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Monday, September 13, 2010

Don't Take Candy From Strangers: Staying Safe Online

"ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten." - Robert Fulghum

That statement above is so true in so many ways, but we often forget so much of what we learned as kindergartners especially when it comes to computers and the online world.  We all hear the stories of so and so's was stalked by a user online.  So and so had their identity stolen.  So and so posted something that ended up having repercussions in their work or personal life.  And the list goes on.  The truth is that whenever I look further into these stories I find that many times the user has to take some blame because they didn't take the necessary precautions.  Instead we like to blame the service or the technology. 

When it comes to the online world and social networking services the best protection is to keep in mind all of those safety lessons you were taught, learned in life, and what you teach your children.  For example, if a stranger knocks on your door and you realize they are a stranger would you open the door and invite them in?  Hopefully you answered "no".  But when it comes to a 'friend request' online, many will simply accept that request just to build a quantity of 'friends' online.  By doing this keep in mind that you have just opened that proverbial door to anyone and everyone to 'come in'.  Likewise, we all teach our children 'don't take candy from strangers.', but at the same time many click any link that comes their way in an email and end up with viruses.  A malicious user (just like the stranger with candy) will make it enticing for you (i.e. win this or that, 'get the secret to . . . ', etc.) and has just offered you the proverbial 'candy'. 

Then there is the reputation and personal embarrassment that many have suffered due to their behavior online.  A few years ago I remember reading a story about an aspiring private school student who posted on his MySpace page comments about using illegal drugs while also mentioning the school on his page.  The comments were meant as jokes.  The school got wind of it and suspended the student.  The parents obviously defended the student and used the argument of 'it's just the internet'.  Was the school in the wrong?  Absolutely not.  The actions of that student and the reflection on their reputation could be detrimental to all students.  Just the same as one wearing a company uniform or nametag and acting in an unsavory way in public.  That behavior could have repercussions to the organization and it's public image and there can be repercussions for the person.

Staying safe is not all that difficult online and does not require all that much technical knowledge.  These are the same lessons parents need to be teaching their children as well to keep them safe and instill the foundations as they encounter these services more and more as life goes on.  Here's the basics:

  1. Lock the doors.  We all lock the doors to our homes for safety reasons.  Put a password on that wireless router.  Consult your router's instructions to do this.  Your router broadcasts that signal outside of your 4 walls and anyone can easily connect to that signal.  They don't just get access to your internet service either.  They then get access to the computers connected through that router.  
  2. Don't talk to strangers or take candy from strangers.  Just because someone requests a connection on a social service doesn't mean you have to accept it.  If I don't know the person, I won't accept the connection.  Likewise, I am always skeptical of clicking links in 'FWD' (forwarded) emails or offers that seem to good to be true.  
  3. Don't act that way in public.  Moms and Dads always tell their kids what is and what is not acceptable behavior in public.  The same things hold true online.  If I'm about business online and plaster every profile with my company information, I'm not talking about things which could easily alienate others.  My rule of thumb I follow is by asking the question, "Would I say or display this while standing in a crowded WalMart?"  This doesn't mean you shouldn't express your opinion, but maybe you need to tweak the approach.
  4. Look both ways before crossing the street.  This little action provides us with information to make the best decision whether or not to proceed across the street.  Engaging in the use of these online services should be an informed decision.  Know what the privacy settings are and where the information posts to.  
  5. Be aware of the suspicious car outside the house.  Location-based social networking services (i.e. FourSquare) are great services to highlight and help promote places or businesses you like.  But if you are one to let any request for a connection in keep in mind that you are publicizing where you are at which may lead to a malicious person now knowing you are not at home.  One couple in a recent news story were on vacation and posted pictures of their vacation on Facebook while they were away.  Their house was then been broken into while they were gone.  Come to find out it was by a connection in their 'friends list'.  They knew of the man from many years ago but had never had contact since and simply accepted the person's connection request. 
  6. Keep your wallet safe.  Using credit cards online has become common place.  Many of us also use our debit cards with that credit card logo.  I personally do not enter that credit card information into any website that I do not know is a reputable seller of something or that I normally do business with.  The common scams today are offers to 'secrets to getting hired or making loads of money online'.  They bait you with the 'secrets' part (candy) and then ask you for your money to give you the rest of the information.  Likewise, storing account information on sites where you pay bills seems convenient but make sure you feel comfortable doing that prior to leaving the information there.
There are plenty of ways to make these connections.  The point is that the online world and the services we use are extensions of the things we already do in life.  Just because it's the internet does not make it any different. 

What are your thoughts?
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