Unfortunately, we live in a world that forces us to be cautious about when and how we give out our personal information. Citibank's funny but true commercials say it all: the scourge of identity theft knows no boundaries. It can happen to anyone by anyone: rich, poor, good credit, bad credit. Victims include children, the elderly, celebrities and politicians, even the dead. Identity theft may include new account fraud, account takeover, criminal identity theft, business identity theft and medical identity theft. Most of these result in financial loss.
As an industry leader we have to be on the frontlines of emerging consumer trends and challenges so we can develop solutions. One of the latest forms of identity theft that is particularly damaging to the victim's reputation and becoming more prevalent is social media identity theft. Social media identity thieves have various motivations. The most damaging type of social media ID theft occurs when someone poses as you in order to disrupt your life. This disruption can take on many forms. They may harass and stalk you or your contacts, or they may steal your online identity for financial gain.
The New York Times reports on Facebook's recent offering of customized Web addresses like facebook.com/RobertSiciliano. On the first day of Facebook's offering, 9.5 million people rushed to grab their name. And as predicted, there are a lot of people upset that their own name is gone, in some cases it is simply due to people sharing the same name, but increasingly we're seeing cases where social media identity theft occurred.
In the case of St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, someone created a Twitter account in his name. La Russa is suing Twitter, claiming the impostor Twitter page damaged his reputation and caused emotional distress. The lawsuit includes a screen shot of three tweets. One, posted on April 19, read, "Lost 2 out of 3, but we made it out of Chicago without one drunk driving incident or dead pitcher." Apparently, La Russa has had a drunk driving arrest and two Cardinals pitchers have died since 2002. One pitcher died of a heart attack, the other in a drunk driving accident.
There is no limit to the damage someone can do by using your name and picture in order to impersonate you online. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an 18-year-old student was accused of posing as a girl on Facebook, tricking at least 31 male classmates into sending him naked photos of themselves, and then blackmailing some of these young men for sex acts.
Social media websites were created with the intention of bringing people together in a positive way, but we are beginning to see these sites being used in very sinister ways. The root of the problem is the fact that social media sites are all based on the honor system, with the assumption that people are honestly setting up accounts in their own names. There are few checks and balances in the world of social media, which means that you need to adopt a strategy to protect yourself.
There are hundreds or even thousands of social media sites, including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube. Even your local newspaper's website has a place for user comments, and most people would prefer to register their own names before someone else has done so on their behalf.
As we spend more time online, meeting people, posting photos and offering glimpses into our personal lives, here are some action steps to keep Social Media Identity Theft at bay:
1. Register your full name and those of your spouse and kids on the most trafficked social media sites, blogs, domains or web based email accounts. If your name is already gone, include your middle initial, a period or a hyphen. It's up to you to decide whether or not to plug in your picture and basic bio, but consider leaving out your age or birthday.
2. Set up a free Google Alerts for your name and get an email every time your name pops up online. Go to iSearch.com by Intelius and search your name and any variations of your name in what would be a screen name.
3. Set up a free StepRep account for your name. StepRep is an online reputation manager that does a better job than Google Alerts does of fetching your name on the web.
4. Consider dropping a few bucks on Knowem.com and other sites like them. These online portals go out and register your name at what they consider the top social media sites. Their top is a great start. The user experience is relatively painless. There is still labor involved in setting things up with some of them. And no matter what you do, you will still find it difficult to complete the registration with all the sites. Some of the social media sites just aren't agreeable. This can save you lots of time, but is only one part of solving the social media identity theft problem.
5. Start doing things online to boost your online reputation. Blogging is best. You want Google to bring your given name to the top of search in its best light, so when anyone is searching for you they see good things. This is a combination of online reputation management and search engine optimization for your brand: YOU.
6. If you ever stumble upon someone using your likeness in the social media, be very persistent in contacting the site's administrators. They too have reputations to manage and if they see someone using your photo or likeness they would be smart to delete the stolen profile.
7. Despite all the work you may do to protect yourself, you still need the Intelius Identity Protect service I'm working with and recommend coupled with Internet security software.
Follow Robert Siciliano on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RobertSiciliano