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Special to the Journal

Social networking websites are a great way to find old classmates, stay connected with friends, or even make new friends. Unfortunately though, hackers have learned how to use Web sites like Facebook in order to disseminate viruses or steal identities. Better Business Bureau is offering advice on how consumers can protect themselves against hackers, scammers and ID thieves on social networking Web sites.
The popularity of social networking Web sites has grown immensely in the past few years. According to the blog Inside Facebook, as of December, Facebook was growing at a rate of 500,000 new users a day and is approaching 150 million active users. Facebook estimates that, in total, users spend more than 2.6 billion minutes on the Web site every day worldwide. As a result of the increase in popularity, scammers are seeing an opportunity to step in and ply their trade.
Social networking is extremely popular because it allows us to connect and reconnect with people we know and trust. Scammers know that they can take advantage of that trust by masquerading as friends, families, and coworkers in order to easily disseminate viruses or steal personal information such as bank or credit card numbers.
Some common social networking schemes include the following:
Friend in Distress Scam
One scam that has made the transition from phone and e-mail into Facebook is the “friend in distress” scam. Facebook users may receive a message in their inbox from a friend saying that they are in a dire situation – such as stranded in a foreign country – and need money wired to them. The recipient of the message doesn’t realize that their friend’s account has been hacked and that the message was actually sent by scammers. If the Facebook user does wire money to the scammers, they have no way of recovering the money after they learn that their friend is actually safe and sound.
Phishing Friends
One particularly virulent computer virus, called Koobface, has made the social networking site rounds via MySpace and most recently on Facebook in December. In Facebook, the victim receives a message from their friend saying “You look awesome in this video” or “You look funny in this video” and includes a link to an outside Web site to view the video. Clicking on the link will open a window that claims the victim needs to download an updated version of Flash. Agreeing to the update actually installs the virus onto the victim’s computer. The virus is designed to monitor the user’s Internet activity and potentially steal personal information. Victims of Koobface have had a particularly difficult time removing the virus and in some cases just decided to scrap their computers completely.
Viral Wall Post
Another recent Facebook scam takes advantage of a social networker’s fears that the pictures and information they post on Facebook could be made very public. The user receives a post on his or her wall from a friend saying something like, “hey do u realize your face book picture is all over <link to Web site>”.  The wall posts vary, but all invariably link to an outside Web site that supposedly has the user’s photos.  Facebook warns that clicking on the link will allow hackers to gain access to the user’s personal account and post the same message – seemingly coming from the victim – on their friend’s walls.
BBB offers the following advice for staying safe on social networking sites:
Be extremely wary of messages from friends or strangers that direct the user to another Web site via a hyperlink.
Before wiring money to a friend in a jam, users should attempt to contact their friend outside of the social networking site, such as over the phone or via e-mail to confirm the situation. If that’s not possible, BBB recommends asking them a question that only they would know the answer to.
Users should always make sure their computer’s operating system and antivirus and firewall software are up to date.
Social networking sites are about sharing information, but BBB recommends that users take steps to keep important information private. While some social networking Web sites do allow for the user to share phone numbers and addresses, it’s best to keep such information private.
Be selective when choosing friends. While a user might not want to be rude, BBB recommends that it’s best to decline a request for friendship if the user doesn’t actually know the person.
For more advice on staying safe online go to www.bbb.org.


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