Social Networking poses security threats

Social networking is all about sharing: information, ideas, jokes, pictures, personal, academic and professional milestones. That is why it has become such a popular way for individuals around the world to stay in touch with each other and for brands to reach out to consumers.

While social media is all about fun, games and connection, there is a dark side too (image: file)

South Africans also love to socialise and connect online. Fueled by the growing popularity of smartphones and web-accessible feature phones in the country, the local number of Facebook users have grown by 900 000 people (or 17%) to reach 5.3 million users by the end of the third quarter of 2012. That is reportedly more than three quarters of the country’s online population.

Business technology consulting firm Strategy Worx revealed in their latest Social Media and Mobile graphic that 4.5 million of South Africans (or 84%) are using their mobile phones to access the popular social networking website. South Africa is also on the list of the ten countries with the highest Facebook mobile penetration worldwide.

Other social networking sites enjoying popularity in South Africa include professional networking site LinkedIn, which is second most popular following Facebook, and Twitter, which comes in at third place, boasting 12% of cellphone users. Google + features in fourth place with 17.2% of internet users.

While social media is all about fun, games and connection, there is a dark side too. “Since cyber criminals tend to follow the masses, all of those popular social media sites have also moved into the sights of scammers and spammers,” says Lutz Blaeser, Managing Director of Intact Security, the sole distributor of G Data Security solutions in South Africa. “Facebook users in particular need to guard against scams and spam that could lead to identity theft.”

There is even a name for these new social networking threats: social malware, or “socware”, for short. Research at the University of California – Riverside recently studied the Facebook pages of 12 000 users for four months. During that time, almost half of those users were exposed to at least one form of socware.

According to Blaeser, the fact that the whole nature of social networking is that you are dealing with friends and colleagues and other relationships built around trust, is the very thing that cyber criminals use to exploit it. “Hackers are bargaining on it that you are more likely to believe something when you see it on say, your Facebook feed. For example, the chances are rather high that you will click on a link to a free gadget or a free airline ticket when you spot it on a friend’s wall or on a Twitter feed, even if you consider yourself to be generally cyber and security savvy.”

When users click on those “free offer” links, it sometimes takes them to external websites, or perhaps to another Facebook page. Once there, they will often be asked to fill out forms (or surveys) disclosing information such as their name, surname, birthday, address and perhaps even their credit card information. When this kind of information falls into the wrong hands, it can lead to identity and monetary theft too.

“Cyber thieves are using the viral nature of social networking to perpetuate their scams,” says Blaeser. He says it is not necessary to turn anti-social networking and to shut down your accounts. “Just use common sense. Red flags to watch out for are posts with links to “free” offers or deals that are too good to be true. Spammers want to grab attention, so avoid ads with words such as “wow”, “free”, “OMG” and “deal”. Otherwise you could get more than you’ve ever bargained for.”

Staff writer