no reason not to be well protected online, just as you lock your house and car. There are plenty of options, both free and paid for. This is a non-negotiable. If you don’t have it, get it. Now.