Help protect your privacy in online communities

Help protect your privacy in online communities

Online communities include email distribution lists, message boards, newsgroups, blogging sites, social networking sites, and more.

You can help protect your privacy and enjoy the benefits of these groups by following a few basic guidelines.

Types of online communities

Online communities come in many different forms. These are the most common:

  • Email distribution lists: Also called "email lists" or "groups," these services let you read, write, and respond to email messages on a specific subject, using a single email alias. You can even create new groups.

  • Message boards and newsgroups: These sites are often also called "bulletin boards" because they provide a place for members to leave and respond to messages from each other.

  • Instant message (IM) services: Using an IM program, you can type the message you want to send, and a friend on another computer can see it almost immediately. When your friend types a response, you see that quickly as well.

  • Chat rooms: Typically dedicated to a particular topic, these online forums function much like instant messaging, but allow a group of people to communicate with each other at once, rather than on an individual basis.

  • Blogging sites: A blog, short for "web log," is a personal journal posted online to be viewed by the public. Visitors can leave comments for the blog writer about particular entries.

  • Social networking sites: websites such as Windows Live Spaces, MySpace, Facebook, and others that provide several different ways for people to communicate with one another, including through personal web pages with photos and video, blogs, message boards, and instant messaging features.

What should you be aware of when you join a community?

Online communities require you to provide personal information. You'll be asked for a user name, email address, and password when you sign up.

In the interest of community building (and commercial marketing), the community might also suggest you fill out a user profile that includes much more personal information, such as birth date, your home and work addresses, home and work phone numbers, gender, marital status, occupation, instant messaging names, and more.

Profiles are public. Some groups allow their members to view lists of other group members' screen names-and sometimes their email addresses and full profiles as well-in a membership area on the site. Don't post information that you're not comfortable sharing with strangers.

Comments you post are permanently recorded on the community site. As you get to know people, the community might begin to feel casual and familiar, and you might be tempted to talk about your kids by name, mention where you work or live, or reveal information about valuable collections in your home.

You might even mention when you plan to be out of town. Even if you've been involved with a community for a long time, don't be lulled into a false sense of security.

Stay aware of how such information might be used by scammers of all kinds, both online and off, and refrain from sharing too much.

Email and phishing scammers count on the appealing sense of trust that is often fostered in online communities to steal your personal information.

The more you reveal in profiles and posts, the more vulnerable you are to scams, spam, and identity theft. In fact, according to the United States' Federal Trade Commission (FTC), 86 percent of the email addresses that are posted to web pages and newsgroups and 27 percent of the addresses that are posted to message boards receive spam.

How do these services help protect their users?

Online community providers offer several ways to help protect you when you use their services, depending upon the kind of community you join.

Here are some features to look for when you're considering joining an online community:

  • Privacy policies that explain exactly what information the service will collect and how it might be used.

  • User guidelines that outline a basic code of conduct for users on their sites. Sites have the option to penalize reported violators with account suspension or termination.

  • Special provisions for children and their parents, such as family-friendly options geared towards protecting children under a certain age.

  • Password protection to help keep your account secure. Be sure to create a strong password when you first sign up to an online community. When passwords are misplaced or forgotten, the service might use security questions (such as "What is your mother's maiden name?") to help confirm your identity.

  • Email address hiding, which lets you display only part of your email address on the site's membership lists. Some services offer you the option to hide your email address completely.

Additional tools to help protect yourself

Depending upon the type of online community you subscribe to, other options might be available to help limit other group users' access to you, your email address, and your posts, including:

  • Filtering options: Offered on blogging sites, these tools let you to choose which subscribers can see what you've written.

  • Anonymous post blocking: Offered on blogging sites, this option lets you block anonymous replies to your blog entries, denying mean-spirited or abusive users the protection of anonymity.

  • IP address logging: Offered on blogging sites, this service lets the site track each computer that posts comments on your blog. Anyone who is reported to be violating the site's user agreement by posting abusive comments can then be contacted and penalized if necessary.

  • Private communities: Some email distribution services let you create private email lists. Once you create a list, you are designated as the group moderator and can approve who joins and who can write or receive messages.

  • Opt-out marketing options: These give you the choice of whether or not to receive special offers or telephone solicitations as a result of registering to use the online community.

  • Email address masking: Masking involves inserting a word or phrase in the middle of your regular email address to help foil automated email"harvesting" programs, for example:
    However, some newsgroup and bulletin boards services don't allow masking, and as spammers become more sophisticated, their harvesting software might be able to recognize a masked email address.

  • Alternate email addresses: Consider using an alternate email address for your subscriptions to help minimize inbox clutter.