You know that identity theft has long been on the rise and that sharing too much of your personal information online can put you at risk. But did you know that some scammers can use your personal information and photos to create fake Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn accounts with your name and images on them?
They could then use these fake social media profiles to scam others out of money or to tarnish your reputation. And every time they trick someone into sending money to a fake charity or spread hateful messages, your friends, family members, and co-workers may think you're the one committing the crime or promoting hate speech.
Fortunately, you can take steps to help protect yourself against these scammers. You just need to be careful about the information you share about yourself online, manage your social media privacy settings, and report fake social media accounts whenever you do find them.
What is the motive of social media identity theft?
Why would anyone want to create a Twitter or Facebook account under your name? Why would anyone want to craft an Instagram or Pinterest account that includes your photo and personal information?
Scammers have differing reasons for creating these fake profiles.
Some are interested in money. They create a fake Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account in your name with photos they’ve found of you online. They might then reach out to your friends, family members, and co-workers to ask for donations to a fake charity.
Or maybe they'll reach out to these same people to ask directly for money. They might send an email to your Facebook friends or Twitter followers stating that you are struggling to pay your rent or other bills, hoping that the recipients of these messages will send donations.
And when people do send money, either directly or to a charity? It's fake. Those charity dollars and donations go directly to the pockets of the scammers. The money your friends think they are sending to your bank account is instead deposited into the account of a cyberthief.
Other scammers want to push a political message or spread hateful speech. Instead of sending these messages out under their own names and photos, they create fake social media profiles to spread the word. If these scammers use a Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram page with your photo and name to promote controversial or hateful messages or incite illegal actions, your reputation can be damaged.
And sometimes this crime is personal. Maybe you’ve made an enemy, and this enemy wants to destroy your reputation. One way for your enemy to do this is to create a fake account and send hateful messages into the world of social media.
How social media identity theft works
Criminals can use several tricks to create convincing social media profiles in your name. And doing this can be surprisingly easy.
Some might go the basic route, stealing your photo from the web and then adding any personal pictures or information they find online. By adding these elements, scammers can make a fake social media account seem legitimate enough to trick even those friends and family members who know you best.
The greater the amount of personal information these scammers can find about you online, of course, the more realistic are the fake social media profiles they create.
For instance, scammers might easily find where you went to high school and when you graduated. They might find out that you're married and the name of your spouse, all by searching the web for information you have volunteered on your own social media accounts or in forum posts.
It's easy, too, for them to discover where you work and the name of the town in which you grew up. You might have shared all of this information online in the past.
Others might try to trick you with phishing emails into giving up your personal infromation. These scammers might send you an email claiming to be from one of your friends. As you get comfortable, you might gradually send this person information about where you live, whether you’re married or single, where you work and whether you have a family of your own. Scammers can then use all this information to create a realistic social media profile under your name.
How to help protect against social media identity theft
Scammers who use your information and photos to create fake social media accounts in your name can cause you plenty of trouble. Fortunately, you can reduce the chance of falling victim to this scam.
Here are some tips.
Limit who sees your photos and posts on Facebook
Scammers can glean plenty of information from your public Facebook postings and photos, perhaps getting enough information to uncover your birthdate, hometown, employer, high school, or even your maiden name. When you post something new on Facebook, then, make sure you limit who can see it to your friends or family members. This same advice applies to other social media platforms, like Instagram, Snapchat, and LinkedIn, for example.
To do this, go to the Settings tab on Facebook. Then click on "Privacy" and "Who can see your future posts." You can set this to "Friends" or "Friends, Except," which gives you the option to exclude certain people from reading your posts.
Limit who can see your past posts on Facebook
You can also limit who can see your past posts. Go to "Settings" and "Privacy" on your Facebook account. Click on "Who can see your future posts" and, when you are editing that, hit the "Limit Past Posts" option. This will keep posts you made in the past hidden from the general public, too.
