While youve been having fun posting messages to friends, reconnecting with old pals, accepting invites to parties and uploading pictures from your life a stranger in another city has been keeping tabs on you. That stranger liked your beachside picture, it caught his eye right away after he used the Facebook search tool to seek out single girls (or guys) aged 15 21 who live in towns near his and who are looking for Random Play. Your profile is open so after your picture got his attention your personal essay piqued his interest. You have a few things in common and you like a few things hes always wanted to try, suddenly in his mind you have a connection. You share interests. From your hometown he is able to find the address of your school. He already knows your work address because you added it on your profile.
A few weeks go by and hes been watching you with great interest. He knows the names of your close friends, he sees all the pictures you put up and the names you tag to those pictures. The more he sees of your life the more he feels he knows you. There is this one picture taken of you at a party where you are looking right in to the camera; he likes it because it feels like you are looking at him, gazing in to his very soul.
He joins one of your groups just to learn more about you. Somebody in the group is having a party and invites all the members using the Facebook events tool. You get an invite and accept it right away. He gets an invite too, and even though he doesnt accept he knows where to find you. Even if he hadnt been invited he could have looked up the location when he saw on your profile that you had accepted an invitation by clicking on the link to the event that Facebook automatically placed in your mini-feed. Either way he now knows where you will be that night and from your posts to the event wall he also knows when you plan to get there. That week he sees a post a friend left you thanking you for covering a shift for them, in the post they mention the exact day and time of the shift you are covering. He now knows where you work and exactly when you will be there. Without ever leaving his home a stranger in another town has found you, felt an attraction to your picture, learned about your life and grown obsessed with you and now he knows of 2 different places where he can finally come see you face to face. He gets gutsy and sends you a friend request. You see his name in one of your groups and on an invite list to the party you plan to attend and you figure he must be safe so in keeping with the friendly spirit of social networking sites you add him. Now he has your cell phone number too. Scary thought? It should be!
So how do you protect yourself from falling victim to a predator like this? While nothing is failsafe (short of staying away from social networking sites altogether) here are some tips that will keep you safer:
Make your profile private so that only friends can see it; people from your past that may be looking for you will still find your name in a search but they wont see your profile until you add them as a friend. Predators will always choose a readily available target over one that takes work to even find.
Set up a limited profile (using the privacy settings) and use it for people from your past or people you dont know well.
Dont list your birth date, or at the very least omit the year. Dont list your school name or the name of where you work. Consider not listing your hometown, political views or religious affiliations.
Dont put your phone number on your profile. People you really know will have other ways to get it.
Keep your personal statement limited, the more you list about your likes and dislikes the more information a stranger will have to create a fantasy relationship with you or to seek out ways to bond or connect with you in real life.
Never accept an invite to a party or event on Facebook. Decline all online invitations and then, if you really plan to attend, tell the host in person that you will be there.
Dont tag your pictures. Strangers wont know the names and faces of your friends. Never label where a picture was taken (like a club or other public place) instead label pictures with simple non-identifying titles like Summer Party 07, A Day at the Beach or Randoms.
Restrict your picture settings so that only friends can see pictures you post or pictures that you are tagged in (again, do this using the privacy settings).
Be selective in the applications that you add. Stay away from overly personal applications or applications that give away information you have purposely left out of your profile (like hobbies, social groups, favorite things, etc ).