The star of every social networking site is Y-O-U. Your profile often is filled with extensive details about your history including your birth date, employment history, and hometown. But some social networks take things a step further. They know where you are right now.
Location-based mobile apps like Foursquare and Gowalla turn "checking in" into a game. Users can earn points, badges, and discounts for each venue they visit and share with the world. Venues include restaurants, movie theaters, offices, gyms, and more. In fact, users can create a public venue for anything—and they often do. Even for personal home addresses.
Cellphones quickly become personal tracking devices and can share exactly where you are at all times—and where you've been.
Limit others from contributing to your online presence. "I've recently connected my American Express credit card to my Foursquare account and so far I've got $45 of credit back on bills for eating and shopping at places I would have gone to anyway," says Luke Bohline, age 29, of Costa Mesa, Calif. "Who doesn't like free money?"
The incentive to play a game, read reviews from other users, and possibly get a reward—like a free appetizer or $5 off a bill—outweighs most users' ability to think straight. But even for power social network users like Bohline, it's important to practice safe social networking at all times.
think before you friend
Just like with any other social network, users of location-based sites can friend each other. But before accepting any friendship request, stop and assess the situation. It's too easy to hit "accept" and let a stranger or acquaintance into your life.
As with Twitter or LinkedIn, plenty of random and possibly spam-like users will send you friend requests. It might feel harmless, but it's important to be overselective when using any social network, especially location-based ones. You'll never know who's really behind a profile unless you know that individual personally. Ask yourself, Do I really want this random person to know where I am at all times? Do I want strangers to know when I'm on vacation, or at work, or which coffee shop I visit every morning?
make your profile private
Even if you've only connected with people you trust, the safety precautions don't end there. Profiles for location-based networks are abbreviated but include first and sometimes last names and a profile photo. Once a user has checked in to a venue, all other users at the venue can see who else is there, which means everybody using the social network can identify exactly what you look like and your name—unless you're smarter than they are.
Security settings give you the option to limit your public profile. Under "Privacy Settings" on Foursquare, uncheck the box "Include me in the public list of people who are currently checked in at a venue." Under "Privacy" on Gowalla, click "Private," which creates a limited public profile. On Facebook, click "How You Connect" under "Privacy Settings" and choose "Friends" under "Who can look up your timeline by name or contact info." This prevents your name from appearing in public searches.
don't share across networks
Social sites always give you the option to blast your updates over other social networks at the same time. So not only do your Foursquare friends know where you are, but your location also is broadcast to all of your Twitter followers and Facebook friends. But many social media users have hundreds of followers and "friends" they don't even know.
"I've updated my privacy settings on Facebook so even when Foursquare makes a post, it only shows it to my 'Close Friends' list, which I have picked carefully," Bohline says.
To create lists on Facebook, mouse over "Friends" at the left sidebar next to your Facebook home feed (not your personal profile). Click "More" when it appears then "Create List." Create lists such as "close friends," "co-workers," and "acquaintances." Now when you post an update on Facebook, you can choose "Custom" and post only to the list of your choosing. Utilize these lists under your security settings as well.
Or just disconnect these settings all together. Under Settings on Foursquare, visit the "Sharing with other networks" tab and disconnect Facebook and Twitter or at least uncheck, "By default, share my check-ins." Similar settings are found under "Sharing" on Gowalla.
don't let your friends share for you
Social networks often give your friends the ability to tag you in photos, updates, or location check-ins. But you don't have to let them do this. If you want more control over your social profiles, it's best to limit others from contributing to your online presence.
Under Privacy Settings on Facebook, turn off "Friends Can Check You Into Places" in the "How Tags Work" section, then analyze your options for tagging in posts. On Foursquare, uncheck the box next to "When my friends check in with me, it's okay to include my name on their check-in tweets or Facebook wall posts."
five steps to being safe on any social network
Don't feel pressured to completely fill out your profile or grow your number of friends. Here are a few safety rules to follow across any social site:
- Be generic. A picture of a beach is safer than a personal photo in which you're easily identified. Try using an initial or nickname instead of a last name. Avoid giving out phone numbers and email addresses. Friends can message you within the site.
- Run a tight ship. Familiarize yourself with privacy or security settings on every network. Customize your settings so you feel safe. Once a month, browse your list of friends and unfriend or block any suspicious followers.
- Be smart about sharing. Don't check in to a venue until you are about to leave. Never check in to your home, apartment, or hotel.
- Think before you click. Just as with email, if you receive a suspicious Facebook message or tweet with a link from a friend, don't click it. Your friend's account was probably hacked. And never enter your information or phone number into a suspicious site, especially if it came from one of these links.
- Create complicated passwords. Prevent hackers from taking over your profile—and possibly your identity. Don't use a birth date, PIN (personal identification number), or the same password as your bank account. One suggestion: Create a unique—and complex—password, then add the first two letters of the website's name to the end or beginning of the password.