How to stay safe online: social media and personal details

Last updated: 21 February 2021   By Lyndsey Burton

Sharing personal information online can be a gift to scammers who will take every opportunity to convince us they are legitimate.

Social media users and those on similar apps can take steps to protect their information by turning on privacy settings and using strong passwords.

Plus, knowing how to spot a fake profile and understanding clickbait are useful tools to stop information being inadvertently shared too.

With fraud on the rise, it's important for all social media users to secure their networking accounts and stop fraudsters in their tracks.

social media

How to keep your personal information safe online

Our personal details can be used as currency by fraudsters, so learning how to protect them online and how to spot scams is crucial for modern life.

According to Statista, there are 50 million Facebook users in the UK, 30 million Instagram users and over 16 million Twitter users. That creates plenty of opportunities for scammers to try and access our personal information.

Below, we look at some of the main ways we can protect ourselves while on social media.

Anyone looking for specific information on how to keep children safe on social media should read this guide or learn about the Age Appropriate Design Code (Children's Code) here.

1. Check your privacy settings

Privacy settings are one of the greatest weapons against sharing too much information with too many people.

Social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have made improvements over recent years to help their users manage who sees their content and personal information.

As an example, when we post to Facebook, we can choose who sees that post by selecting from several options including:

  • Public
  • Friends
  • Friends except...
  • Specific friends
  • Only me
  • Custom lists

These options are available for each individual post, but we can set a default. Many people choose Friends as their default, ensuring that their posts are generally only seen by the people they are friends with on Facebook.

Twitter and Instagram operate a closed account feature, so users can essentially limit who can see their posts based on whether they have approved them as a follower or not.

While these options are all useful and social media users should definitely check the privacy settings they're using, remember they don't stop people on the approved lists accessing information. There's more detail on the problems that creates later on.

Privacy settings are not just relevant to the social networks we've mentioned above. Any sites where customers have accounts and interact with each other should have strong privacy control options. If they don't, approach with caution.

2. Don't share identifying information

Sharing too much information on social networks provides opportunities for people to build up a detailed picture of a user's life.

While many of us deliberately use social media to connect with friends or even strangers, we're all in danger of sharing more information than we should be. Even if only one public tweet identifies, for example, the street we live on, another tweet could confirm we work nights and live alone. Snippets of information like this can easily build up into a full picture.

Sharing details about our lives on social media can be done without making it too specific. For example, stopping short of naming the place we work gives scammers one less tool to work with if they try to fool you.

3. Avoid location sharing

Some social media apps make it possible to share where we are at all times. If possible, we should avoid doing this.

It's enjoyable to check in at a place on Facebook, demonstrating we're out having a coffee with one of our closest friends or we're shopping on the high street. The problem is, that not only tells people where we are now, it also tells people where we're not - i.e. at home. That's an open invitation for people who mean you harm.

Even if your privacy settings on Facebook are limited to friends only or your Instagram posts can only be seen by verified followers, there may still in chinks in the armour there. Plus, on Facebook, tagging friends when checking in somewhere can open up our status to our friend's friends. Do we trust them too?

There's one final and very important point when it comes to location sharing on social media: double-check your home location is not visible on your profile.

This was a particular problem with Foursquare a few years ago. The social media company turned checking in into an artform, allowing users to check in to places they were visiting or nearby. It wasn't unheard of for home addresses or addresses of offices to be made public, leading to all sorts of potential problems for family, colleagues and, indeed, the user themselves.

Mostly, these horror stories of home addresses appearing on social networks by accident are over, but it doesn't hurt to double check privacy settings with a particular focus on whether our location is visible.

Also, think carefully before checking in anywhere or publicising you're at a specific location: it could have unforeseen consequences.

4. Keep away from clickbait

Clickbait is rife on social media, attempting to get us to click through to another website, download a file or watch a video that may have a virus attached.

We're drawn to clickbait because of the way it's designed and, sometimes, the way we come across it on social media.

If our friends send us an article in a direct message, for instance, we might click on it because it's from the trusted source of our friend: if they're sharing it then it must be okay. As we discuss below, though, if a friend's account has been hacked or duplicated, we're potentially opening ourselves up to viruses or scams.

Clickbait is usually unsubtle, seeking to compel us into action. Here are some common forms to watch out for:

  1. IQ or intelligence test links that dangle a riddle in front of us, but we have to click through to read the rest of the test
  2. Mysterious stories that give the viewer half the tale and then prompts them to click into the article to read the full account (which is usually not that interesting anyway)
  3. Celebrity clickbait involving a rumour or so-called unseen pictures
  4. Fear-inducing headlines
  5. Unbelievable headlines

These aren't the only forms of clickbait we find on social media, and not all of them have viruses attached or will seek to scam us.