Change your Twitter tweets to private
When you post something on Twitter, your tweets are usually public, meaning that anyone can see them. If you want to boost your privacy, though, you can change the status of your tweets to private, meaning that only those who follow your Twitter account can see them. This can reduce the number of scammers who try to phish personal information from you.
To make the move to private tweets, select "Settings" on your Twitter account's home page. Then click the "Security and Privacy" tab. Check the "Protect My Tweets" box. This will make your new tweets, and your past ones, private. Only your followers will be able to see these tweets. Note, though, that you will have to manually approve each new follower request once you set your tweets to private.
Keep your photos private on Instagram
It's fun to share your photos on Instagram with friends, family members, and co-workers. But you might balk at sharing them with strangers. You can make sure that only those you know can view your photos by turning your public Instagram account into a private one. You can then determine who sees your photos and who doesn't.
To make this change, click on the person icon on your Instagram home page. Then click on the gear icon next to your name. This will bring you to Instagram's settings tool. Click on "Privacy and Security" and then select "Account Privacy." Click on the checkbox for "Private Account." This will switch your account from public to private.
Only your existing followers will now be able to view your photos. Anyone else who wants to view them will have to send a "follow" request that you'll have to approve. This is a good way to keep strangers, and potential scammers, away from your Instagram photos.
Hide your birthdate and full name in Snapchat
Your Snapchat profile might list your full name and might even give visitors to your site a clue to your birthday. This means that anyone who can see you on Snapchat can see these details, too. This is actually a big deal: Scammers can use that basic information to scour the web to find out even more information about you, such as the town in which you were born, where you work, and where you live now.
Scammers can then use this informaton to create convincing fake social media profiles in your name and then use those profiles to scam your friends and family members or damage your reputation.
To protect your privacy, remove this information from your profile. You can remove your full name by clicking the "Display Name" tag in your settings. Once you're in this, you can change your name to just your first name or even to a nickname.
You can also click on the "Birthday" section to disable the "Birthday Party" feature of Snapchat. On your birthday, then, Snapchat won't put a birthday cake next to your name on your birthday and won’t tell your friends when you are celebrating a birthday, keeping this information private.
Make your Pinterest boards secret
If you want more privacy on image-sharing site Pinterest, you can make some or all of your Pinterest boards and pins private. Secret pins and boards won't show up in your home feed or in Pinterest searches.
If you want to make a new secret board, simply create that board and turn the "Secret" toggle on when you name it.
You can also make existing boards secret. From your profile, click on the "Boards" option. Click the pencil mark to edit a specific board, then select the "Keep this board secret" option. To make the change, click the "Save" option.
You can still share a secret board, but you must invite friends to collaborate on it. This is a good way to continue to share your Pinterest images while keeping them private from potential scammers.
Search for fake profiles
Do regular Google searches on your name to determine if anyone has set up a fake social media profile with the goal of impersonating you. If you do find a fake profile, it’s time to take action. But don’t send a message to the fake profile itself. Instead, reach out to the proper authorities.
What to do if you are a victim of social media identity theft
What happens if you find a fake Instagram, Facebook or Twitter profile in your name? It’s time to take action.
Report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission: It’s important to report any case of identity theft, including social media identity theft, to the Federal Trade Commission. It’s easy to do this, too. Log onto IdentityTheft.gov to file your report.
Next? Report the identity theft to the social network itself.
For Facebook: You can find Facebook’s online instructions for reporting fake pages here.
If you don’t have a Facebook account but someone has created a fake account in your name, you can report the fraudulent account here.
For Twitter: You can report impersonated Twitter accounts here. Here is the link to file your impersonation report. It’s important to note that you don’t need a Twitter account to report a fake profile.
For LinkedIn: You can also report fake profiles on LinkedIn directly to the social media platform. Here’s the link.
For Instagram: You can report fake accounts created in the name of your business, organization, yourself, or your child here.
For Snapchat: You can report a safety concern — including an impersonated profile — on Snapchat by visiting the company’s safety reporting page.
For Pinterest: Find a fake Pinterest profile in your name? You can report it directly to the social media platform at this link.
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