Stories of people's online photos being used for nefarious purposes are easy to find: A soldier's photo was stolen off 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 photo of her 4-year-old was pulled off Flickr and posted on a Brazilian social networking site where it was rated for "sexiness."
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 exactly where the photos were snapped. In other words, if a parent takes a photo of his or her 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 six 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. 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 he or she appears to have grown up into an odd person. You might want to consider de-friending him or her.
3. Disable GPS technology before taking photos with a smartphone if you plan to post the photos online. Even some regular cameras have this technology, so check what information is included with 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.
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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 public website, you probably want to keep your personal details under cover.
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.
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 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.
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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 criminals.