By Ross Walker, UK & Ireland Director of Small Business at Symantec

Social networks are an inherent part of today’s Internet and used by more than a billion people worldwide. They allow people to share ideas and interact with other people, from old friends to strangers. This interaction reveals a lot of information, often including personal information visible to anyone who wants to view it. Hence privacy is often a key concern by the users. Since millions of people are willing to interact with others, it is also a new attack ground for malware authors. They are spreading malicious code and sending spam messages by taking advantage of the users’ inherent trust in their relationship network.

With that in mind, users need to ensure that they are exercising best practice when they are on social networking sites. Symantec advises that users always abide by the following top tips:

Be skeptical

Social networks can be a useful source for business information, as well as for newsworthy updates from your friends. But they also contain a lot of useless information. Generally speaking, you should treat anything you see online with a high degree of skepticism. Do not believe everything you read, be it financial advice, breaking news, or tips on free giveaways–especially if it involves clicking a link or installing an application. If someone asks you for money in advance, it might be a scam.

Check privacy policies & settings

All major social networking services have specific privacy guidelines and rules that are published on their websites. Make sure you understand them, even though they may be tedious to read, as they likely explain if your information is shared with other parties. Some services offer the ability to restrict your privacy settings for specific groups, such as allowing you to share pictures with your friends only and not everyone. Make good use of these settings.

Good passwords

Use good, strong passwords. (Your birth date or “123456” are not good passwords.) If possible, the password should contain letters and numbers, as well as special characters. If you can’t remember complex passwords, either use a passphrase as hint or use any of the available password management utilities that can securely store them for you. Do not choose a password that can be guessed by the information that you have published on your account site. This includes friend’s names, favored movie stars, or pet names.

Protect the password

You should never share your password with others. This includes services that promise to help you get more friends or something similar. Do not lose control of your password. If you enter your password, ensure that you are on the real website and not a phishing scam page that just looks like the original site. Should you suspect that you have fallen for a phishing attack and your account has been compromised, use a clean computer to log into the original service and change your password.

Be thoughtful

Always think twice before posting something. Keep in mind that once you posted it, even to a close group of friends, you no longer have control over where it will be reposted and who might read it. These things can come back to haunt you when you search for a new position in the future. Consider if you really need to publish the full information. This includes posting too many personal details, such as phone numbers or work-related things. Furthermore refrain from forwarding virus hoax or exaggerated warning messages that will confuse more than help other users. Be nice and respectful to others–do not post hate messages about others, since you would not want to receive them yourself.

Be wary

People on the Internet are not always who they claim to be. The celebrity who you are following might just be another fan, and the supposed co-worker from another office might just be someone doing reconnaissance on your enterprise. Not everyone that claims to be your friend is your friend.

Stay updated

Always ensure that the software you use is up-to-date. Not only does this include the operating system and web browser, but also third-party plug-ins, such as PDF viewers. Install all the latest patches and hot fixes from the official site and automatically check for newer available versions through the software.

Stay protected

Some of the newer attacks are very sophisticated and are sometimes hard to spot for an untrained eye. Use comprehensive security software to protect against these threats.

Social networking communities are an inherent part of today’s Internet. People love using them to stay in contact with friends, exchange pictures, or just to pass the time when bored. Companies have also discovered social media as a new way of targeting their customers with relevant information. However, with user groups with hundreds of millions of members, there are always some black sheep with malicious intent.

Social networks definitely can be fun, but users should be aware of the risks and behave with the needed level of skepticism, just like anywhere else.