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12 simple steps to safer social networking

Confession time: I'm an inveterate social media junkie. From Facebook to Instagram to Diaspora, whenever a new communication platform rolls around—or comes back around—I'm ready to leap aboard.

But social networks are amazing and terrifying in equal measure. You can reach thousands of people worldwide with a single Twitter update, but cybercriminals can use the same tools to pick the perfect victim.

It's impossible to remain completely anonymous while you're using social media—anonymity would defeat the point—but every network has a few key, commonly overlooked privacy settings that take only minutes to set up and drastically improve the security of your shared data.

For this article, I rounded up the three most important privacy settings you should be using, but probably aren't, on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram. Five minutes of setup now could avert hours of social embarrassment and identity recovery down the road.

Lock down Facebook

Facebook not only revolutionized the way we communicate but also spawned the Facebook Fret: that uncomfortable moment before every blind date, extended-family gathering, and job interview when you worry about whether anyone has noticed the embarrassing Christmas-party video your friend tagged you in on Facebook a few years back.

Limit who can find you: Stop worrying and make sure your Facebook profile stays private by clicking the blue gear in the top-right corner of the Facebook website and selecting Privacy Settings. From there, the best thing you can do is make it harder for strangers to find your Facebook profile in the first place by blocking search engines from linking to your profile and limiting who can look up your profile using the email address and phone number you gave to Facebook.

Limiting access to Friends ensures that only people with whom you’ve already made a connection will be able to search for you using your email address and phone number. But since someone isn’t likely to search Facebook in that manner unless they’re specifically seeking to get in touch with someone, it’s probably a good idea to grant lookup access to Friends of Friends. That way, you can get some mileage out of Facebook's social network by connecting with people your friends trust.

Facebook has a commendably informative Privacy Settings menu that you can use to limit your search visibility, make your past posts private, and more.

Stop posting in public: Your next stop on the Facebook Privacy Settings to-do list is the 'Who can see my stuff?' section of the Privacy Settings menu. Make sure the 'Who can see your future posts?' option is set to Friends.

Facebook allows you to change content visibility on a post-by-post basis. You can, for example, create status updates that are publicly available or visible only to two or three specific people. But the smartest option is making post visibility friends-only by default, mitigating the damage of any potentially humiliating photos you might upload after a late-night escapade.

Retroactively, you can privatize your Facebook profile by visiting the Limit Past Posts link and clicking the Limit Old Posts button to ensure that all the content you’ve already shared becomes private to your friends only. One caveat, though: If you ever tag anyone in a Facebook update, your tagged content will show up on that person's Timeline, and thus will be exposed according to their personal privacy settings.

Lock down your Timeline: Finally, take a moment to safeguard against the threat of embarrassing photos or video popping up in your Timeline without your knowledge by fine-tuning Facebook’s Timeline Review.

Go to the Timeline and Tagging Settings menu (if you’re still in the Privacy Settings menu, you can find the other settings menus on the left side of the screen). Now that you’re reviewing your Timeline Settings, scroll down and turn the option titled 'Review posts friends tag you in before they appear on your timeline' to On.

The three simple changes described above will go a long way toward improving your Facebook privacy, but a bunch of other potentially useful privacy settings are scattered throughout Facebook’s Account Settings menus. Take the time to read through them. Facebook is one of the biggest social networks on the planet, and knowing how to control your information is the best way to control how the world views you.

Tidy up Twitter

Because Twitter is a bare-bones communication service for exchanging photos, videos, and short text messages, it doesn't give you many opportunities to share private data inadvertently. But although you remain responsible for the lion’s share of the data in your feed, Twitter still has a few potential privacy leaks that you can quickly plug.

Don't link Twitter to Facebook: First, you should probably unlink your Twitter account from Facebook and any other social networks. Not only is it risky to have your Twitter username popping up in your Facebook timeline—and thus being associated with real-world Facebook information such as your name, location, or employment history—it’s also really annoying for your Facebook friends.

Unless you’re a small-business owner or a minor celebrity trying to spread information across multiple social networks at once, keep your Twitter account separate from your other social media platforms. Simply log in to Twitter, click the gray gear icon in the top-right corner of the screen, and make your way to the Profile section of the Settings menu. Scroll down to the Facebook section, and you’ll see the option to disconnect your Facebook account from Twitter for good.

You can switch off geotagging and delete any geolocation data you've inadvertently shared from within the Twitter Settings menu.

Turn off geotagging: Second, turn off Twitter’s geotagging system to ensure that you aren’t including your location in every update. Sure, it’s a neat feature, but at best it merely affords you a geographical record of where you’ve tweeted. At worst, geotagging creates a public record of your physical location in real time, making it easy for malefactors to track your movements and use that data for evil.

Twitter disables location sharing by default, but you should still double-check this status. Enter your account settings and uncheck the Add a location to my Tweets option. While you’re there, click the Delete all location information setting for good measure.

Go private: Finally, consider setting your Twitter profile to private. It’s simple enough to do—just enter your account settings and check the box next to Protect my tweets—and it ensures that your updates aren’t publicly visible. This setting affords you much greater control over where your updates go because your followers can’t retweet you, and new followers have to request your permission before Twitter will allow them to start following you.

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