Now What?: Do Family Tree Sites Help Identity Thieves?
9/28/2009
Get tips for using family tree sites and protecting your identity online.
Q. I've looked at several social and family networking sites, including Geni. My concern is identity theft. If you share data about yourself and your family, you’re a target. These sites don’t even have secure connections. I don’t want to place myself and family at risk. Do you have any suggestions?

A. If you use social and family networking sites with a modicum of caution, it’s unlikely you’ll increase your risk for identity theft.

Information you might enter into a social networking or family tree site—your name, your ancestors’ names, your hometown, and even your address and phone number—is already easily available through print and online phone directories, as well as other public records.

Plus, most identity thieves want your financial information and social security number, not just your name and address (or your ancestors’ names). They'd rather spend their time stealing your mail or wallet, going through your garbage, or hacking stores’ computer systems.

So the best way to protect your identity is to shred old bank and credit card statements, send mailed payments from the Post Office, guarding your wallet, and being careful with account information. See our article on software to combat "phishing" and other spam that potential identity thieves may send.

Get more identity-protection advice at the Federal Trade Commission’s identity theft Web site.

Social networking sites are designed to help people find you, which is why anyone can search them. But since most of us do want a certain amount of anonymity, sites usually have privacy options. You can choose to display only your name, or you can limit who can access your profile. If you’d rather not be found at all, of course, stay off social networking and family tree sites.

Other tips for using these sites:
  • You’ll have to supply your name and e-mail address when you register for a site, but you may not have to provide your phone number or mailing address.
  • Familiarize yourself with the site’s privacy statement and its privacy features. Make sure you're not displaying any information you don't want displayed.
  • For courtesy’s sake, don’t post names, birthdates, hometowns or photos of living people unless you have their permission.
  • Making online purchases is generally safe (look for the “https” in the URL, which symbolizes a secure payment system), but don’t enter your credit card information for a site to keep on file just in case you make a purchase. Once you make a purchase, though, the site may save your credit card number.
  • If you log into your social networking or family tree profile from a public computer (such as at a library), leave the “remember me” or "save password" box unchecked and be sure to click the log out link when you’re finished, so the next user can’t access your account.
  • Facebook is pretty good at cracking down on spam messages, which may carry computer viruses or spy software, that may be sent to your Facebook inbox. But to be safe, don’t open or forward suspicious-looking messages (for example, those with subject lines like "You won’t believe this video!”) on any social networking site.
  • Don’t use your mother’s maiden name (or another word someone might easily figure out) for a password on any site.
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