Be cautious posting personal information on social network

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I have friends who swear by online social and professional networks like Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. Where else can you reconnect with long-lost former classmates, post vacation photos for friends around the world, share your resume with potential employers and perhaps even find love—all, without leaving your couch?

Although the Internet has made reaching out easier than ever, whenever you share personal information, a few cautions are in order. With your kids preparing for a new school year, this might be a good time to have a quick Privacy 101 discussion. And, since people over 30 are the fastest-growing social networking demographic, parents might benefit as well.

Keep in mind:

E-mail is forever. Deleting an e-mail from your computer doesn’t mean it no longer exists. Chances are your e-mail provider—or employer, if sent from work—will retain a record for years to come. Plus, recipients won’t necessarily delete the e-mail and may in fact forward it to others. Worst case: Your words could even be used as evidence against you in court; so think twice before posting derogatory comments about people or employers.

Haunting photos. You’ve read about people who posted photos on their homepages they later regretted. It’s one thing for parents to learn about youthful indiscretions this way, but colleges and employers increasingly conduct online searches of potential candidates and use such information to rule them out for consideration.

Not to instill paranoia, but even photos or information about you that someone else has posted can turn up in such searches. My rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see it, don’t do or say it.

Too much information. Many people post personal or nostalgic information about themselves on their profiles—first pet’s name, childhood addresses, favorite pizza topping, etc. Keep in mind that many websites where you do business (like banks) ask these kinds of security questions to ascertain your identity before you can log in.

Identity thieves have been know to mine this information and combine it with a stolen credit card or Social Security number to open bogus accounts or even forge passports. Avoid posting:

•Current and past addresses

•Phone numbers and e-mail addresses

•Birth date

•Personal information like the above examples that might be asked for security questions

•Upcoming vacation schedules (you could be targeted for a break-in)

Also, never use this type of information in your passwords.

One last—and serious—reminder: Sexual predators increasingly are using the Internet to target both child and adult victims by posing as peers or friends. Although software is available to help you track your children’s online activities, you can’t follow them 24/7. Have the “don’t talk with or e-mail strangers” discussion with your kids as soon as they start using computers.

These are only a few of the precautions you and your kids should take when using social networking sites to protect your personal information and prevent identity theft. For more tips, visit Visa Inc.’s free personal financial management site, Practical Money Skills for Life (www.practicalmoneyskills.com/security).

(Jason Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs. To sign up for a free monthly personal finance e-Newsletter, go to http://www.practicalmoneyskills.com/newsletter.)

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