You may have seen strange status updates shared on Facebook that leave you scratching your head. These pre-created updates say things like, “Bet you can’t name a city that doesn’t start with the letter A!” or “How old were you in 1989?” People share these from their own accounts, and their friends and family members comment according to the type of question or challenge listed.

What is the point? Is it really a fun game, or is there something else behind it? After all, “Riverside” is the name of a real town in all but four US states, followed closely by Centerville (found in 45 states), Troy in 39 states, and Liberty and Union in 38 states. It shouldn’t be that difficult to think of the name of a town with a letter “A” in its name, right?

Many of these promotions are started by businesses and they’re feeding into a concept called “status phishing.” This typically harmless practice is just a way for businesses with Facebook pages to generate more traffic so they can show their advertisers the high-volume of activity that takes place on their social media accounts. Another less common practice is for an individual or small tech company to buy a domain name, establish a social media following with constant barrages of this kind of posting, then sell that website name and its social media accounts to a company who wants a lot of followers. Here’s a really interesting TED Talk on how the process works.

So again, is it potentially harmful or not? For most tech users, it all depends on what you share, and what malicious individuals of capable of doing with the information you willingly posted. The recent status update that asked the question, “How old were you in 1989?” could very well be a marketing tactic, as singer Taylor Swift has a newly released album entitled “1989.” Is it dangerous to simply type “23” in the comments section? Probably not. But a large number of social media users have misunderstood the point of the question and posted their actual birthdates instead of their ages. Even worse, some have been duped into revealing their birthdates on social media by responding to someone who argues with them, such as a commenter who says, “No way! I see your profile picture, there’s NO WAY you’re old enough to have been 23 that year!”

Status phishing should only bother you with post updates and advertising if you’ve played along, but keep in mind that you never know who’s behind the question or why. Protect your online identity by not revealing too much about yourself to strangers, and remember to watch out for the real threat from these kinds of quizzes and questions…getting sidetracked from your work by playing on social media!


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