SPECIAL REPORT: Avoid the "Social Nightmare"

Posted by: Cody Holyoke - bio | email

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Nowadays, social networking is part of a daily routine.

Information is always at our fingertips.  Sites like Facebook boast more than 500 million registered users.

Twitter has more than 170 million users, and other sites are contributing to the craze.

"You explain your day. You can explain how you feel at the time," said Jillian Young, a freshman at Auburn Montgomery.

"We take pictures and stuff sometimes, and we put them on there," explained freshman Matt Myers.

Be warned: substituting interaction with the internet can be dangerous.  You never know who you're talking to.

"Life has changed! You used to have an online life and a real life, and not anymore. They intertwine," explained Investigator Jake Frith with Prattville's Computer Forensics Unit.

"It can be very dangerous.  If you have a predator that's intent on locating you once he identifies you as a target, he's very intent on locating you. He creates fake profiles and other things to become friends with you," Frith said.

You would be surprised how little information is needed to do some damage.  Take broadcasted locations, on Twitter, for example.

"If I'm a predator and I'm following you, I can just see magically where you're at."

Don't forget profile listings on Facebook.

"If I have your name and date of birth.  I can call and get your medical records. I could pretend to be your mom, your dad," Frith said.

Curious to see how trusting people are, we tried an experiment.   With the help of Josh Hawk, one of our employees, we created a Facebook profile.

Josh and I searched for people living nearby and friended away.

"It's scary because I have no idea who these people are," Josh commented as we discovered an eye-opening number of accepted requests.

We also found loads of personal information listed on profiles.  Things like addresses and cell phone numbers--we even found pages set up for kids.

So we did what any criminal could do: find our newfound friends.

Debbie Barrett works as a receptionist in the Montgomery area.  We found her workplace listed on her profile and confronted her.

We asked her to read the information on her profile.

"Where I work. Where I went to high school. What city I live in. My husband's name. My birthday," she read.

"Someone can find me.  I'm a little nervous about that."

Barrett accepted our friendship.  Now, she says she'll rethink her methods.

Facebook user Leigh Anne Luna has a different outlook on online life.

Her profile is more than 4,200 friends strong.  Using our "friendship," we found her home address listed on her profile.

"Probably 10 to 15 percent of [my friends] I don't really know," Luna admitted.

Leigh Anne uses social networking for business.  She also allows her 9 year old son to have a profile.  Her son's profile lists his school, grade, and age.

Luna says she sits with her son when he's online.

That's a good way to allow online use, according to police.

"Parents need to understand that they need to be actively involved," Investigator Frith said.

If you're not comfortable posting all of that information on any networking site, you don't have to.

Many of them have advanced privacy settings.

Facebook, for example, allows you to only share basic details--or choose who gets to see them.

"You can have it to where someone can see nothing but your name and sex. So, that really isn't that big of a deal for me," Jillian Young explained.

Location features have to be activated by the user on Twitter. You can also adjust the settings on Facebook.  Turn them off if you're uncomfortable.

Another idea? Make an additional profile to keep professional and private life separate.

In a confusing online world, common sense usually prevails.

So put it this way: don't tell a stranger online anything you wouldn't tell a stranger on the street.

"I would tell them my name. They would know my gender. They could kind of estimate my age," Young said.

Useful advice as law enforcement officers work to keep the web safe.

"As much as I'd like for it to all go away, it's just not going to happen," Frith explained.

Police also offer this advice:  If someone does follow or friend you, pick up the phone and call them.  Check if the online version is really them.

Useful Programs:

Investigators have also found some great programs for parents to track their child's social networking.

GoGoStat's Parental Guidance and Parental Guidance Mobile come highly recommended by police.  These add-ons for Facebook allow parents to track a child's online conversation.

Keyloggers are also a useful tool for parents, according to police.  This way, you can track exactly which sites your kids visit--and who they're talking to.

Privacy Settings:

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