Facebook users at risk of "rubber duck" identity attack

December 07, 2009 Sophos Press Release

IT security and data protection firm Sophos has today released the results of its latest probe into how easy it is to steal identities via Facebook.

Sophos created two fictitious users with names based on anagrams of the words "false identity" and "stolen identity". 21-year-old "Daisy Felettin" was represented by a picture of a toy rubber duck bought at a $2 shop; 56-year-old "Dinette Stonily" posted a profile picture of two cats lying on a rug. Each sent out 100 friend requests to randomly-chosen Facebook users in their age-group.

Within two weeks, a total of 95 strangers chose to become friends with Daisy or Dinette - an even higher response rate then when Sophos first performed the experiment two years ago with a plastic frog. Worse still, in the latest study, eight Facebookers befriended Dinette without even being asked.

"We assumed things would be better in 2009 but the situation is worse. This really is a wake-up call," said Paul Ducklin, Head of Technology, Asia Pacific at Sophos in Sydney who conducted the study. "Our honeymoon period with social networking sites ought to be over by now - but many users still have a 'couldn't care less' attitude to their personal data."

89% of the 20-somethings and 57% of the 50-somethings who befriended Daisy and Dinette also gave away their full-date-of-birth. Nearly all the others suppressed their year of birth, but this is often easy to calculate or to guess from other information given out. Even worse, just under half of the 20-ish crowd, and just under a third of the 50-ish crowd, gave away personal information about their friends and family.

"People aren't just handing over their own life story to criminals," warned Ducklin. "They're betraying people close to them, too, by helping those cybercrooks build up a detailed picture of their life and their milieu. This is an identity scammer's dream."

Daisy the duck on Facebook

Sophos is calling on users of social networking sites to think much more strictly about what it means to accept someone as your friend. "We're not trying to be killjoys," explained Ducklin. "We just want you to be much more circumspect about whom you choose to trust online."

Information Daisy Dinette
Friends accepting 46% 41%
Total friends gained 46 49
Full d.o.b. (D/M/Y) 89% 57%
Partial d.o.b. (D/M) 9% 35%
Email address 100% 88%
College or workplace 74% 22%
Town or suburb 50% 43%
Full address 4% 6%
Phone number 7% 23%
IM screen name 13% 18%
Family and friend data 46% 31%
Average no. of friends 220 932

"Ten years ago it would have taken several weeks for con artists and identity thieves to gather this kind of information about a single person," added Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos. "Social networks have made it easier for the bad guys to scoop up information about innocent members of the public. Everyone must learn to be more careful about how they share information online, or risk becoming the victims of identity thieves."

Sophos has produced the following top tips for users wanting to protect themselves from identity thieves on Facebook:

  • Don't blindly accept friends. Treat a friend as the dictionary does, namely"someone whom you know, like and trust." A friend is not merely a button you click on. You don't need, and can't realistically claim to have, 932 true friends.
  • Learn the privacy system of any social networking site you join. Use restrictive settings by default. You can open up to true friends later. Don't give away too much too soon.
  • Assume that everything you reveal on a social networking site will be visible on the internet for ever. Once it has been searched, and indexed, and cached, it may later turn up online no matter what steps you take to delete it.

Learn more about the Sophos investigation into how easy it easy to steal identities on Facebook, and advice from expert Paul Ducklin, on his blog.