THE BLOG
12/07/2012 02:20 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Five Ways to Not Get Sued When Posting on Social Networking Sites: A Warning From Virginia

Facebook is a place for socializing -- a virtual tavern or playground (depending on your age) where people joke, vent, share, re-connect, view and brag about everything from what they ate to their child's latest achievement. Yelp, on the other hand, is for giving feedback on businesses, while LinkedIn is for networking and Twitter is for venting.

A Virginia woman's critical comments on a social networking site, however, could change all that. Jane Perez is being sued for Internet defamation to the tune of $750,000. While her troubles could have been avoided had she stayed off all social networking sites, a better and more practical solution is to be careful what you write, who you friend and to check your privacy settings regularly. Or just stay anonymous.

While most people are careful who they friend on Facebook or link to on LinkedIn, I know people who refuse to friend anyone from their place of employment as to not mix business with pleasure. There are many people on Yelp and Twitter who are anonymous and vent without anyone knowing who they are for this very reason.

Wherever your paranoia falls, social media sites must be used carefully. For employers, Facebook can be a glimpse into your nights and weekends and Twitter can be a look at your real feelings.

With the recent launch of Facebook's new job board, for instance, the line between your days and nights is blurred for your employer or next employer to see. Job seekers and employees looking to get promoted could be at risk of missing out on opportunities because of comments, photos and postings designed to be personal conversations. Also, if your boss follows you on Twitter, she may just see that you have strong political views that differ from her views. Before you apply for a job online or link your profile on Facebook to a co-worker or write a review of a local company, we all need to be aware of the risks involved in sharing personal information online.

Stories abound about people being fired or denied jobs because of what they posted online.

A woman who worked for a Connecticut residential facility catering to the homeless lost her job last year after she poked fun of the residents of the facility on a friend's online social networking profile. The woman said the residents were "spooky" and was soon found without a job.

The casual and personal comment would have passed without notice had she said it verbally over a cup of coffee at a friend's house. But instead, she made the comment on the most popular social media site in the U.S. where it could live forever.

The risk of repercussions resulting from Yelp and Facebook activity could very well increase if people start using their social networks for professional networking. Facebook, LinkedIn, CareerBliss and Yelp are continuously rolling out new features, updates and privacy settings -- all of which can result in sharing more than you want or realize. Without knowing, a user could accidentally post job search information on Facebook's timeline or an anonymous comment could end up with your name on it. What happens next could be devastating.

Connecting with employers in the same space where you share personal details of your life -- like checking into your favorite places, syncing up with entertainment apps like Spotify and "liking" your favorite products and pages -- can be very risky.

Even if you have clicked all the right privacy buttons to secure your personal data, compromised computer systems and hacked online accounts are not uncommon.

Harvard Business Review recently reported that most organizations still fear social media as a threat to security, privacy or even management authority. And this past July, Yahoo experienced it first hand when the hacker group called D33D broke into the company's network and stole login passwords of roughly 450,000 users.

Leaving your personal information vulnerable to hackers, employers or professional contacts has an even greater risk when you consider your career as well as your reputation is at risk.
There are some measures you can take to protect yourself from confusing privacy settings and menacing hackers to protect your personal information:

1. First of all, change your password often and on a regular basis.
2. Be careful with automatic sign-ins. Most of the time, the default is set to a public setting so if you choose to sync up any applications with your Facebook login, make sure it's private.
3. Regularly Google yourself to make sure that your online identity is clean.
4. Use the "View As" feature on Facebook to take a look at what others see on your timeline.
5. Remember to log out completely from all social networking sites. Minimizing your browser is not always enough.

These tips may protect you from having an employer see careless comments or personal photos but it won't stop your comments from being viewed online by people who don't know you. Jeopardizing your professional relationship is not worth the risk. The very public nature of the Internet is enough to keep your professional life just that -- professional.

Perez's lawsuit is a note of caution for everyone using social networking sites. Before you post anything on a public online space, ask yourself: Would you say this in a job interview to your next employer or to a stranger at the grocery store? Because you may have already said it to them.