There can't be many Internet users who haven't heard of Facebook – the social network site, brainchild of U.S. college student Mark Zuckerberg. But worryingly, it's not just our friends who are keeping up with what we're doing online. Debt collectors, potential employers and even lawyers could be finding out much more than you'd want them to. Here we examine the worrying trends on the social network site and consider how you can take steps to avoid being spied on.

Debt Collector Watch
It seems that debt collectors have caught on to how difficult it is to hide on Facebook. According to MSN Money, debt collectors are infiltrating social network pages, contacting you, your friends and family through the site to force you to pay what you owe.

One debt collection agent, Michelle Dunn, confirms that this is a strategy used by debt collection agencies today. "If you look like a really good-looking girl, a lot of people would accept a friendship even if they don't really know the person," she explains. Luckily the The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, designed to protect consumers against abusive practices by the debt collection industry, does offer you some protection in this area. Although it is not forbidden for collectors to post on your Facebook wall or ask your contacts of your whereabouts, they cannot post about your debt, because that is a serious breach of privacy. Nevertheless, it should be common practice not to accept friend requests from people you don't know, and of course, if you do owe money, in order to avoid being found and potentially harassed on Facebook, you should answer mail or calls or from collection agencies in the first instance. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

Job hunting
When you're applying for a new job, polishing up your resume may not be enough anymore. Rather, you should check what information is out there about you on the web. Facebook profiles are routinely being checked by your future employers. According to a survey carried out by Careerbuilder in 2009, 45% of employers check your social media presence when hiring, and some 35% of employers reported that they have found content on social networking sites that meant they did not hire the candidate. As social media has only grown over the past few years, we can only imagine that this figure would be much higher today.

More than half of the employers questioned said that provocative photos were the biggest factor contributing to a decision not to hire a potential employee, while 44% of employers pinpointed references to drinking and drug use as no-go areas. While this might seem obvious, you can never know what a company might deem "provocative." It seems wise to keep all content absolutely clean, otherwise who knows what job prospects you are thwarting.

Passwords Please
In an even more worrying development in Maryland, a man has recently been asked to hand his Facebook login details over to his employee. He was outraged and made a complaint to the American Civil Liberties Union. As a result the updated policy at the Maryland Department of Corrections states that job candidates won't be asked to share their login or password information, but job applicants will be asked to log into Facebook "voluntarily" as an interviewer looks over their shoulders.

Legal Snooping
Beware what you post on the web, because, as a Staten Island woman recently discovered, the legal profession is snooping too. Dorothy McGurk claimed that she couldn't work, rarely left home and didn't socialize because of injuries from a 1996 car accident. The dancer, on disability, had been seeking lifetime alimony of $850 a month from her husband due to this accident. Unfortunately, Facebook revealed that all was not as it seemed, and showed that she was in fact working as a belly dancer. When the Facebook evidence came to light as evidence in court, the alimony was lost.

The Bottom Line
Unfortunately, many of us fail to realize that content we post on the Internet is really out there in the public domain. If you do want to continue using Facebook, what can you do to protect yourself from unwanted prying eyes? Be sure you've checked those privacy settings. It is sensible to keep any personal content away from the public eye. Also, be careful what you are making available to your networks. It might seem safe enough to let people who graduated from the same college as you view your profile, but this will include several thousand – if not tens of thousands of – people who you have never met nor know, and who may have ulterior motives when checking out your profile. Keep it clean and professional. Ask yourself: would you want your future employer to read this? If the answer is no, don't post it. There's really nowhere to hide on the world wide web.

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