Has Your Identity Been Hijacked on Social Media?

Our society has evolved faster in the last ten years than in the prior fifty years. While those changes can be attributed to many things, technology has had the largest impact, affecting human behavior and shaping cultures worldwide. Through our electronic devices, we can be constantly connected with people near and far. Social media is a connection multiplier, giving participants a voice to broadcast ideas and emotions to a large audience from all corners of the earth.

We have more access to real time information globally than we have ever had before. It’s possible for you to meet and connect with someone in Thailand, see details about her personal life, where she lives, works, and even what she had for dinner while never taking off your bunny slippers or leaving the couch.

Social media sites are about connecting people, networking, sharing, and socializing. All things that humans crave and love to do, so it’s no surprise that sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are so popular. There are plenty of stories of people reconnecting with family and friends and, of course, finding love, using social media. Our Facebook feeds are filled with these heartwarming tales. We share them and “like” them. These positive stories make up the up side of social media. But what are the down side?

For a business, a negative social media review on a site like Yelp can be detrimental to the bottom line. A 30-second video showing a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight, was posted, went viral, and notnonly created a public relations nightmare, but affected the company’s stock. Other corporations have felt the aftershocks of scathing employee reviews on sites like Glass Door, resulting in difficulty recruiting and retaining top talent.

There’s a danger that putting too much personal information on social media creates opportunities for criminal elements to engage in social hijacking, stealing an individual’s identity. The results can be financial and personally devastating. After spending many years chasing down these scams for the Pentagon’s top brass, I realized it was like playing a virtual wack-a-mole. As soon as I could get the requests processed within the social media venue for the false accounts to be investigated and taken down, the next day several more would pop up.

Over time I realized, that this is just a new take on an old problem. Much like the old romance scams that involved getting a chain letter in the mail with requests to send money, these schemes were people hijacking a well known identity in order to convince an unsuspecting person to send money to a person in need. Typically middle aged single woman are the targets, and the perpetrator preys on the loneliness and kindness of the woman to send money for whatever cause that he or she has convinced them to buy into. And most of the time it works. Victims sent as much as $5,000 and in some cases even more. By the time they realize its a scam, it’s too late.

However, in these cases there are really two victims of these types of crimes. The person who gets swindled into wiring hard earned funds, and the person whose identity has been stolen, often with no idea that he or she has been hijacked. Typically, this person is a prominent, well enough know individual with a prominent media profile. As I have seen, general officers in the military are some of the most common targets. A family member or a friend receives a note or “friend me” request only to discover that the message came from someone pretending to be a general officer. Responding to the request often means granting access to personal information.

Here are some tips to protect your social identity and yourself from falling prey to social media scams:

  1. If you have no social identity, get one. It’s hard to steal your spot if you are already there. If you have no social presence, you are more likely to be hijacked and it will go on undetected for a longer time.
  2. Don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know. This is just good social media hygiene all around. You wouldn’t let someone in your house off the street, don’t let them into your intimate social circle online either. If you do meet someone online and accept a friend request, be very leery of any pressure to take the conversation to another medium such as Skype. Also be suspicious if they start telling you problems and start asking for money.
  3. Stay away from third party applications. These are the apps that are imbedded into Facebook. You will be warned that you are leaving Facebook and instructed to click “yes” for permission to enter another site. These apps aren’t regulated by Facebook and they collect information from you. Once you authorize access they are running in the background and often times continue to listen and collect your data. These apps have even been known to spread malware on your personal compute which may steal your banking and credit card information. There are multiple third party apps that have been shut down for collecting credit card information on users, but not before they made off with millions.
  4. Secure your account. Are you aware of who sees what you are posting and who your friends are? This is the most frequently use reconnaissance tool of perpetrators and burglars. Three-quarters of convicted burglars said they use social media to watch the target and get details about when they are home and what they have in their home that will make a successful bounty. If you don’t want to use Facebook’s automated security tool to check your settings, than watch what information you give out. Better not to post that you’ll be in Miami on vacation for two weeks or that you just installed an expensive home entertainment system.
  5. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. It is difficult to verify someones true identity online. The danger is that people can set up an avatar and become anyone they dream up. Be smart and listen to your instincts when connecting with new people online.

Social media is the wild, wild west of the world wide web, and it’s only going to grow in popularity. It’s possible to enjoy the benefits of social media without falling victim to the dark sides of social media, if you educate yourself about the dangers and treat the security of your accounts like you treat the front door of your home.

Darcy Hotchkiss is the author of Life in My Hands – Healing Myself, Healing Others.

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