If a complete stranger walked up to you asking for your date of birth, home address and info on your loved ones, would you give it to them? Most likely your answer is a resounding “hell to the no.” And yet most of us let our guard down once we get on the Internet, especially on social networking sites like Facebook.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, 57% of American adult web users between 25-34 have a profile on an online social network site; 60% of whom restrict access to their profiles so that only their friends can see it, and 36% of adults in the same age group said they allow anyone to see their profile.

The more we login to our Facebook profiles, post our resumes on job sites or sign online petitions, the more digital data is collected about us. What we fail to recognize is sometimes this data puts us at risk. Take the time user data was stolen from its database, putting user e-mail addresses, birth dates, ethnicity and states of residence at the mercy of hackers.

Last week Facebook announced it would be rolling out stricter privacy settings that make it easier for you to control how your information is shared. Under the new settings Facebook will no longer use regional networks–the categorization of user commonalities like your hometown or high school. Instead, you’ll be able to control who sees any and all content you put on your profile. In the same week Google announced that it would be launching its own Domain Name System. A DNS is like the telephone book of the web; helping you connect to a specific site. This means Google will be able to collect information about your searches and how you use the web.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, a DC-based advocacy group, has launched a Take Back Your Privacy Campaign, rolling out this week. Its goal is to mobilize consumers to push for privacy controls and legislation. By downloading a Privacy Complaint Tool Bookmarklet you’ll be able to send a complaint directly to the FTC if you feel a website has compromised your personal information. But before you download the bookmark, here are simple steps to protecting yourself online:

  • Google yourself: If you don’t like what you see you can ask the search engine to delete it by going to Google Support.
  • Any information about you that is public record (the price of your home, your marital status, bankruptcy) is easy to access. Request a public record report from ChoicePoint to find out what’s out there about you.
  • Don’t open emails and/ or attachments from people you don’t know. This is still the easiest ways for hackers to steal your information.
  • Opt out of junk mail, fast. Services like ProQuo will delete your name from marketing lists, making it hard for hackers to find you.
  • Pick a user name that doesn’t include personal information, like your name and hometown.
  • Your mother’s maiden name is the easiest password to crack. Use a strong password that mixes alphabet and numbers, and don’t use the same password for all accounts.
  • Click on the site’s privacy policy before signing up so you know what you’re getting into.
  • Don’t register truthfully for every site you come across. Sometimes a little lie, such as a temporary username will do you good.
  • Only give your credit card number if the site has a lock on its browser. It should start with “https.”
  • Consider a temporary credit card or phone number for your online activities. Some credit card companies offer “one-shot” credit cards, while services like inumbr sell temporary phone numbers in case you need to submit contact information but don’t want it too personal (think Craigslist).