Social networks are supposed to be places where we can share our thoughts, feelings, and opinions with others in the community we create by adding friends and followers. But increasingly, they are becoming a repository of personal information that can be mined to take advantage of us in a number of different ways. Criminals are using the things we share against us, seeking to do us harm online and in real life. Here are a few ways your social network could be putting you at risk:

Identity Theft/Phishing/Hacking: Anytime your inbox gets flooded with spam or all of your friends’ inboxes get flooded from your account, you’ve been the victim of an online crime. Whether you were hacked or got caught in a phishing scam, the result can be a lot more damaging than just the inconvenience of having to change your password. Almost 40% of social network accounts have been hacked or scammed in some way (and I’d tend to believe that number is a bit low). Having a strong password and knowing who your “friends” are can go a long way towards curbing all of those annoying shoe ads and possibly preventing identity t heft as well.

Burglary & Break-ins: Those photos you post on Instagram showing your feet relaxing on a beach somewhere taking a much needed vacation may be making your friends jealous, but they’re also a signal to would-be criminals that your home may be currently unoccupied. Couple that with the photos of your new flat screen, and then add in the fact that your location data is automatically attached to every photo you upload whether you check-in or not and you’ve given someone all the info they need to commit a crime. A whopping 78% of burglars say they’ve used Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, or Google street view to choose homes to target. Make sure the ‘Location Services’ is disabled on your smartphone when snapping photos, and it might be a good idea to just wait till you get home to post those vacay pics anyway.

Sexual Crimes: This is the area that concerns me the most because minors seem to be especially vulnerable to the methods that criminals use to perpetrate these crimes. In a full 65% of sex crimes against minors, offenders obtained photos or other personal information from the victims’ social media profiles. It is critical that parents monitor their kids’ social media activity and make sure they understand the risks involved.

Social media is a fun and easy way to stay connected to the people in your life and make new connections as well. It’s not going away any time soon, so it’s up to us to do our best to be mindful of the things we share online. Don’t let your virtual social network turn you into a victim of a very real crime.

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