Common Safety Mistakes and Abuses on Twitter

The world of Twitter is experiencing an unprecedented growth rate according Nielsen Online in their report The Fastest Growing Social Sites. Twitter reached more than 13 million people in the U.S. during the month of April, – and that doesn’t count use through clients like TweetDeck or Seesmic Desktop.

Like other social media tools, Twitter is a fun and rich medium for communication but Twitter adds an even more accelerated element of immediacy. When confined to 140 characters, users primarily jot quick notes about what they’re doing or point to an interesting URL. Whether your goal is to keep friends and family updated, expand your footprint in the blogosphere, meet new and interesting people, promote yourself or your brand, educate, conduct research, sell, or exploit others, the opportunities on Twitter are endless.

uniquevisitorstwitterTwitter users generally aren’t teens, in fact, the median age of tweeters is 31. Given this generally more experienced age group, it is interesting to note that many Twitter using adults make the same safety mistakes that they censure teens for online:

  1. Failure to consider what information they share: what is actually being shared; the value of information being shared; and making appropriate decisions about whether information should be shared
  2. Failure to identify trustworthiness or lack of trustworthiness – of the people, Web sites, content, and businesses they interact with
  3. Failure to understand predatory behavior and motives in the broadest sense, including bullies, stalkers, scammers, thieves, and sexual predators

Common Safety Mistakes

Information shared on Twitter or any other online site collects over time. If you only share public information, or you only allow close friends and family to follow you, go for it. However, if you share personal information more broadly, your risks increase with each contribution.

Consider the entire pool of information available about you online, not simply what is shared in a single comment. By the time you include public government records, phone directory listings, workplace bios, club/team/church information, charitable donations, your friends blogs, and your own contributions you may be surprised how quickly someone can learn enough to steal your identity, embarrass you, or threaten you, your family or your possessions.

  1. Using full names – there are clear reasons for using your full name when tweeting if your aim is to build your social capital and credibility, but if your goal is simply to socialize, skip the name and use an alias.
  2. Location tweeting – many tweeters share too much information about where they live and the places they frequent. If you don’t want someone showing up on your doorstep, your office, or anywhere else uninvited, consider reducing your ‘findability-factor’.
  3. Exposing family members – naming spouses, kids etc, or giving their locations – “picking up Rachel from Carl Sandburg” increases their risks. You don’t want to provide information that could help someone approach them with a convincing story
  4. Vacation tweeting – announcing that you’re headed out on vacation is essentially posting a sign saying “my home will be empty, please rob me”, or “my family will be home without me”. If you want to tweet about vacations, do it after you’re home, but consider the next point…
  5. Inferred information – often what you say carries a great deal of additional information. For example, a comment that says you just registered on a dating site lets the reader assume you’re single and looking to meet people. Saying you’re headed to Australia for vacation infers information about your financial status, the opportunity to check your mailbox for interesting bills, credit card offers, etc. – as well as the vacancy of your home.
  6. Over sharing – Twitter is for socializing, not for sharing every detail of your life.
  7. Emotional exposure – sharing your emotions with people you don’t know well is a significant risk factor. If you’re sad they have the opportunity to comfort you, if you’re happy, they’ll reach out to share that, and so on. One of the quickest ways for a criminal to gain your trust is to provide emotional support.
  8. Misplaced trust – forwarding links, particularly shortened links, is a key activity in Twitter, but how do you know if those links are safe or taking you to malicious sites? Consumer Reports just highlighted the issues with clicking on tweeted URL’s in their article  Tweet URLs may be tiny, but they can also be dangerous.

How crooks and creeps use Twitter

Most Twitter users are great people having a good time, some aren’t. Crooks and creeps find a myriad of opportunities on Twitter, just as they do through other online communication sites. Here are a few of the more common issues:

  1. Offensive content – you receive an invitation from a ‘woman’ (who knows?) who started who sent him an extremely explicit image of herself along with an invitation for more.
  2. Scams – it’s a new medium for the same kind of scams that run through emails, IM’s, and blog comments. Usually including links to infected sites
  3. Harvesting information – particularly contact info to resell and reuse for other exploits via spam, phone, snail mail etc.
  4. Stalking – this may be by ex’s or people you don’t know who begin to obsess about you and includes showing up at your home, workplace, kids school, church, events, clubs, etc.
  5. Reputational attacks – collecting information for offline attacks, or leveraging your twitter network to smear you. This may come from someone with a grudge against you in particular, or from trolls just wanting to be mean. A troll is someone who posts controversial, inflammatory, irrelevant or off-topic messages in an online community.
  6. ID theft – criminals trawl for information that helps them commit ID theft. This may be by gleaning information to impersonate a trusted resource, or by collecting enough profile pieces to collect the information needed to steal your ID.

Want to learn more?

  • Watch Consumerman Herb Weisbaum’s TV segment where he talk’s about Twitter risks with Linda and Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna.
  • Gain some skills, check out’s Top 10 Twitter Tips for Beginners

Think through what you are sharing and who you are sharing with before you tweet, and you’ll stay safer while having fun.



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