With cybercrime on the rise in the UAE, it may be time to streamline what you share online…

From ‘checking in’ to dinner with the girls to sharing a snap of those Valentino shoes you just couldn’t resist, many of us have taken to social media to share elements of our personal lives. Even with the strictest privacy settings in place, however, sharing this kind of information online may leave us more vulnerable to cybercrime.

According to recent research by Norton, 2.53 million people in the UAE have fallen victim to online crime in the past year. While it’s common sense to avoid clicking on links from senders we don’t know, thinking twice before logging on to a public Wi-Fi network and keeping passwords under wraps, there’s a whole host of common habits that could be putting us in danger.

A study for Du’s #PostWisely campaign – which called on people to be more responsible when posting information online – revealed that, of the 75 per cent of respondents who have been befriended or followed on social media by people they don’t normally interact with, nearly half (49 per cent) accepted 50 per cent or more of these unfamiliar requests. Whether we don’t really know who’s reading our posts, or are simply guilty of oversharing, taking time out to review our online habits can help protect us from falling prey to cyber criminals.

The ugly truth about cybercrime

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Having a social media feed packed with the innocuous details of other people’s lives may have become the norm, but the risks to the posters can be far reaching.

“Many of us think that sharing personal details online is fairly innocent, but there is a huge element of risk attached,” says Zabeen Bint Ahmed, Founder & Chief Innovation Officer, Social Education & Venture Innovation Advisory (SEVIA). “Sharing a picture of a boarding card, for instance, could give hackers and cybercriminals all they need to dig up everything from your passport and credit card details to your home address, which could leave you vulnerable to burglary.”

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That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“There was an instance of a couple who issued a birth announcement along with all the usual details and someone planned on using the information to abduct the child from the hospital, although thankfully the attempt was thwarted,” she says. “The rise of online crime is scary and even though security measures are advancing, so are the techniques these criminals use to find what they are looking for.”

Although we rarely witness crime in our everyday lives, that doesn’t mean we’re somehow protected from online attacks.

“It’s a fallacy to think that simply because we live in a country as safe as the UAE that cybercrimes don’t happen here or won’t affect us,” says Alex Malouf, social commentator and Vice-Chair of the MEPRA Academy Committee. “The information that we give out online can be taken and misused by anyone. Even if you’re protecting your social media accounts by making them closed, it’s still relatively easy to collect information through faking accounts and befriending.”

According to research by IT security firm Symantec, one in every 199 emails in the UAE contain malware.

“By oversharing information, it’s much easier to accurately guess bank account passwords or other sensitive information,” says Alex. “I’ve known people who have been hacked and who have lost money through cybercrime. Looking back, they’ve often suspected that a hacker gained access to their online accounts through using information shared online.”

How to be more mindful

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While it’s unrealistic to avoid the Internet completely, there’s a lot we can do to be more mindful of our digital footprint.

“We can’t live in a cave,” says Zabeen. “Social media is a great tool for businesses and support groups, for getting hold of information and keeping in touch with friends and family, which is important to many of us in the Emirates who are here as expats. Security breaches can’t always be avoided but it helps to understand the motivation behind why you are posting certain things. Generally speaking, if you wouldn’t do it in real life, don’t do it online. I wouldn’t show off my new watch to strangers at the mall, for instance, and I wouldn’t play a video of my child to a random person in Spinneys.”

With this in mind, there are probably a fair few habits we should all consider ditching.

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“The trend to posting pictures of possessions, such as cars, shoes, bags and jewellery in order to keep up with the Jonses means you’re not going to have anything left to show off as you’re placing a target on your forehead,” says Zabeen. “Sharing images of our children is nice and cute but we have to remember that there are some unsavoury individuals out there and you don’t know where those pictures are ending up. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. If you want to share information among friends and family only then set up a secret group with adjusted privacy settings.”

On a practical note, never share confidential information about your identity such as your address, phone number, passport or ID numbers and birth date.

“This is key information that identity thieves seek,” says Alex. “Keep bank account numbers, loans and credit card information off social media. Don’t advertise anything about your schedule, like where you and your family are going during the course of your day. Also, be careful about posting information about others, including work colleagues. It’s illegal to share images of others without their consent in the UAE.”

Privacy please?

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Dubai-based mum of four Edwina Viel runs the popular lifestyle blog Seashells on the Palm which has more than 3k fans on Facebook and more than 5k followers on Instagram. She takes a very mindful approach to posting.

“I think most of us in social media ponder about the information that we do share and it’s hard to get it right all the time,” she says. “I wouldn’t share too much personal information that would endanger my children or my family. Obviously we are all monitored online by companies such as Facebook but whatever you place out there you have to understand it is a permanent statement that will remain somewhere in cyberspace. It is important to think whether sharing certain aspects of your life is necessary and each picture should have thoughtful consideration. Sharing your location, your children’s school or the street you live on are details that probably aren’t necessary.”

Heidi Raeside of popular blog Tuesday’s Child, which has 25.5k followers on Facebook and 12.2k on Instagram adds: “In adjustment to the little exposure we’ve had since the launch of Tuesday’s Child, I feel I’ve become perhaps more guarded and tend to err on sharing the light and breezy, glossy side of things.”

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Despite staying savvy, however, she has experienced a form of a cyber hacking in the past.

“Two years ago I had a negative reaction from some ‘extremists’,” she says. “It was all rather odd and anonymous, like most cyber crime is, I imagine. I had no idea why I would’ve caught their attention either. It made me tighten up on the privacy and sharing on my personal Facebook page, which I realised anyone could have accessed before then. To be honest, I’ve hardly shared much at all on my Facebook page since. My site was also aggressively attacked and taken offline over and over for a few months. At one point it was taken down the night I won an award. The people who looked in to it for me said it was a very specific and targeted attack. The mind boggles as to why anyone would be so bothered with my mum blog.”

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In terms of how to share safely, whether you’re in the public eye or not, the experts have the following advice.

“You can have a presence online in a safe way,” says Zabeen. “If you are an influencer with a large following, you want to give your readers what they want but there has to be boundaries set otherwise you need to be prepared to deal with the consequences. Make it clear that you value your security and personal time, draw clear lines in terms of what you post and take measures to protect yourself.”

As for the average Joe’s among us: “Keep personal information personal and be cautious about how much personal information you provide on social networking sites,” says Alex. “The more information you post, the easier it will be for a hacker or someone else to use that information to steal your identity, access your data, or commit other social media crimes. Secondly, know who’s in your social circles. Don’t just add people who you don’t know and keep your accounts private if you’re sharing personal information.”

It’s important to reconsider how you’re sharing information.

“Use ‘dark’ social channels such as WhatsApp to share images and tell whoever you’re sharing images with to keep them private and not to re-share,” he explains. “Lastly, be honest if you’re uncomfortable with what a friend or family member has shared about you or your family. If a friend posts something about you that makes you uncomfortable or you think is inappropriate, let them know. It’s your right to ask for that image is pulled from the web if you or your family are in the picture.”

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Words: Faye Rowe
Image: Getty