Mitigating Online Dangers
I’ve raved about the Internet heaps in different online forums because whilst being absolutely amazing, it can also be insidious and truly damaging. This morning, whilst playing, ‘Hunt the pop-up’ because I wanted to edit a subscriber invitation on my blog, I’ve been very grateful for Aunty Google’s ability to answer questions. I’ve found countless helpful articles and managed to achieve my goal. I mean, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – I built my entire website using Aunty Google’s capable answers. She doesn’t care what time it is and never gives me ‘the face’ when I don’t get it first time. I press repeat and she reruns it without drama. She’s never yet called me thick or stormed off in temper.
But you can’t just take the good and ignore the bad. That would be stupid, right? There are so many documented cases of catfish attacks online; people pretending to be someone they’re not for their own advantage. People are duped every day by some new con trick and heck, they’re even duped by the old ones. Lots of them are too ashamed to admit it, having parted with cash, emotional investment and their dignity to some low life who earns a living that way. Imagine how much scarier Fatal Attraction might have been if Glenn Close had been able to track Michael Douglas on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as breaking into his house and boiling his daughter’s bunny rabbit.
I know some couples for whom Internet dating has worked and others who are still scarred by the ensuing disaster. One embarrassed friend had to get her son to intervene when a supposedly eligible bachelor online turned out to be a complete psycho, proposed to her on the first date and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He all but brought an overnight bag and a van loaded with his belongings ready to move in to her place.
There are ways in which you can protect your online friends from unscrupulous Internet users and I’ve asked my Facebook friends to implement one of them on numerous occasions. Sadly, only 1 person ever did it. If you look at my Facebook page, you will only be able to see friends which are common to me and you. All others are hidden from you. That means if you’re a catfish looking for victims, masquerading under the stolen profile picture of a US colonel, you can’t target my friends. Hands off.
It’s this easy. Go into your ‘Friends’ tab and click on the pencil. Select ‘Manage’.
Set everything to ‘Only Me’ and I’ll be safe and so will all your other friends. It really wasn’t hard, was it?
There are other settings which we can use to protect each other on social media, so why is nobody using them? The Internet is a great place to be but only if we’re wise about it. It’s harder to protect followers on Twitter and Google+ but I recently discovered how to block someone on Twitter from my phone. Inundated with new followers wanting me to pay for fans, I discovered that if I didn’t deal with the first one, they flooded in like storm water. Blocking the first one as soon as they latch on seems to work, as it prevents the rest following. This is often the case in groups, especially on Facebook. Administrators need to lock down the group entry settings, stopping other members from adding friends by email or directly on Facebook. A sudden influx of spam can often be traced back to this. I once spent six months battling spam on a group I helped to manage, all because the official owner of the site wouldn’t disable that setting. I wasted many precious hours of my life and in the end, abandoned ship for good.
Online groups can be great and terrible places. I’ve witnessed more group spats on Facebook, Google+ and Goodreads than I ever did in the playground at school. There are fewer boundaries for a start and the dinner supervisors who drove us nuts as children would be very useful about now in parting those involved in vicious verbal assaults. Insults fly like confetti from unexpected places, all the more damaging because their barbs reach you in the safety of your living room and not out there in the big, bad world. I’ve left groups before when my proffered opinion is not only rejected but screamed down, vilified and my character maligned. That’s really not ok and nothing is worth that sick feeling those kinds of confrontation induce. I don’t have time for toxic people in my life.
I know lots of people and we often sit in groups and offer differing opinions on a matter; at work, socially and otherwise. We all come from a wide range of backgrounds and our experiences inevitably colour our views. I’ve never seen a punch up in the lunch room because someone holds another view, but it’s commonplace online. Goodreads is getting a terrible reputation for online tactics such as trolling, verbal slander and some members ganging up on others. It spills over from the forums and into personal lives, leaking out like ectoplasm and dirtying everywhere it touches. I want to take part in the reading groups and discuss the merits of certain types of mystery; but I’m scared. I’ve seen how hard it is to block these online bullies and stop the rot once it’s begun, spreading out into Facebook newsfeeds, comments on Pinterest and abusive Tweets which go ‘out there’ online and stay there forever. It’s the reason why I avoided social media for the first ten years of its existence.
You don’t have to be a victim and nor do those around you. Here are some basic rules to help you.
- Don’t tag friends in random posts. It’s not fair to draw attention to them for your amusement.
- Make sure Facebook and others can’t tag you or post on your wall without your permission. You can do that in Google+ also.
- On Facebook, don’t accept friend requests from strangers. Harder on Twitter but you don’t have to follow them back if you’re not sure about them or what they tweet. Eventually they will unfollow you because they’re looking for numbers.
- Don’t get into debates and arguments. You can’t win so don’t even try. The people you want to prove wrong probably aren’t even who you think they are, so what do you hope to achieve? Let it go.
- Lock down your personal details online so they are only visible to you. If you’re not careful about who your friends and acquaintances are, why do you want them to see where you live, your phone number, personal email and where you’ve just had dinner? Note that Facebook are removing that special email they allocated you. I’m not sure what will happen when that’s gone.
- Take the location tag off your phone or laptop. It’s not clever to let people know where you are with so many weirdos around. Yes, there has been an increase in burglaries of families on holiday who post photos of their fun onto a public page and let everyone know their house is empty. I’d rather my husband didn’t post hotel photos whilst away on business because his friends know I’m home alone in the middle of nowhere. But fortunately, his Facebook and LinkedIn pages are fairly well locked down. He’s a tech. People can’t even post ‘Happy Birthday’ messages on his pages, let alone see where he might be in the world!
- Be mindful of identity theft. Thieves don’t require too much information about you in order to copy your identity. Unwitting people put all these things on social media; full name, place of birth, date of birth, address, contact details plus enough life history to create a plausible copy of you.
- The Internet is piped into your front room and so is everyone associated with your online presence. There are some people you would be best to leave outside the front door or even the gate. Others need leaving outside the city boundary, in manacles.
I spent a lot of time struggling to keep my children safe in the UK, warning them about stranger-danger and encouraging them to be open and honest with me about their activities. For a while there, every time I let my ten-year-old twins walk to school together, bearing in mind I walked a few minutes behind them but could still see them, I got a note from school about an attempted kidnapping elsewhere in the town. It became easier not to try and they walked with me until we emigrated when they were eleven. Most of us keep healthy boundaries in place with strangers in the real world, but put them behind a smiling profile picture and suddenly we believe everything they say. They can sucker us into deep and meaningful relationships which are not always what we believe them to be.
You don’t have to be completely jaded. I’ve met some amazing friends online and even had coffee with some of them in person. They were everything I thought they were and more. Most people are who they say they are and they have no evil intent towards you. But for those playing the game of confidence trickster, do all you can to make it harder for them.
Think about it; you wouldn’t go out and leave your front door wide open and you wouldn’t engage with a perfect stranger on their terms and territory without safeguards in place.
So don’t do it online.
It’s dangerous so be careful out there.
K T Bowes is the writer of The Hana Du Rose Mysteries, the From Russia, With Love series, the Troubled series for teens and the new New Zealand Soccer Referees series, plus other individual works. You can find out more about her writing HERE and pick up a free book or two.