[Editor’s note: Looking for information on Facebook’s most recent privacy updates? See our new guide to Facebook’s privacy settings. Read below for tips on other things you can do to keep yourself secure on the social networking site. ]

With over 66 million active users and nearly a quarter million new people signing up every day, Facebook is one of the fastest growing social networking websites in the United States. Unfortunately, many of the characteristics that make Facebook a great social network also open up Facebook users to a variety of identity theft related crimes.

NextAdvisor.com has compiled a list of 6 simple tips in our Facebook Identity Theft Prevention Guide below. The goal of this guide is to help raise awareness of those identity theft risks related to Facebook use as well as provide some steps that Facebook users can take to help protect themselves from being victimized by identity thieves.

Tip #1: Limit the amount of personal information available on your Facebook profile.

A recent poll of Facebook users commissioned by NextAdvisor.com found that 27% of respondents listed their full name, date of birth, phone number and email address on their Facebook profile. An additional 8% of respondents included all of that information plus their physical address on their profile. Many Facebook users also list other personal data such as their spouse or significant other’s name or birth date. That type of personal information is extremely dangerous in the hands of identity thieves as it can be used to perpetrate various forms of identity theft.

For example, an identity thief may be able to use your home address and phone number to submit a change of address form with the United States Postal Service and have your mail forwarded. This would allow an identity thief to get access to additional sensitive information that would allow them to open financial or other accounts in your name.

This information can also be used by savvy identity thieves to help them hack into online accounts since contextual information in your profile can tip them off to potential user name and passwords you may use. Once an online account, whether it is an email, credit card or other account, has been accessed it can be used to cause even further harm. In one such example of this type of identity theft a college student used information from another student’s Facebook profile page to gain access to their Apple.com account and order over $1,000 worth of products.

Our recommendation is to limit the amount of personal information that is available on your Facebook profile. Specifically:

  • Never list your full date of birth, phone number or physical address on your Facebook profile. Your real friends and associates will likely already know this information so including it on your profile will only increase your risk of being victimized by identity thieves.
  • Limit the amount of contextual password clues on your profile pages. Identity thieves know that many people use their birth day, a spouse or significant other’s name or birth date, an anniversary date, mother’s maiden name, pet’s name or other personal information as passwords on their personal accounts. It is also a good idea to make sure your online passwords don’t include these types of personal items since they are easily hacked.

Tip #2: Proactively manage your Facebook privacy settings.

[see our new guide to Facebook’s privacy settings for updated information]

Because Facebook is a social networking site it is configured, by default, to make it very easy for other people to find you. For example, Facebook allows users to join networks which are groups of individuals that share a common trait such as having attended the same school or living in a certain metropolitan area. That means that if you join the network for the city you live in every other member of that city-based network will have access to your profile information. This means that potentially hundreds or thousands (or more) strangers could automatically have direct access to your profile.

The good news is that Facebook offers users a lot of control over their privacy setting within the “My Privacy” section of the site. This can be reached by clicking on the “Privacy” link in the upper right hand corner of any page on the Facebook website. From within the privacy section you have full control of all of your privacy settings and can fine tune who will have access to what aspects of your profile and your activity on the Facebook website.

Section: Profile

Suggested Privacy Settings:

  • Select “Only my friends”in the drop down menus for each item. This will ensure that only people you have explicitly approved by adding them as a friend will have access to your personal profile information.

Section: Search

Suggested Privacy Settings:

  • Under “Which Facebook users can find me in search” select “Only my friends.” As in the point above, this will ensure that only people you have already approved can find you through Facebook’s search function.
  • Uncheck the box under “Create my public search listing.” This will prevent Facebook from publishing a public version of your profile that will be listed in search engines such as Google or Yahoo.

Section: News Feed and Mini Feed

Suggested Privacy Settings:

  • Uncheck any boxes associated with items you do not want published to all of your friends. It is up to your discretion as a user, but it is best not to publish any items that may expose personal information in some way.
  • Uncheck the box next to “Show times in my mini feed.” This will remove the day and time timestamp from any mini feed items that you do decide to publish publicly. This is a good step to prevent people from monitoring your Facebook usage habits and from knowing when you may be or have been online.

Section: Poke, Message and Friend Request

Suggested Privacy Settings:

  • We suggest not exposing anything other than “Basic Info” on your outbound pokes, messages or friend requests. So, leave that box checked and uncheck the remaining boxes. This will give recipients limited information from your profile page until they have become a friend.

