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Warning: Consider What You Upload to the Internet

Social media have people broadcasting what they are doing every hour, day, and minute. Blogs and newsletters posted online share photos and personal details to anyone who is interested. It is amazing to be able to connect so easily with people around the world and learn what they are doing.

But think before you share.  

A few days ago my father, who is in his 80s, was ready to send away $3,000 because of the convincing information he heard from a stranger who phoned him. The caller knew personal information about a relative who was supposedly in trouble because of a serious car accident hundreds of miles from home. The caller knew details of my father's life, including how to find him and where to tell him to go to wire money.

Lucky for us, a wise bank teller hesitated before giving my father $3,000 in cash to wire to a stranger. She told him it sounded like a scam and gave him good instructions on what to do next.

It turned out that the relative in question (who was not in an accident) has lots of information about our family on Facebook. He also has hundreds of Facebook friends, many of whom he doesn't know.

Millions of us post personal updates that are available for all the world to see, but not everyone who sees them wants what is best for us.

I extend this caution not only to users of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. So much of what we write is automatically uploaded. Newsletters, especially from nonprofit organizations, used to be printed and sent only to organization members and supporters. Now they are posted online, containing information about who has a new job, who has moved (often with a new address), who has a unique hobby or story, who is meeting where and at what time, and who is traveling. Stories with colorful details are the most fun to read, but they also broadcast the most useful details to those who may do us harm.

I write a monthly "what's up with whom" column for my church. When the newsletter was mailed to our homes, I could write freely about who needed cards, visits, meals, prayers, kudos, etc. Now that the newsletter is online, I hesitate to include last names or other identifying information. (And I originally put the real name of the column at the beginning of this paragraph, but then changed it to prevent anyone from searching for it.)

Sorry to be a wet blanket on the fires of creativity and communication! Do you think I am overreacting?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “Warning: Consider What You Upload to the Internet”

  • I don’t think you are overreacting. There are ways to protect your personal information on websites such as Facebook, however those tricks are not easy to find and if you are someone who is not savvy to them you can be at risk.

    Our human desire to share personal information with our friends and family is only natural. BUT, it is a different world in 2009 and we must be conscience of how the internet can be a tool for scam artists.

    Good article!

  • Great article, Lynn.

    Largely because of the Internet, we’re now living in a “global village.” In a village, everyone knows your business. Becoming a digital hermit isn’t a good option for the future, but as the teller in your father’s story shows, we can be smart about how we post things.

    The old saying is that locks keep an honest person honest, though they can’t stop a determined thief. As a representative of an authors’ group that includes some minor celebrities, I try to manage posts in such a way that private details aren’t compromised. While a determined person could certainly research those details, it hasn’t yet been worth the effort.

    We can’t stop spammers and scam artists cold, but we can certainly choose to make their work more difficult.

  • Similar thing happened to one of my colleagues..
    He was contacted on gtalk by a friend, with whom he had lost touch for a couple of years..
    He was happy to chat for about 20-30 mins, even asked about well-being of some common friends. Things were okay till the “friend” asked for some money urgently and promised to return in 2 days.. this made my friend a bit suspicious and he specifically started probing for more details. In next 2-3 mins, the guy left the conversation..

    It turned out that this “friend” had perhaps dug into facebook/orkut profiles of my friend and his other friends and thus, cud pose as one of the friends..

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