Social media network tools have changed the way we interact. But there are risks. They bring together large numbers of people on one platform and that means they are a rich source of information and a parade ground of targets for attackers.

What are the risks and what can you do to protect yourself?


The two main risks are damage to your software and theft of data.

Your computer can be damaged by worms and viruses. Some worms and viruses sit undetected causing no harm to your computer. But others corrupt your software.

The other purpose of worms and viruses is to provide a window to your data – along with Trojans. (Trojans are programmes that provide third parties with access to your computer but, unlike viruses, they don’t replicate).

Worms, viruses and Trojans are introduced to your computer by inadvertently downloading attachments to phishing emails, visiting websites with links to malware programmes or downloading infected files or documents. They can monitor your computer activity;  scan for private information, such as passwords; give the perpetrator control of your computer; send out spam emails from your computer; and use your computer to host illegal websites.  There is a banking Trojan that can calculate the value of victims’ accounts to help decide the priority for the thief.

Sloppy user practices are another avenue for acquiring information.

Social media sites require some personal information and encourage the exchange of a lot more.    The information you provide can be used by criminals. For example, status updates posted on Twitter, Facebook and many other social media sites can tell a lot about you. The use of photo and video-sharing sites like Flickr and YouTube provide insights into you, your family and friends about your home and your habits. The information you provide – your name, birthday, place of birth, relationship status, schools and universities you attended, graduation dates and educational achievements, employer details, pet names and so on build a profile that criminals can use to impersonate you or access your information.

Social media is not the only source of personal information but it is perhaps the richest.

How to reduce the risks

Abstinence isn’t necessary. There are ways to enjoy the benefits of social media without exposing your personal information to criminals.

  • Install reputable anti-virus and anti-malware software.
  • Consider unique user names and passwords for each profile.
  • Vary your passwords and change them regularly.
  • Don’t give out your username and password to third parties (even if it helps you connect to others and build your network).
  • Assuming you plan to be active in social media, minimize the use of personal information on your profiles that may be used for password verification or phishing attacks. Don’t make available your date or place of birth, home address or primary e-mail address. If you advertise the name of your pet or other information don’t use that information in passwords or password reminders.
  • Review your privacy settings and make sure you are comfortable with them. It is worth noting that privacy settings are sometimes changed by social media websites so it is worth keeping an eye on them.
  • Only invite people to your network that you know or have met.
  • For password security verification questions, use a password for all answers (rather than the answer to the specific question, like “What is your mother’s maiden name?”).
  • Consider using a VPN (virtual private network) but remember that this measure is only of benefit if you have appropriate privacy settings and put in place the other measures we have outlined to guard your information. A VPN will not protect you from malware.

New scams pop up all the time. Try to keep abreast of them so that you don’t fall victim to the latest ingenious ruse.

Supplied by Alexei Cantacuzene-Speransky of Rose Partners