Social media is where we catch up with friends, meet new people and share family milestones and photos. But as posting on sites such as Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter has consumed more of our time and energy, these applications have also opened the doors of our private lives to fraud.

In some cases, scams stemming from social media fraud can be truly frightening. Take cases of “virtual kidnapping,” where individuals – typically wealthy people who are well-known in business or charitable circles – are contacted by someone claiming to have kidnapped their loved one. The supposed kidnappers have gleaned so many persuasive personal details from social media postings, and they are so intimidating, that victims sometimes go so far as to withdraw large sums of cash intending to pay a ransom, said Briane Grey, City National Bank’s manager of corporate security.

“Their loved ones actually haven’t been touched, but the fear of harm coming to someone they care about is very real,” Grey said.

It shouldn’t surprise us that criminals will leap to take advantage of the extensive information we enter into our social media profiles, said Allan Bachman, the education manager at the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, a 75,000-member organization composed of professionals including law enforcement officers, auditors, risk managers and attorneys.

“The Internet has given us the ability to virtually travel the world and learn so much about and from people we would never have met otherwise,” Bachman said. “But it also has us putting out all kinds of details that we would never think of telling strangers.”

Since its inception in 2000, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center has received more than 3 million complaints of Internet crime. Of the 269,422 complaints it received in 2014, 12 percent contained a social media aspect, and complaints involving social media have quadrupled over the past five years, according to the organization’s 2014 Internet Crime Report. Unfortunately, the financial impact of these crimes can be significant: In 2014, more than $800 million in losses was reported, with a median dollar amount of $530 per crime.

But there’s also some good news: A few commonsense guidelines can help you avoid fraud and protect your entire family.

Consider these tips:

  • Set up privacy controls on all your social media accounts so that anything you post is only visible to your own network connections. This goes a long way toward limiting who can access information you’re sharing online. Similarly, only accept “friend” requests from people whom you know personally; delete requests from strangers. Be aware that anything you post on a public forum or a friend’s page can potentially be viewed by millions of people.
  • Don’t ever use geolocation programs that track your movements. And avoid mentioning when you will be out of town – letting people know you aren’t home can give burglars the green light for a break in.

“It’s very easy for someone to zoom in on a map and find your house in a flash,” Bachman noted.

  • Leave personal data off of your social media profiles. Details such as your hometown, your birthdate, the high school you attended and your mother’s maiden name are often used as security questions to verify your bank or investment accounts. If you put such information on your profiles, identity thieves can use it to break into your accounts or make purchases using your credit cards.

“In the future, when asked to provide your mother’s maiden name when creating a new account, consider using a name that only you know,” suggested Mark Middlebrook, interactive marketing manager at City National. 

  • Speak with your kids about what information not to provide on social media and make sure their accounts are private. Young people may be quick to approve new “friends” that they don’t know, which can lead to fraud – or worse.

“The best education you can relay to your children who are using social media is to show them how it works. Once an image is posted, it is out there for anyone to use, repurpose or comment on,” said Rachael Dickhute, City National’s social media manager. Read over the user guidelines and terms before your teens sign up for a social media account and make sure they’re aware that someday, their future employers are going to check what they have posted before hiring them.

Consider creating your own social media accounts so you can monitor what your children are posting, and make sure you have access to their user names and passwords so you can access their accounts if needed.

The bottom line is that popular social media sites can be wonderful additions to our lives. But they also attract criminals who will put enormous effort into trolling through publicly available data looking for identities to steal. Following these best practices, as well as protecting your computers and mobile devices with anti-virus software, can give you peace of mind and make participating in social media much safer and more fun.