An old high school friend of mine is going to the Mayan Riviera this week, leaving her home unoccupied. Her boyfriend is going with her. She doesn't have a guard dog.
How do I know all this? She told me and the rest of the world about it on Facebook. OK, maybe not the dog part, but I can tell from the hundreds of personal photos she's posted that she has a very docile-looking cat and some really nice jewellery.
It's scary how much you can find out about someone on the Internet, isn't it? I'm wondering if I should post a link on her Facebook page to the story I wrote recently about the dangers of over-sharing on social networking sites.
With March being fraud prevention month in Canada, it's a good time to go over some of the precautions we should take when posting personal information online, even when it's not financial data.
Revealing too much information can open the door to theft. For example, a common Facebook scam is for criminals to track a potential victim's online behaviour, wait until she brags about going away on vacation, and then hack into her account and tell her friends she has been robbed in a foreign country and needs a money transfer.
In 2010, Canadians reported $53.8-million in losses from mass-marketing fraud, defined by the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre as fraud committed by phone, mail or the Internet. Fraud-related offences net between $10-billion to $30-billion annually, the RCMP say.
How can we protect ourselves? For starters, we can wait until we return from our vacations to start bragging about them. Here are a few other tips:
1. Avoid quizzes, free apps, pictures and links
Those cute little games that circulate social networking sites are designed to collect your personal information, which is then shared with marketers and tracking companies. Who knows how safe those companies are and what they do with that information? Don't click on pictures or links either. They are often malware in disguise, which allows hackers to install malicious codes on your computer.
2. Keep passwords safe
Yes, it's a hassle, but you need to use strong passwords that include numbers, letters and symbols, and you need to change them regularly. Use different passwords for your social websites, personal life and financial life, so that if one of them is breached, the rest are still secure. If you can't remember all your passwords, use a secure program for their storage. You don't want to make it easy to access your accounts if your computer is stolen, so don't allow your computer to save your passwords.
3. Browse safely
Make sure you have a secure, password-encrypted Internet connection, the latest security software and the most recent version of your Web browser installed on your computer. Avoid opening a second tab or browser while doing financial transactions online because while financial websites are encrypted, visiting a non-secure website simultaneously could open up access to information from the secure content. And clear your computer's memory cache when you're done.
4. Check site URLs carefully
Your financial institution will never ask for personal information online, so don't trust a link you receive by e-mail. It may be a phishing attempt directing you to a fraudulent website. Look for signs a site is secure before doing business with them. Secure sites begin with "https." Some browsers may also display a closed padlock icon, or the address bar may appear green to indicate it is safe.
5. Watch your transactions
Be your own credit-monitoring service. At least once a week, check your debit and credit card transactions either by phone or online. This will allow you to catch fraudulent transactions quickly, report them and avoid financial liability.
6. Review your credit report
At least once a year, order a free credit report from Equifax or TransUnion and check it for discrepancies. If someone has stolen your identity and used it to access credit in your name, this may be the only way to find out and have it rectified.
7. Report fraud attempts
To avoid financial liability, it's important to report fraud quickly. First, notify your financial institution. Then contact the two credit bureaus, TransUnion and Equifax, to have a fraud alert placed on your file to minimize damage to your credit history. Be sure to also notify your local police and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre to help prevent further fraud.