The vultures preying on your social network

By Mieke Vlok
17 March 2017

Cybercriminals can exploit even the most innocent of pictures or posts on social media – here’s how to protect yourself.

A selfie here, a witty comment there – social media is great fun, isn’t it? But watch out – those candid postings you share with all and sundry could come back to haunt you.

“Information cannot be deleted from the internet,” warns Professor Elmarie Kritzinger, a lecturer at Unisa’s school of computing. That tweet you fired off in a moment of anger or that posting you made about your ex after having one glass too many – even if you’ve gone back and deleted it when you came to your senses, chances are there’s still a record of it on a server somewhere. The internet never forgets . . . Once you’ve posted something, it’s there to stay.

This makes it a treasure trove for cybercriminals, who have all kinds of sneaky methods to access all your ill-advised postings and make a fast buck out of your naivety. Most people know it’s a really bad idea to post details such as your ID number, address and phone number on social media. But there’s other far less obvious information you often share that could lead crooks to your door. Read more: 7 things you really shouldn’t be sharing on social media

 Avoid oversharing

So excited about your new car that you absolutely have to share a picture of it on social media? Or when your teen passes her driving test do you celebrate by posting a picture on your Facebook page of her holding her licence?

Watch out! Cell phone cameras now take high-quality photos so someone can easily zoom in to find the information they need. Also, anything in the background can provide more tips about your location and personal details. The same goes for travel photos where you post snaps of your passport, plane tickets or visa for a foreign country. Researchers in Japan and Germany have succeeded in cloning someone’s fingerprint using only a selfie in which the person was making a peace sign and their fingers were clearly visible.

Don’t get personal

That heartfelt post about your childhood pet, tribute to your mom, or vivid recollection of the town you grew up in may be of great interest to strangers – but not for the reasons you intended.

It can prove to be a mine of information, offering answers to standard privacy questions often asked by banks, online retailers and other institutions. Steer clear of revealing your first pet’s name, your mother’s maiden name, the street you grew up in or any other similar information. Also make sure you set your hometown as private, otherwise anyone can see the name of the place you were raised. Also try to change your settings so that groups you belong to such as the high school you attended or the athletics club you belong to remain private. The groups you join give away a lot about your habits and background.

Stalker alert

People can use the internet to find out a lot about you. Once they’ve got your address, with Google’s Street View function they can get 3D images of your street, house and even check for parts of your property that are easy to access. Be sure to type in your address to check out what everyone else can see. If you feel the pics shared put you at risk, you can click on “Send feedback” or “Report a problem” and ask Google to remove them. Criminals can also download a photograph of you, then use Google’s specialised photo search function to see which websites the same picture appears on and visit those sites to find out more about you. That’s why it’s best to avoid using the same profile picture on multiple websites.

Facebook gives the game away

Your Facebook profile reveals a lot about your activities – from the places you visit to the events you attend. If your Facebook profile and cellphone number are linked, it makes you even easier to find.

Ensure your friends list isn’t visible. Even if your profile is locked, stalkers can still view your friends list and check the profiles of relatives or close friends. Their profile may not have such strict privacy settings as yours, making it possible for strangers to spy on you.

Don’t fall for postings that occasionally pop up in your feed promising to show you who’s been checking out your profile – most of these are a scam to trick you into revealing your login details which conmen can then use to post embarrassing content on your behalf or even access your other web accounts.

Although Facebook is cagey about its algorithms and methods, one theory is that the nine friends who appear to the left on your profile page are the ones who recently visited your page or whom you’ve had interaction with.

Another theory is that if you really want to see who’s been checking out your profile, you can do so by inspecting Facebook’s source code. Go to your profile page, right click with your mouse and select “View Page Source”.

When a page opens to show the source code, click control F which will bring up a search field at the top of your screen. Key in the search term: InitialChatFriendsList. It will then take you to a section of the page that shows a collection of code. Each string of numbers set in quotations and followed by “- 0”, “-2”, or “-3” represents someone who’s been viewing your postings.

To see which code represents which friend, copy one of these strings without the “- 0”, “-2”, or “-3” at the end, then type into your browser and paste the code into the address bar after the .com/. Some say this will show you exactly who’s been viewing your page but cyber experts reckon that all it reveals is just a random collection of your friends. Read more: Is social media hurting your kids’ self esteem?

Watch out for computer boffins

Stalkers with a basic knowledge of coding can get information – such as where a picture was taken – by checking and deciphering the embed code. In 2012 two employees at a Burger King fast-food restaurant in America shared a photo of them standing on lettuce that was to go on customers’ burgers. It took internet users only 15 minutes to use the embed codes to figure out where the picture had been taken and get the two employees fired. Also remember that computers keep a digital record of everything that’s printed or created, and printers do the same. If someone’s smart enough, they can find anything you’ve ever scanned or printed by simply checking your printer’s hard drive.

Your bragging can cost you

When you’re lying on an idyllic beach with a cocktail, it’s fun to share the moment with your hundreds of Facebook friends and watch their jealous reactions. But watch out – your bragging can land you in hot water. If your house is broken into while you’re on holiday, your insurer may refuse to pay on the grounds that your posts might have alerted burglars to the fact that you were away.


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