However, there's usually little quality within these articles and if a friend messages you a link or shares it on their feed, be cautious.

5. Know your Facebook friends

Although some social networks are all about socialising with strangers (e.g., Twitter), others like Facebook are designed to help us socialise with friends.

Yet we can't always be sure we're talking to the people we think we're talking to and, even if we are, that doesn't necessarily mean our personal information is safe with them.

Facebook estimates 10% of all accounts on their site are fakes or duplicates. Engaging with these accounts could result in viruses being sent through Facebook Messenger chats or more insidious actions. As an example, if someone imitated the profile of one of your close friends and engaged in conversation, that could lead to personal information being revealed or money being transferred over in a worst-case scenario.

Spotting fake profiles isn't always easy. These are some common signs to be aware of:

  1. Lack of a profile picture or a single image that could have been downloaded elsewhere (from another social network like LinkedIn or a legitimate Facebook account)
  2. Little profile information or incorrect information
  3. A timeline full of clickbait or other dubious posts
  4. Little or no activity commenting on other posts
  5. A friend list full of people from other countries with similarly sparse profiles

A familiar method fake profiles use to dupe us into accepting their friends request is by including a note saying their previous account was hacked or they've opened a new one because something happened.

If it's possible to check the existing profile of a friend (if it's still there), it will usually show the friend is carrying on as usual with their posts, proving the new request to be a fake.

If it isn't that clear-cut, ask the new account who has issued a friend request something to verify their identity. Often, they won't respond at all or, if they do, the answer is vague. A real person who is truly a friend will be happy to answer such a question.

One final point: being friends with people you don't know on Facebook can be a slippery slope. Yes, we can limit who sees our posts using privacy settings, but then why have that person on our friend list anyway?

Facebook isn't a numbers game, but many see other social profiles like Twitter and Instagram as just that. In those cases, switching off the ability for certain groups to message you can limit the possibility of fake messages, and never give personal information out to someone in a direct message. If it's a real person, there are safer ways to engage.

6. Secure your accounts

The importance of a strong and unique password cannot be overstated.

Don't make it easy for hackers to guess passwords through all that information they may have already gathered about you in public tweets and posts.

Instead, create a unique password for each social network that uses a combination of words, numbers, uppercase and lowercase letters, and special characters. Pick something you can memorise but nobody else knowing you could guess.

Plus, the growing trend of logging into third-party websites using our Facebook account or other existing account can save time, but it means we're trusting that third-party website. Ask yourself whether you really do trust that website with your Facebook data because that's essentially what you're holding up as a prize if the website isn't completely reputable or safe.

Why keeping your personal details safe matters

The dangers of sharing too much information in the wrong places on social media and elsewhere range from the inconvenience of being locked out of your account if it's hacked through to being defrauded of thousands if you trust the wrong "friend".

To illustrate, let's look at the potential consequences of our information getting into the wrong hands.

Legitimising scammers

If a fraudster is able to pepper their conversation with personal details, it's more likely we'll believe them. Unfortunately, that personal information may have been gathered through scrutiny of our social media profiles or through information we've inadvertently shared with the wrong friend.

It could lead to cold-call scammers impersonating computer software services, banks or the police and convincing us they're genuine by stating facts about us.

Consider these statistics:

  • Over 2,000 computer software service scams were reported in November 2020, costing victims £2.1m
  • Almost 15,000 impersonation scams were reported in the first half of 2020, costing victims £58m
  • Identity fraud cases rose by 18% in 2019 with online channels accounting for 87% of all cases

The more we keep our personal details private, the less ammunition these fraudsters have to work with and the less chance we have of falling for one of their scams.

Read our in-depth guide to spotting an online scam or learn more about how to avoid telephone scams.

Extra help for staying safe online

We have two further guides to help everyone stay safe online:

Plus, learn how to protect your wireless router at home to safeguard against those types of threat too.

Along with this, it's worth remembering that we have rights if something does go wrong while we're online. Check out our guides to the rights credit card fraud victims have and the protections offered by Section 75 if we order something and we don't get what we paid for.

Conclusion: be cautious when sharing online

The rise of social media has led to many people sharing far more information online than they are aware of and that can have damaging consequences.

Research from Money and Mental Health in December 2020 found 23% of people with mental health problems have fallen victim to an online scam, with their risk factors affected by impaired decision-making and increased impulsivity.

For all of us, taking steps to limit the amount of information we share on social media and elsewhere can help to stop fraudsters getting hold of the details they need to make a convincing attempt on our money or our social networking accounts.

Read more about online harassment and what companies are doing to help combat it.


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