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How to protect your identity on Facebook and other social networks

Some people are naturally reserved. They don't reveal personal details, don't have private discussions in public, and generally maintain their privacy. Others think nothing of telling perfect strangers the minutiae of their medical procedures, or conducting very loud and very personal phone conversations on the train. Even if you belong to the latter group, protecting your privacy on social media is important, in more ways than you might realise.

Circles of friends

Social media sites like Facebook and Google+ are designed to let you share your thoughts and interests with your friends. Most of us don't want to share with everyone in the world, so privacy settings are important. Even if you feel you have nothing to hide, consider the fact that advertisers, spammers, and cyber-stalkers can view your non-private posts.

Unfortunately, your privacy isn't a priority for social media companies. What they really want is your eyes on their advertisements. In fact, proper privacy can interfere with a social media company's ability to monetise the time you spend on their site. You need to put yourself in charge of your social media privacy.

Privacy settings on social media sites change frequently, so even if you've tweaked yours to perfection, you need to double-check every so often. Better yet, get help! AVG's PrivacyFix will identify changes you need to make in your privacy settings for Facebook and Google+. CallingID's MyFacePrivacy goes further — it will actually make any necessary changes for you. Both are free.

Social broadcasts

Twitter is more of a social broadcast medium than a closed network. When you post a tweet, you want people to see it. LinkedIn lets you limit contact from strangers to those who can wangle an introduction from one of your existing contacts. It's a way to make connections without throwing yourself wide open. You can set LinkedIn so that anybody at all can contact you, but setting limits is a better choice. If you put no limits on contact, you risk getting spammed.

Here again, MyFacePrivacy can help. It will configure your LinkedIn settings for reasonable privacy, and optionally crank up the privacy level so that only your contacts can see your social activities. As for Twitter, almost everyone treats it as a broadcast medium, but if you want to tweet only for your existing circle of friends, MyFacePrivacy can do that too.

What you shouldn't share

Most social networks let you fill in a vast amount of profile information about yourself. Where you grew up, your favourite band, your school, your favourite colour... you can fill in all of these and more. But you probably shouldn't.

The big problem is, a vast number of websites use really simplistic security questions for password reset. They'll ask for your mother's maiden name, or the town where you were born, or your pet's name. A fully fleshed-out social media profile will supply the answers to the majority of such questions. Even if you keep your profile details private, it would just take one security slip-up to give the bad guys all those answers.

Yes, filling in profile details can make it easy for people with similar interests to find you, but it's just not worth the risk. If you haven't thought about this before, now would be a good time to check your profile and delete anything that sounds like the answer to a security question.

If you've got your privacy settings squared away, mentioning vacation or travel plans to your social media friends may not be such a bad thing, but think twice before you tweet about your upcoming trip to Aruba. It's like putting a sign on your door, "Nobody's home — please rob me!" And never, ever put anything private in a tweet, like a credit card number. You think that warning isn't necessary? Check out the Twitter feed @needadebitcard, which retweets those who are foolish enough to tweet photos of their credit or debit cards.

The keys to the kingdom

A takeover by a hacker is the worst thing that can happen to your social media accounts. The hacker can send false tweets or posts that seem to come from you. The consequences can include offending friends, spreading malware, or even sending the stock market into a nosedive. And if the attacker changes your password, you may have trouble getting your account back.

Things get even worse if you've used the same password across multiple social media sites. You can be sure that a crook who's taken over one of your social accounts will try the same credentials on other sites. You need a different, strong password for each of your social media accounts; a password manager will help you keep them straight.

A fine balance

The whole point of using social media is communication, whether with your tight circle of friends or with anybody who wants to follow your posts. What you need to do is maintain the proper balance between sharing and over-sharing, and make sure you've got your privacy settings squared away.