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Friending Fraudsters? Networking May Put You at Risk

You're on a social networking site, and you've received an invitation to 'friend' you from someone you don't really know. Do you accept?

Woman working from home.
Ryan McVay | The Image Bank | Getty Images
Woman working from home.

If the person is a member of the opposite sex, the answer is more likely to be "yes."

But that habit could be opening the door to fraud, if the "friend" is someone out to steal your identity.

Nearly 13 million Americans aged 18 or older who are on social networking sites such as Facebook and Linked In say they will accept any connection request from a member of the opposite sex, regardless of whether or not they know that person, according to a recent surveyconducted by Harris Interactive for ID Analytics.

If you're a guy, you may be more than twice as likely as a woman to accept any and all invites from someone of opposite sex. (Eighteen percent for men compared with 7 percent for women respond this way.) And the numbers rise even higher if you're a guy between the ages of 18 and 34.

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According to ID Analytics Chief Privacy Officer Tom Osherwitz, the real disconnect that turned up in the survey was that only half of those who are on social networking sites actually trust their connections to keep their data private.

What's more, despite this lack of trust more than 24 million Americans on social networking sites keep their online profiles "mostly public," meaning anyone can see their personal details.

But if you don't know your connections, even allowing information to be seen by "friends" only, may still not be safe.

Part of the trouble may rest in the fact that many people don't think that the information they are putting up on a site is very valuable. However, fraudsters can use the information on these sites to build the dossier they need to beat challenge questions and other security measures on financial accounts.

In other words, a seemingly innocent picture of you standing in front of your car, may tip a fraudster off to the answer to the challenge question, "What color is your car?"

The same goes for a whole list of other details. Have you commented about your pet? Your favorite movie? Your birthplace? What about the name of your high school? Or how about all those relatives with your mother's maiden name who chat with you?

Another trend uncovered by the survey is that people don't treat all social networks the same.

This means someone who joins a social networking site for professional reasons—for example, a network such as Linked In—may be more likely to accept requests to connect from people they don't know.

That's because, in the survey, about 39 percent thought that it was important to have as many business social media contacts as possible. However, only 19 percent felt it was necessary to have as many personal connections as possible.

"People tend to look at their lives in silos," Osherwitz said. "The trouble is the Internet eliminates those silos."

He also believes that people are still establishing the rules of how one is supposed to behave on social networks, and are somehow willing to share information online that they wouldn't share in person.

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com

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