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(ARA) – With literally millions of people using social networking sites on the Internet, don’t be surprised if you find your coworker on MySpace or even your grandma on Facebook. Social networking isn’t just for teens, and adults are joining virtual communities in increasing numbers. If the concept still seems a bit foreign to you, don’t worry. Here are some tips to get you started and help ensure you stay safe in the fast-paced world of Internet social networking.

MySpace and Facebook are two of the most popular social networking sites where users set up a profile about themselves and connect to friends to share interests and photos and communicate. Other sites you may have heard of include LinkedIn, which is geared more as a business networking tool; YouTube, which focuses on video sharing; and LiveJournal, where users can have their own blog.

Blogs, short for web logs, are personal journals that users post online. Think of them as a public diary that is updated regularly, often daily. Blogs cover just about anything: politics, culture, or whatever’s on the mind of the author.

“Internet social networking or blogging can be a really great thing,” says Sue LaChance Porter, vice president of EarthLink, an award winning Internet service provider. “People can stay in touch, connect with friends and share their interests. But they also need to be cautious and protect their identity.”

LaChance Porter offers these tips when using an Internet social network:

1) Read the privacy policy first.
Review a site’s privacy policy and their frequently asked questions section so you can understand the features and privacy controls offered to users. Review different sites before deciding which one to join. Maybe you can use a Facebook account to connect with people about your personal hobbies and a LinkedIn account to keep in contact with work colleagues.

2) Understand who can access your page.
Some sites have options to restrict who can access your page, allowing you to keep your posted information public, private or restricted to a certain group of people. “Consider keeping your page private so strangers can’t openly access your information,” suggest LaChance Porter.

3) Use anonymous e-mail addresses.
As a precaution, you should consider using different e-mail addresses when setting up social networking accounts. As part of its security offerings, EarthLink offers users up to eight different e-mail addresses that interconnect so you can keep your information private and limit spam.

4) Don’t give out personal data.
Never post personal information on your page, such as your Social Security number, address, bank accounts, etc. Many social networking sites are not encrypted. That means when you give someone personal information, such as your phone number, it can be taken and used by unwanted sources, even if communicated via e-mail or posts.

5) Use strong passwords.
Smart social networkers will always use strong passwords, meaning passwords that contain both letters and numbers and aren’t immediately associated with the person’s identity. That means don’t use your daughter’s name or your birth date as your password. LaChance Porter advises, “Try to keep passwords to five characters or more and change monthly to avoid password phishing — when outside sources steal your password and then post messages under your persona.”

6) Pick a good user name.
Ever wonder why you see someone’s user name as FlowerPower123 or Julias1880? It’s because having a pseudo name helps protect your identity. Using your first and last name as your user name might make sense, but it’s best to keep this information private.

7) Keep your computer protected.
It’s a good idea to make sure your computer has anti-virus and anti-spyware features that help protect it from unwanted spam, viruses and other privacy breaches. Check with your Internet service provider to see what features they offer. For example, EarthLink’s Protection Control Center guards against dangerous online viruses, blocks spam, helps stop hackers and keeps you and your family safe while surfing the Web.

8) Post only what you want others to see.
Many people can potentially see your page, even if you have privacy settings. That means that not-so-subtle picture of you could be seen by future employers, colleagues or even the police. Any information or images you share could be seen by more people than you are comfortable with. Be absolutely sure before posting because even if you delete it later, older versions may still exist on other people’s computers and your information could still circulate online.

“When online, trust your instincts,” says LaChance Porter. “If you’re not sure, it’s best to wait. You can always add information and photos later, but once images and data are floating around the Internet, you can’t get them back.”

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Courtesy of ARAcontent