Surprise: You Have Fake “Friends”

By Paul Rockwell, Head of Trust & Safety at LinkedIn.

I’m regularly asked why a professional social network like LinkedIn needs a Trust & Safety team.  Like other user generated content platforms, we have a steady stream of actors that dampen the normal member experience.  One way that manifests itself is through members accepting connection requests from those they don’t know.

A recent study conducted by InfoArmor indicates that this isn’t unique to LinkedIn.  The study revealed that 10 percent of all social media users will friend someone they don’t know and their circle of friends don’t know.

For those under 30, the research uncovered another startling find: 53 percent will friend someone that they don’t know, but who has a connection with one of their existing friends.  The thinking is that because their friend has added the person, that friend must have exercised some level of due diligence in vetting them.

Unfortunately, that isn’t happening, and the act of friending someone you don’t know puts you and your other friends at risk.

“Why?” you ask?  Let’s start with privacy settings: 40 percent of those surveyed said they rarely or never check their privacy / sharing settings, even though they claim to have a high degree of familiarity with them.  That’s surprising, given how confusing the settings can be – especially on social networks, where some have overhauled the settings to make them more intuitive and easy to understand.

Having loose settings means you could be sharing your contact information (e.g. phone number, DOB, email address, employer, name/link to your significant other, etc.), places you frequent (via check-ins), photos of yourself/family/friends/home, where, when and with whom you vacation, and the list goes on – all with people you don’t know.

In order to steal an identity, blackmail, rob/assault/harass, and commit a host of other real-world crimes, all someone needs is to do is find a person with weak social media privacy settings!

This flow of data also exposes your real friends and family, since they’re trusting that you’ve vetted your connections, and as a result, a sizeable portion of your friends and family will accept an invitation from one of your new, fake friends.

Here are a few tips to help keep yourself protected:

Social Media Technology

  1. Revisit your privacy/sharing settings just to make sure you’re not sharing more than you want to with a broader audience.
  2.  If someone you don’t know wants to connect with you on a social network, don’t share personal details of your life with them!
  3.  If you’re an employer, take proactive measures to educate employees (start with on-boarding) about your company’s policies, then have open, honest and constructive conversations with those that deviate.


Remember that employers have some exposure related to the social media activities of their employees, too.  While roughly half of HR professionals surveyed in the InfoArmor study use social media to check the background of candidates, they don’t place a high level of importance on the activity, and implement almost no controls to regulate social media of the candidates once they’re hired.  Given 40% of the surveyed HR  professionals believe reckless social media activity by employees can cause significant damage their employer’s public image, one would expect more controls to be in place.

At the end of the day, I’m not advocating that you decline all friend/connection requests or that employers become big brother (although some regulated industries require this).  But given how widespread ID theft is today, the trend of accepting invites from someone you don’t know could open a Pandora’s box.  Educating yourself and only connecting with those you really know are the first steps in ensuring a greater sense of security for you and your network.

Paul Rockwell is head of Trust & Safety at LinkedIn.



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