Stories of people's online photos being used for nefarious purposes abound: A mother in Jacksonville, Florida discovered that a photo she posted of her five-year-old on Facebook was taken and used to create a new profile, unbeknownst to her. A soldier's photo was stolen off of MySpace, posted by scam artists under a fake Match.com account, and used to con one woman out of thousands of dollars. One blogger found her family's photo being used as an advertisement in the Czech Republic. Another mother's four-year-old daughter's photo was pulled off of Flickr and posted on a Brazilian social networking site, where it was rated for "sexiness."
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The convenience of sharing photos with friends (and non-friends) through social networking sites and blogs is undeniable. Unfortunately, so are the dangers. Not only can photos be stolen and used by strangers, but many photos, especially those taken by phones or devices with GPS technology, contain tags that reveal their location, which means viewers can figure out where exactly they were snapped. In other words, if a parent takes a photo of their child playing at home and then posts it online, it's possible for strangers to know exactly where they live.
A few simple steps can dramatically reduce your chances of falling victim, and there's no need to give up photo-sharing altogether. Here are seven steps everyone should take to protect themselves and their families when posting photos online:
1. Check your privacy settings. Facebook and many other social networking sites give users options when it comes to who can view their photos and personal information. On Facebook, users can specify that they want only their "friends" to view their photos, or friends of friends, or everyone. (To check your settings, log in to your account and go to "privacy settings.")
2. Make sure you know who your friends are. If you have hundreds of friends on Facebook, chances are you don't know them all that well. Take a moment to review your friends list to make sure everyone still sounds familiar. Perhaps you accepted a friend request from an old high school classmate, but they appear to have grown up into an odd person. You might want to consider de-friending them.
3. Disable the GPS technology before taking photos with a smartphone if you plan to post the photos online. Even regular cameras are starting to get this technology, so check what information is included on your photos before posting them online. You should be able to turn off the high-tech feature before snapping, and you might want to consider doing so when you are in your home or places you frequent often.
4. Watch out for lower-tech ways of sharing personal information, too. A photo taken in front of your home could reveal your address, or a T-shirt could contain a school logo. If you're posting photos on a blog or other publicly-accessible site, you probably want to keep your personal details under cover.
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5. Don't post photos that could be embarrassing to your children, even in 10 or 20 years. That means naked bath photos or toilet photos are out, for example. Joanne Villani, founder of ProtectedPix, which offers a private photo-sharing service, says with facial recognition technology on the rise, it's possible that photos posted now will still be searchable online by the time your now-toddler looks for his first job. You don't want to leave a trail of photographs that could hurt his reputation later.
6. Stand up for yourself (and your child). If a friend or relative posts photos of your child on Facebook and you don't want them to, ask them to take them down. After all, you don't know how carefully they monitor their own friend list, so it's impossible to know who is viewing the photos. The same goes for YouTube, Picasa, and other media-sharing sites.
7. Use a watermark. Bloggers are increasingly turning to watermarks, which imprint their photos with their name or blog title and make it harder for someone to misappropriate the image. Villani suggests adding it in a spot where it cannot be easily cropped out. Doing so, she says, is sort of like locking your door or having a security system: It makes it more likely that a scam artist will leave your photo alone and move on to the next, more vulnerable victim.
The bottom line: It's hard to control how your photos are used once they are posted online, but these steps can reduce your chances of becoming a victim of identify thieves or other types of criminals.