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Many adult users of social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook expose themselves to risk from identity thieves and hackers, according to a new US study.

The focus of concerns over social networking sites has so far focused on incidents where online predators have used the sites to "groom" potential child victims for abuse. A new study by the US National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) and enterprise software firm CA looks at online behavior and the possibility of cyber-crime threats such as fraud, identity theft, computer spyware and viruses tied in with the use of social networking sites.

Although 57 percent of people who use social networking sites expressed concern about becoming victims of cyber-crime, they are still divulging information that may put them at risk. For example, 74 per cent of the 2,163 adults quizzed in the survey said they had given out personal information, such as their email address, name and birthday. The majority (83 per cent) of adults who use social networking sites confessed that they have downloaded unknown files from other people's profiles, potentially exposing themselves to malware as a result. Nearly a third (31 per cent) of adults who use social networking sites have responded to "phishy" (ie potential fraudulent) unsolicited email or instant messages, the survey found.

Contrary to the popular view that social networking sites are exclusively used by teenagers, the survey found a large number of adults (48 per cent) of 18 years or over use sites such as MySpace, with 53 per cent of adults who use social networking sites over the age of 35. The survey, released at part of National Cyber Security Awareness month, makes the obvious point that users ought to guard potentially sensitive information.

"Those who frequent these sites should be aware the data they share may make them prey for online attacks. Giving out a social security number, paired with a birthday and name, could provide enough ammunition for criminals to hack into financial records and compromise users' personal information," warns Ron Texeria, executive director of NCSA.

On a more positive note, the survey found that that parents are taking safety precautions with their children. Of the parents that know their kids use social networking sites, 64 percent monitor their children's profiles and 49 percent have restricted their profile so that it can only be seen by their friends. Many adults have discussed safety precautions with their children, highlighting the risk from online predators.

It seems adults are more diligent about informing their offspring about malware risks than guarding against online attacks themselves. The survey reports that 72 percent of adults have spoke to their children about watching out for malicious software and 64 percent have discussed how to watch out for fraudsters trying to steal money.

The NCSA and National Consumers League's gives a number of pointers of its own on "safe surfing" habits to apply on social networking sites. Users should defend themselves with common sense and appropriate security technologies (such as up-to-date anti-virus software), it advises. "Picture social networking sites as billboards in cyberspace. Police, college admissions personnel, employers, stalkers, con artists, nosy neighbors - anyone can see what you post. Criminals scan social networking sites to find potential victims for all sorts of scams, from phony lotteries to bogus employment and business opportunities to investment fraud.," the NCSA advises. "Be cautious about meeting your new cyber friends in person. After all, it's hard to judge people by photos or information they post about themselves," it adds.

The complete CA/NCSA survey on social networking, as well as more safety tips for users of social networking sites, can be found on the staysafeonline.org web site. ®

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