Identity Theft and Social Media: What you Need to Know

March 11, 2019

It’s estimated that nearly 80 percent of US residents over the age of 18 have at least one social media profile. Nearly everyone is on social media these days, and unfortunately, that includes people who may not have the best intentions.

2017 saw 16.7 million victims of identity theft, the highest number ever in a single year. And as social media usage explodes, many criminals are using these sites as hunting grounds for their next victim.

identity theft and social media

Source: Getty

How social media can lead to identity theft

While social media giants like Facebook and Twitter do their best to safeguard customer information, hacks do still happen. And even if it’s not an outright hack, social media can still help criminals steal someone’s identity just through the information that’s shared.

One way social media leads to identity fraud is the front door so to speak – the username and password. Many users have the same key (their password) for multiple doors (multiple websites), so if a nefarious person gets your social media password, they’d likely have the password to financial sites, including bank accounts, retirement accounts, and credit card accounts. That’s why it’s recommended to use a different password for every site.

Social media users are also at risk of identity theft through various third-party apps (like quizzes or games) that ask for permission to access certain information on your device. An app designer with ill intentions can easily get access to sensitive information simply by users installing their program.

But maybe the biggest way social media leads to identity theft is simple person to person communication. Quite often, thieves will clone a social media account, creating a profile with the exact same name and photo as an existing one. They’ll add friends of the original profile and when those friends confirm the fake account (which they think is real), the thief will start communicating. Sometimes it’s asking for money because of an emergency, sometimes it’s sending a link to a dangerous site. But all too often, people on social media have been swindled by someone they thought was a friend or family member.

Who is most at risk of social media related identity fraud?

social media

Source: Getty

Unfortunately, seniors are one of the most targeted groups for social media related ID fraud, mainly because they’re an easy target. The online world is changing at a fast pace, and many seniors use social media sparingly to keep in contact with family. Because they aren’t heavy users, they’re much less likely to realize when something doesn’t seem right.

But even more than seniors, a recent study from Pew Research Center showed that teens are among the most targeted because they have clean credit histories, they’re less likely to be checking their credit report, and they more likely to over-share on social media.

Keeping your identity safe on social media

If you want to make sure you’re staying safe on social media, the biggest rule to remember is that you’re in control of what you share. Here’s a list of tips for keeping your identity secure on social media:

  • Criminals have easy access to what you put out on the web, so this is a platform when it’s not a bad idea to keep things private.

  • Never enter information like your Social Security number or your driver’s license number through a social media chat, even if you think it’s a person you know.

  • When setting up your account, change some of your important information like your birthday by one day. This way, anyone who does access your account won’t have your real information.

  • Choose the highest of privacy settings for your profile. Make sure your information (including your profile information and your posts) is only visible to your closest, verified friends.

  • Be very careful of who you add on social media, only adding people you’re certain are legitimate.

  • Have a strong password. If possible, use a random string of numbers, letters and symbols. You can use a password manager program if you can’t remember them all. If you find out your information on a site has been hacked, change that password (and any similar passwords) immediately.

  • It’s worth noting that many security questions for financial websites (like hometown, high school, pet names, or favorite artist) have answers that can easily be gleaned from a social media profile. Consider limiting how much information you reveal about yourself, even “fun” info.

Is social media worth the risk?

Don’t let fear keep you away from social media. It’s a great tool for keeping in touch with friends and family and an excellent way to keep current on what’s happening in the world. Just be sure to keep your personal information safe. Never enter anything into social media (even in a private message) that you wouldn’t write on a public wall and read about ways to prevent identity theft before it happens.

Keep in mind that it’s not necessarily how often you use social media, but how you use it. If you’re not paying attention, it’s just as easy to have your identity stolen whether you use social media once a month or once an hour.