Staying Safe on Social: How to Avoid Online Thieves and Scams

Social media platforms can be excellent ways to stay in touch and share photos and videos. They can also be a pathway for thieves.

It pays to be careful when using Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Nextdoor, and other social networks for various reasons, including protecting your reputation—and even keeping your job. But caution is also essential if you want to prevent wrongdoers from stealing your identity, money, and property.

Financial scams that started on social media increased by about 800% over a four-year period ending in mid-2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports. Between mid-2019 and mid-2020, the FTC tallied nearly 40,000 reports of fraud via social media, with Americans suffering a combined $203 million in losses.

Here are tips on staying safer on social media, including what not to share.

Guard Your Passwords.

You probably know of friends who have had their social accounts hacked. That can give bad guys access to any private information stored on your account. It also can allow thieves to pretend to be you and swindle your unsuspecting friends. Use hard-to-guess passwords—a different one for each account—and use two-factor authentication if that platform offers it. Also, since many of us leave our social accounts open on our phones, make sure your phone passcode is strong in case someone steals it.

Check Your Privacy Settings.

Before posting anything on a social platform, check the default privacy settings, and consider making your settings more restrictive.

Be Cautious in Public Places.

Avoid accessing social media when using a Wi-Fi signal that isn’t password-protected in a public place, like in a store or an airport. “It is very easy to eavesdrop on internet traffic, including passwords and other sensitive data, on a public wireless network,” the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission advises. Take the same advice when using a shared computer, like at a library or an internet café. Be sure to log out of your account when you’re finished.

Keep Private Stuff Private.

Avoid posting personal information on platforms that anyone can access. On Facebook, consider posting to “friends only” if it’s something you don’t want strangers to see. That said, it’s wise to assume that anything you post online is public, even if it’s posted to a private account. “Never post or share anything that you wouldn’t want to put on the front page of a newspaper,” advises tech writer Ben Stegner.

Keep Personal Information Offline.

Don’t post personal information on public social platforms that can help crooks steal your identity, such as your home address, phone number, full birthdate (with the year of birth), and Social Security number. Also, don’t post pictures of your driver’s license, passport, or other identifying documents.

Photo: ronniechua via 123RF

Don’t Announce That You’re Away.

It’s fun to post photos when you go on a trip. Who can resist sharing a snap when you’re looking up at the Eiffel Tower or watching the sunset from your Maui condo? But posting a travel photo in real-time can signal burglars that you’re not home and won’t be back for a while. And two-thirds of home break-ins happen when you’re not home. Wait until you return to post that vacation selfie, and indicate in the caption that you’re back home. Likewise, avoid posting your travel plans ahead of time.

Your New Car Looks Great, but Keep It Off Social.

People like to post photos of their fancy new ride or gorgeous engagement ring. But brag posts like these might make you a more appealing target for thieves.

Don’t Do Your Banking on Social.

If you want to contact your bank online, use the bank’s official web portal. Don’t transmit account information on a social platform because what looks like your bank or broker might be a fraudster.

Not Every Friend Request Comes from a Friend.

You may get friend requests from people offering their services as financial advisors, especially on LinkedIn. If you friend someone you don’t know, that could lead to pressure to divulge personal information.

Pass on Money Requests on Social.

There are many ways online thieves try to swindle you, including fundraising drives from “friends” whose accounts have been hacked, and illegal chain-mail appeals that are sometimes called “blessing looms” or “gifting circles.”

For more advice on protecting your finances on social media, visit this web page of Investor.gov, an official federal website.