November 1, 2009

Protect your online brand ... and your personal info

While browsing the news sites today, I came across a great article in the Toronto Star from Ellen Roseman on the dangers of Facebook - specifically, the threats to personal information.

In the article, Roseman talks to David Malamed, a forensic accountant, who creates a fake online profile, befriends a random person online, and is able to gather enough personal information from her profile to potentially "apply for a new credit card in her name, maybe take out a mortgage or withdraw money from her bank account."

Frankly, just the thought of that is scary enough, given the fact that your credit rating is vitally important. But Malamed went a step further and was able to obtain even more information by looking at the profile owner's list of friends - and that's the scarier part.

Throughout the article, Roseman does an excellent job of highlighting the dangers of putting too much personal information online. After all, since it is your information, you decide with whom and how much of it you release - and with more and more fraud artists cashing in on unsuspecting online victims, you have to be vigilant.

Yet there's also an interesting angle in this story for job seekers.

I've previously discussed social networking websites (e.g. Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc.) and highlighted the dual, good-bad role they play in creating and in managing your online brand.

However, in the context of this article, Roseman's discussion with Malamed also highlights the problem that while you can control the information on your profile, you cannot control what is on your friends' profiles - and this is what Malamed was able to successfully exploit.

And if you extend that line of thinking, what is stopping a potential employer from using the same tactics to gather personal information about you from your friend's profile?

Nothing really - and it's becoming more and more common place as hiring managers look to find out every possible detail about you before making a job offer.

So not only does it now become a question of creating and managing your online brand, but you also have to ensure that content housed on other people's profiles doesn't reflect poorly on you.

Sometimes you can ask your friends to take down the questionable content, but that may not always work - and be prepared for them to say you aren't "cool" anymore!

Instead, you'll have to employ other measures to ensure that such content doesn't damage your online brand.

And so Roseman, citing Sophos Inc., offers four tips to employ while using social networking websites to protect yourself from fraudsters. But they can also be used to better manage your brand as they help control your visibility online and thus the ease in which random people, such as a hiring manager, can find your information.

1. Think carefully about allowing people to be your friends, since they can get access to any information about you that you have marked as viewable by your friends. You can remove friends at any time if you change your mind about someone.

My thoughts: This is an excellent point. Don't accept random friend requests if you don't know who that person is. And you might want to make a habit of not befriending your boss and/or too many colleagues on these sites - it's a good way to keep work and private life separate because often the two, when mixed together, clash and can lead to a host of problems.

2. You can choose to make people "limited friends," so they have access only to a cut-down version of your profile.

My thoughts: Again, another excellent point. Use the privacy settings to your advantage and hid any information that could prove problematic (e.g. photos of you in compromising situations, random rants against various companies or institutions, etc.).

3. Disable options, until you decide you want and need them. Maybe it's better to turn off the bells and whistles, rather than starting with everything accessible.

My thoughts: While this may not directly relate to job search, consider how much personal information you are giving away every time you add a new application to your Facebook or join a new website. Do you really want it floating around in cyberspace forever?

4. Make your profile available to "only my friends." By default, Facebook allows all your networks and all your friends to be able to view your profile

My thoughts: This is another excellent point that relates well with points 1 and 2. Use the privacy settings to your advantage so that only your friends can view your content. And remember that you can also use the privacy settings to manage your visibility to everyone (via Facebook's search listing feature) and to those searching for you.

In sum, not only will these tips save you from potential fraudsters, but you'll also be doing your online brand a huge service. As the holder of your personal information and content, you can control who has access to it - so use the tools and privacy settings to your advantage!

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