Social insecurity

What millions of online users don't know can hurt them

Last reviewed: June 2010

Two out of three online U.S. households use social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, nearly twice as many as a year ago, according to the latest Consumer Reports State of the Net survey.

But millions who use these services put themselves and their families at risk by exposing very sensitive personal information, according to the national survey of 2,000 online households conducted in January by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Here are the details:

  • Within the past year, 9 percent of social network users experienced some form of abuse, such as malware infections, scams, identity theft, or harassment.
  • Many social network users are naive about risks. Forty percent had posted their full birth date, exposing them to identity theft. Twenty-six percent of Facebook users with children had potentially exposed them to predators by posting the children's photos and names. And in one of four households with a Facebook account, users weren't aware of or didn't choose to use the service's privacy controls.
  • Among all computer users, established threats, such as spyware and phishing e-mail scams, persist at alarmingly high levels, and virus infections increased significantly since last year. Forty percent of online households surveyed reported that they had at least one virus infection in the past two years.

Those findings provide a reminder that it's still important to use the best anti-malware software available.

Overall, we estimate that cybercrime cost American consumers $4.5 billion over the past two years. And it caused them to replace 2.1 million computers.

With social networks expanding the online opportunities for criminals, the price of cybercrime stands to grow even more. "We're just at the beginning of seeing what the implications are for so much information being posted on social networks," says Nicole Ozer, the technology and civil liberties policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

But crime on social networks need not skyrocket. Protecting the vast majority of consumers doesn't require developing any technology, as contending with viruses and spyware did during the past decade. It requires the networks themselves to keep improving their privacy practices and better educating users. (For tips on protecting yourself, see 7 Things to Stop Doing Now on Facebook).