Section: Applications and Ads

Suggested Privacy Settings:

  • This section allows you to remove applications you have previously added. No privacy setting updates needed as applications are governed by the privacy settings you set through the “Profile” section of “My Privacy.”

Section: External Sites

Suggested Privacy Settings:

  • Unbeknownst to many users, Facebook has the ability to track and publish information about actions you take on some large third-party websites (this is their controversial Beacon program). If you don’t want this information, such as purchases you make, shared with anyone, check the box next to “Don’t allow any websites to send stories to my profile.”

Keep in mind that it is very easy to provide more access to people, such as your friends and family, over time but that it can be impossible to turn back the clock if a piece of personal information in inadvertently exposed to the wrong parties. For that reason we recommend that Facebook users take the most conservative approach possible to their personal privacy settings.

Tip #3: Only accept friend requests from people you know.

According to another recent Facebook poll commissioned by NextAdvisor.com, 49% of respondents said that they accept some or all friend requests that they receive from people they don’t know. What many Facebook users may not realize is that by accepting friend requests from people they don’t know they are potentially opening themselves up to identity theft or related crimes. As a general rule, we suggest that Facebook users only accept friend requests from people that they already know or whose identity they can verify through some other means. Here are some ways to safely add new friends on Facebook:

  • When you receive a friend request from someone you already know verify they are who they say they are by sending them an email or giving them a phone call. It is easy for someone to set up a phony profile under the name of someone you know and trust in order to extract additional information from you.
  • If you don’t recognize the person who is making the friend request feel free to ask them how they know you before you accept their friend request by using the “send message”feature in Facebook. If they don’t answer or if their answer seems suspicious you can investigate further or simply ignore their friend request.
  • Some experts believe that social networks like Facebook may become the next target of sophisticated phishing scams designed to steal your online passwords or other personal information. If you receive a friend request or other information purporting to be from Facebook over email it is a good idea to login to your Facebook account directly, versus clicking on any links in the email, to verify that the communication is actually coming from the Facebook system.

Tip #4: Limit the amount of “time and place” data that you expose through Facebook.

Facebook gives users many opportunities to broadcast their schedule and whereabouts to their network of friends. Whether it is a simple status update or detailed itinerary, criminals can use information about your current or upcoming whereabouts to victimize you in a number of ways.

For example, if you publicly announce that you will be out of town for a vacation or your plans to attend a certain event, such as a concert or sporting event, criminals can use this information to determine when your home may be most susceptible to a burglary. This could open you up to any number of forms of identity theft or worse.

In general, we strongly recommend that Facebook users not publish specifics about your whereabouts and schedule.

Tip #5: Remember that even people you know can be identity thieves.

Unfortunately, several recent studies show that a significant number of identity theft victims know the person that victimized them.

Javelin Research found that a shocking 17% of identity theft crimes are perpetrated by people that the victim knows, such as friends or family members. Additionally, a recent study by the credit bureau Experian found that 55% of identity thefts perpetrated against children were committed by someone the victim knew.

We strongly recommend that even if you feel as though all of your Facebook friends are people that you know and trust that you still follow all the tips above to prevent yourself from falling victim to Facebook identity theft.

Tip #6: Consider an identity theft protection service.

Identity theft, both online and in the real world, remains a growing threat to all Americans. We recommend that all consumers consider using a proactive identity theft protection service such as Identity Guard or LifeLock to protect their identity.

Each identity theft protection service is different, but most will:

  • Set fraud alerts with the major credit bureaus so that new accounts cannot be opened in your name without your knowledge.
  • Provide you with identity theft insurance that will reimburse you on costs and expense you incur as a result of being victimized.
  • Provide you with copies of your credit report.

You can learn more about the various benefits of identity theft protection services and learn more about the specific services we have reviewed by visiting our identity theft protection service guide and comparison.

While social networks like Facebook can be fun and productive services, it is important for users to be aware of the risks that they pose. We believe that taking proactive steps to protect your identity on Facebook will only improve the amount of enjoyment you can get out of the service.

We hope that the tips we have provided are helpful and informative. We would also really like to hear if you have any feedback or additional tips on how you protect yourself on Facebook, on other social network or on the Internet in general. Please leave any tips in the comments below.