3 reasons why criminals exploit social networks (and tips to avoid getting scammed)

The popularity and influence of social media continues to increase at lightning speed, and recent events bear evidence to the impact -- both positive and negative --this medium presents. As the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing unfolded, millions of people turned to social media for information, and government officials and law enforcement used it to keep the public informed and solicit their help.

The criminals were also using that same power of social media, but for very different purposes. Multiple fake charities were created on social networking websites within minutes of the explosions, claiming to collect funds for victims. Actors with unknown intentions registered more than 125 domain names associated with the Boston Marathon bombings and victims in the hours after the incident.

The hack of the Associated Press Twitter account was perhaps the first time we saw the power of social media influence our critical infrastructure. Moments after the bogus tweet was sent, falsely claiming President Obama was injured in a bombing of the White House, the stock market dropped. It quickly recovered minutes later, but the incident highlighted just how connected our world is, and how easily a single incident can have immediate and severe consequences.

[Slideshow: 15 social media scams]

Social media has changed the way we communicate and conduct business. We need to recognize that this change comes with risks; we must understand them and take action to mitigate our exposure to these risks. Here are three reasons why criminals see social media as great place to find victims.

1.) Build it and they will come

Theres an old saying: Why do criminals rob banks? Because that's where the money is. Why are social media sites such an attractive target for attackers? Because thats where the people (and data) are. These sites have millions of users, who are sharing a lot of information, which results in an enormous repository of potential victims and data. We've seen this repeatedly played out, with attacks against Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and others.

2.) With "friends" like these, who needs enemies?

We are too quick to tweet, post, pin and share practically everything with practically anyone. This penchant for sharing so muchand not always knowing who the recipient is can get us into trouble. The more information you post, the larger the dossier of information available to set the stage for a compromise- such as password cracking, identity theft, and more. One of the most common methods criminals use to gain access is spear phishing, and the fact that we often share too much information makes it fairly easy for an attacker to gather enough material on you to conduct a successful spear phishing scam. You may think its your "friend" sending you that cute picture, but it may be a criminal looking to get you to click on it so he can infect your machine and steal your data.

3.) Whats the most popular post on social media this week? Malware!

Social media serves as a prime vector for malware distribution. The 2013 Symantec Internet Security Threat Report notes that 43 percent of attacks used on social networking websites were related to malware.

The same technologies that invite user participation also make the sites easier to infect with malware that can shut down an organization's networks or deploy keystroke loggers that can steal your credentials.

[5 Facebook, Twitter scams to avoid ]

The shortened URLs used by social media sites are also key vectors for attack, as they can more easily disguise a fake site. When you click on a shortened link, you really cant be sure what site you are being taken to. According to Websense's 2013 Threat Report, 32 percent of malicious links in social media used shortened web links.

How Do We Protect Ourselves?

Security and privacy related to social media sites are fundamentally behavioral issues, not technology issues. Many of the tips below are ones that you have no doubt heard before, but they bear repeating -- especially since we often arent following them. It's not enough to just know what to do -- we have to actually do it. Here's what we need to be doing:

Create strong passwords and use separate ones for each account. Using the same password on all accounts increases the vulnerability of these accounts if one becomes compromised.

Think before you share. You should only post information you are comfortable disclosing to a complete stranger.

Organizations should have a policy in place regarding social media use for employees.The policy should clearly identify what information is acceptable for posting on the organizations official social media sites and who is authorized to post. Confidential information should not be shared. Provide employee training on the policy in addition to periodic awareness training about social media risks.

Ensure that any computer you use to connect to the Internet has proper security measures in place. This includes up-to-date anti-virus software as well as updated applications and operating systems. Set the configuration to "auto update" so patches can be applied automatically.

Be cautious about what you download. Some social networking sites provide the ability to add or install third party applications, such as games. The application may have full access to your account and the data you share. Malicious applications can use this access to interact with your friends on your behalf and to steal and misuse personal data. Only install applications that come from trusted, well-known sites. If you are no longer using the app, remove it. Also, note that installing some applications may modify your security and privacy settings.

We are operating in a completely different world than we were just a few years ago --in fact, maybe different from just a few months ago. The risks associated with using social media have never been greater. But, the good news is that by employing some fundamental controls we can significantly minimize our risk of being caught in the crosshairs of the next attack.

William Pelgrin is the President & CEO of the Center for Internet Security

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