Memes are a fun way to spread a little light-hearted internet discussion using pictures that have been overlaid with bold-font text. Some memes are based on screenshots from iconic movies, and others take on a viral life of their own after a simple photograph is uploaded and altered with a message. However, it’s okay to be a bit of a grumpy cat when it comes to protecting your identity.

Hackers have been able to use a process called steganography to hide malicious code in the string of computer code that makes up a meme. Steganography is basically “information hiding inside information.” Be aware, though, that steganography as a tool is not always harmful or malicious, it’s only how it’s used that can cause problems. It’s like the parent of a toddler hiding pureed carrots in their child’s spaghetti sauce, just to get a few more veggies into them; instead, it’s hackers hiding harmful malware inside a picture that looks funny.

Even worse, that funny picture is easily shareable in emails, messages, and on social media. You can potentially infect your entire contact list with one affected meme.

Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself and your online friends. Many of these preventive measures are just good internet habits to develop anyway, so there’s really nothing too difficult to master.

  • First, avoid opening links or attachments in emails or messages. Many different types of malware can be lurking in a link to an infected page or in the macros of an attached document, so you should never open these unless you’ve personally verified it with the sender.
  • If someone sends you a funny or poignant meme, don’t “open” it by tapping on it (on a mobile device) or saving it to your computer. Have a good laugh, then forget it.
  • Never share a meme unless you can trust the source. If someone sent you one and you saved it to your computer then uploaded it to your Facebook wall, for example, you’re potentially infecting anyone who clicks on it through your social media channels. If anyone shares your post to their own wall, they may be spreading it far and wide.
  • Most important of all, make sure that you have strong, up-to-date, reliable antivirus software installed on your computer. Depending on the company you choose, some very affordable security suites offer tools like anti-ransomware, anti-phishing, and instant scanning of new files even before you open them. That means any new content coming across your internet connection is checked out—and blocked, if necessary—before it reaches your hard drive.

Again, all of these steps are good ideas to put into practice anyway, even if you’re not sending or receiving memes. Protect your network, your devices, and your identifying information by adopting good internet security habits.


Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

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