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5 Ways to Stay Safe on Facebook

Facebook? They oughta call it brace-yourself-and-hope-for-the-best book.

Security issues seem to crop up daily on social-networking heavyweight Facebook. From questionable "friends" and applications that leak information to the presence of outright crooks, social-networking sites seem like a dangerous swamp. Don’t let them suck the fun from your social-networking experience. With the right precautions, you can still have a good time, and stay safe.

Here are five ways to keep yourself secure while still getting the most out of your Facebook experience.

1. Understanding your privacy settings.

"One of the most important things you can do is familiarize yourself with Facebook's privacy settings,” Technologizer founder Harry McCracken told FoxNews.com. “And revisit them periodically. As Facebook adds new features, it makes decisions about settings which you may or may not like.”

If all else fails, McCracken notes that the safest setting for any feature is “only friends.”

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes suggests that users acclimate themselves with the site's official Safety Center as well as becoming a fan of FBSafety to get the latest news and information on staying safe online.

Here are some key settings (aside from the basics) you should be most worried about:

1. Search settings. Search falls into two categories: Facebook’s internal search listing as well as a public search listing (which displays your public profile). Both can be turned off, or adjusted to limit who can find you in a search.

2. Photo settings. Make sure you know exactly who can see your photos. If you use your account for business or are friends with business associates, it may make sense to completely turn off photos -- you'd hate to get tagged in an unbecoming pose by somebody else.

3. Keep your friends from sharing your info. Be aware that friends can sometimes share your information from their profiles with websites and applications. You can edit those privacy settings under “Applications and Websites.”

2. Don’t friend people you don’t know.

Don't know all the people you're linked to on Facebook? Then why are you linked to them?

It should be obvious, but know the people you're friends with -- and sexy Russian spy or not, it doesn’t matter how attractive their picture appears. Criminals often use fake profiles to send spam, or worse, steal personal information. 

Besides, a recent memo uncovered by a privacy watchdog showed that federal agents were encouraged to befriend people on social networks like Facebook so they could spy on them. That person you don't know? Who knows what they're up to? 

Be extra cautious of what you click on from "friends" you don't recognize, experts advise. "Messages that are brief and cryptic or come from folks you don't expect to hear from might be worms that include links to dangerous sites," McCracken said.

3. Limit the use of applications.

Think twice about taking the next celebrity quiz that pops up in your news feed.

The Wall Street Journal revealed that many of Facebook’s most popular applications -- including the massive hits Farmville and Mafia Wars -- were transmitting personal user information to outside servers. Some of these companies were accused of collecting information through several apps and then selling it to ad firms.

Facebook immediately disabled several such applications. “We prohibit applications from transferring user data to ad networks or data brokers, and when we receive a report that such an improper transfer has occurred, we investigate and take action as appropriate,” Noyes told FoxNews.com.

“It is important to note that there is no evidence that any personal information was misused or even collected as a result of this issue,” Noyes added. “In fact, all of the companies questioned about this issue said publicly that they did not use the user IDs or did not use them to obtain personal info.”

Still, many of Facebook’s applications are developed by smaller, independent companies, and there is little way of knowing how they’re really using your information. Whenever you OK a new application, you are essentially handing over your private data.

4. Protect your location.

Location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla are all the rage; even Facebook has its own version, called Facebook Places. While such services can be fun, there are numerous underlying risks.

Because of people's willingness to share and the wealth of applicable information, Michael Fraser, a “reformed burglar” working for the BBC, described Facebook as “Internet shopping for burglars.”

Frank Groeneveld, Barry Borsboom, and Boy van Amstel created the site PleaseRobMe.com to spread awareness of a very serious issue. Their site used Twitter’s search function to display the addresses of people who weren’t home – all based on easily accessible public information.

Once they proved their point, the site was shut down. But the issue remains – people need to be wary of their locational privacy. So how can you use these services while still protecting yourself and others?

1. Never check-in at home. You don't want people easily knowing when you’re not home, so leave this location off your list. Besides, you don't want most strangers to know where you live in the first place.

2. Never check-in at a friend’s or family member’s home. Updating your status with “Hanging out at Mike's” might seem like casual fun, but you’re essentially compromising their privacy as if you’d checked in at home.

3. Don’t link to Twitter. Unlike Facebook, which requires you to be a friend with someone for them to see your updates, Twitter feeds are usually public (although you can set your feed to private as well).

5. Don’t overshare.

What's the best way to preserve your privacy? The experts agree: Be conservative with what you share. Things like your home address, your family members, and your birthday are all easy pickings for identity thieves. It's harder to retract information than to simply not share at all.

Even the act of deleting a photo isn’t straightforward. An investigation by news site Ars Technica revealed that photos “deleted” online remained on Facebook servers 16 months later.

Your best bet? Don’t upload it in the first place. And with 45% of employers screening sites like Facebook, that’s probably not a bad idea.

 

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