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Earlier this summer, two armed men broke into the home of a 17-year-old Australian girl, tipped off that she had a large amount of cash stashed there. The source of the tip? The girl had posted on Facebook a photo of a large sum of money that she was helping her grandmother count.
You might forgive the occasional incident of naivete involving a young person being careless with personal information online. But mix a tell-all Internet culture with a growing population of identity thieves and you have a dangerous combination that makes it far too easy to take advantage of people who, well, probably should know better.
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"I've seen some people do some dumb things, including posting a photo of a check online with the routing and account numbers visible," said Craig Guillot, author of Stuff About Money: No BS Financial Advice for Regular People.
We're hoping you know better, but just in case you need a refresher on what to avoid, here are a few online ways to open yourself up to theft--or worse.
1. Here, have my debit card number. At least a few times a week, you can count on someone somewhere posting a photo of his or her debit or credit card online. Perhaps the intent is to show off a particularly cool card design or celebrate new credit worthiness (which, given their carelessness, likely will not last very long), but in the meantime, they are broadcasting their financial information to would-be thieves. The Twitter account @NeedADebitCard celebrates this particular brand of stupidity by shaming the Tweeters even more publicly.
2. One day my Nigerian prince will come. Though Internet schemes are becoming more sophisticated than the once-prevalent Nigerian prince pleading for bank account information, you can be sure that if you engage with a suspicious email asking for a password or directing you to a bogus website, you are probably opening yourself up to identity theft. Just mark it as spam and leave it alone.
3. Look, Ma! No hands! Along with photos of credit cards and other obvious financial information, Guillot warns people not to post information about risky behaviors. "Insurance companies have increasingly been using social media to check up on their clients," he said. "Fill out a life insurance application, then post photos from your recent skydive and it could be a problem."
4. What secured network? Many people falsely assume that every network they use to access the Internet is secure. The temptation to give your bank account balance a quick check while waiting for your Americano at the coffee shop is a strong one--but be careful. Using free Wi-Fi on an unsecured network exposes you to hackers who can easily grab your passwords and other sensitive information. Denise Richardson, author of Give Me Back My Credit!, advises that people use free Wi-Fi only to surf the web--don't use it to log in to financially sensitive sites.
5. The check's in the mail, and I'm going to Aruba! You may not be as obvious in your broadcast as someone who posts a photo of their credit card or check. However, when you tell your Twitter followers and Facebook friends about a large sum of money you're about to receive or that you're going on vacation, you are still opening yourself up to risk. If you tell people that you're waiting on a big check, for example, "People could find out where you live and swipe it from your mailbox," Guillot warned.
6. A password as easy as 1-2-3. We get it. It's hard to remember passwords. But don't make the mistake of thousands of people--as it was revealed during a recent Yahoo! security breach--who created painfully obvious passwords, such as 123456. An alternative: Try creating a password by combining the first letter of each word from a line of your favorite song. Additional tip: Pick a lyric with a number in it.
The Investing Answer: As with many things in life, use a bit of common sense to guard yourself from financial fraud online. Though you may be lulled into the idea that you are surrounded by friends, family and a community of benevolent well-wishers online, it might be more accurate to picture yourself facing a bunch of sticky-fingered thugs before you post anything. Ask yourself before you post anything, "Could revealing this information come back to hurt me in some way?"
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