Tell the world you’re away from home?

Some of Facebook's gifts, as displayed in the website's gift shop.Image via Wikipedia

Not long ago I had occasion to look into the phenomenon called (unfortunately) “social engineering.” I say unfortunately because the term is so vague that when someone says “social engineering,” you have to ask, “What do you really mean by that?” The meaning isn’t readily apparent.

The definition of most interest to me had to do with the ways con artists manipulate people into giving up information and, ultimately, their money or someone else’s money. In other words, it’s about fraud. They’ll use the Internet, the phone, mail — any medium — and some will just walk up to your door and knock in person. The social engineer gets you to give up your Social Security number, or your bank account number, your PIN, passwords, and so on. He or she might get a bit of information here, a little more there, another byte somewhere else, then steal your identity.

My look into the subject coincided roughly with my curiosity about social media such as Facebook and MySpace as well as professional networking, both Internet-based and otherwise, wikis and online communities. (It was around the same time my passport was stolen, too, but that’s another story.) I thought I’d experiment with some of these sites to see how they might be used for profit — legally, of course.

While I haven’t figured out how to make more than a few bucks so far, I’ve arrived at a few basic conclusions you may find useful:

  • Letting your travel plans be known on Twitter or similar services is a bad idea. Pretty much anyone can “follow” you and know that you’ll be away for a week or two, very possibly leaving your house untended and unwatched.
  • Don’t say things like “I’ll be on vacation for two weeks” when setting up your out-of-office message. If you want your friends and family to know where you’ll be, call them or e-mail them; don’t tell the world.
  • Think twice before you add all the fun little widgets and apps and other cool things you see (see Secret Crush story, and before you give out anything that a social engineer can find useful.

Those are just a few suggestions to get you thinking someone is out to get you. Someone could very well be. Google “social engineering” and see for yourself.

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