Social media has achieved near ubiquity among U.S. internet users in relatively little time. According to a Pew Research Center study, only 5 percent of Americans were using social media in 2005. At that time, MySpace was the most popular social network, Facebook was in its infancy and also exclusive to .edu email addresses, and Twitter did not exist yet.
Flash forward to 2016, and 69 percent of Americans were on social media. While it is especially widespread among the 18-29 demographic (at 86 percent penetration), social media is also wildly popular among the 30-49 (80 percent) and 50-64 (64 percent) age groups. There has even been a major uptick in its usage among ages 65 and older, from around 10 percent in 2010 to 34 percent in 2016.
There are many reasons people join social networks, but a few of the most common include:
- They're free: With a few exceptions, social networks can be accessed as long as you have an email address or phone number for creating an account.
- They're popular: Facebook alone has more than 1 billion members, and even smaller networks such as Twitter and LinkedIn number in the hundreds of millions.
- They provide entertainment: Social platforms often host games, group chats and videos that keep users coming back for more.
The addictive nature of many social networks also makes them ideal platforms for various scams, ranging from "fake news" and clickbait headlines to more dangerous links that might direct a victim to a phishing scam. Let's examine a few common schemes to be on the lookout for as you browse your social media feeds.
"Angler phishing exploits the use of social media for customer and technical support."
1. Angler phishing
A twist on an age-old scam, angler phishing exploits the growing use of social media by businesses for customer and technical support. For example, someone looking for help with a bank account might contact an official-looking social media account, only to be asked to hand over personal information or visit a sketchy-looking website.
To stay safe, look to see if a social media account is verified. The common symbol for this status is a blue checkmark next to the account's name, indicating it has been vetted by the platform.
2. Shortened URLs
Some URLs are extremely long, especially if they point to documents nested deep within a specific website. For this reason, and also to squeeze posts within the character limits enforced by some social media sites, link shorteners (e.g., bit.ly) have long been popular.
While they save space, shortened links are also opaque: It's not easy to tell what they lead to. Don't click on them if possible, or use a link expander on the web to see what the true URL is.
3. Chain letters and other viral scams
Some scams seek to use your account as a mechanism for spreading falsehoods and harmful links. You might be prompted by someone's status update to post a copy-paste letter, or your account might be hijacked and enlisted into a botnet that repeatedly posts shortened links to phishing sites.
Stay vigilant. Use a program such as Premium Internet Security from Total Defense to shield your online activity.