When Sharon Jacobs' landlord asked her for her credit score in early September, she went to annualcreditreport.com and entered her information. The site eventually directed her to the credit bureau TransUnion, where she signed up for a service (that she later cancelled) in return for her credit score. That score was displayed next to a TransUnion "VantageScore Grade" and a "Share on Facebook" button. If she had clicked it, it would have shared her grade, which reflects the strength of her credit score, with all her Facebook friends.
"I was really surprised," says Jacobs, a 24-year-old Washington, D.C., resident. "I can't say I know much about personal finance, but I do know that it would be a bad idea to share your credit score with everyone you know." She opted not to do so.
That was probably a prudent move. Security experts say that while sharing a credit score - or related grade - alone is not directly harmful, it can make you vulnerable to scam artists looking for easy targets. A scam artist could impersonate a credit bureau and seek more information after seeing a credit score online, for example, or could target a person with a low grade and offer fraudulent credit improvement services.
TransUnion spokesman Clifton O'Neal wrote in an email that the company started offering customers the option to share their VantageScore Grade on Facebook in early 2011 "to encourage consumers to celebrate their credit achievements and to inspire their friends and family in their social media networks to work towards healthier credit." Now, though, they only offer the option to some consumers. "As identity thieves have become more and more skilled, the need to protect a consumer's personal information via social media takes precedent over celebrating and inspiring credit health," he wrote. "We are committed to providing services designed to let consumers access and understand their own credit and, if desired, share parts of that information at the level they choose."
While TransUnion offers the Facebook share button, other credit bureaus, including Experian and Equifax, do not. "Generally speaking, it is never a good idea to share personal identifiable information like your credit score and other financial information via social media," says Equifax spokeswoman Demitra Wilson.
[Read: How to Avoid Credit Card Debt.]
"Sharing your credit score publicly is kind of like posting vacation photos while you're still on vacation. It gives the bad guys a good idea who to target," says Liz Weston, author of "Your Credit Score." Along with other pieces of information shared over social media, a fraudster could piece together enough details to hack into accounts or send you a fake email from a financial services provider requesting more information. Many Americans are aware of this danger: An April Google Consumer Survey commissioned by TransUnion found that almost half of Americans are "concerned" about having their identity stolen based on personal information included in their social media accounts.
"If I'm a bad guy and I see a credit score from a major credit bureau that was just tweeted or shared, the next thing for me to do would be to go your Facebook page, find your email address and send you an email that looks like it's coming from an entity that you might have previously done business with," says Robert Siciliano, an online security expert.
The fake email could say something like, "There's been some type of issue regarding your account, and we need you to verify data. Reply to this email or click this link. Congratulations on such a great score," Siciliano explains. That's also why it's a good idea to avoid sharing information about recent purchases from Amazon and other online retailers on your Facebook or Twitter accounts, although that option often exists.
The more information you put out for anyone to see, including seemingly innocuous details about your life, the easier it is for people to trick you into trusting them and possibly sharing more information with them, says John Sileo, a privacy expert and chief executive of Sileo.com. "One little piece of information can lead to more. If I see a low score on your Facebook page, I might call you [pretending to be] a financial institution, and say, 'Hey, we can increase your credit score?'" and offer a fraudulent service, for example, he says.
Similarly, someone with a high score might be targeted for his or her apparent wealth. "Then you're a target for bigger scams," Sileo says. "Instead of trying an automated attack, I might try a spear phishing scheme. So now I'll take the time to learn about you, gain your trust and maybe cultivate an online relationship."
[Read: How to Avoid Online Ticket Scammers.]
Still, Rod Griffin, public education director for Experian, says there's no real harm is sharing only the number. In fact, he often shares his own scores in presentations. (For the record, his recent scores from each of the three bureaus were 797, 803 and 785.) "There is no information from a score that would enable a person to access your existing account or do anything that would be fraudulent or nefarious," he says, adding that all you can infer from a high score like his is that "a person must manage their finances well."
Anything other than the number, though, should be kept private, Griffin says. "To say, 'I'm a 785 is like saying, 'I'm a Scorpio,' but beyond that, you would never want to share personally identifying information from your credit report," he explains. That includes account numbers, balances and credit limits, because criminals could potentially use that information to hack into accounts or impersonate financial service providers.
Even TransUnion, the credit bureau that offers the Facebook share button next to credit scores, reminds people to limit what they share online. In response to questions over email, TransUnion Vice President Julie Springer wrote, "While social media is a great way for individuals to connect with others and exchange ideas, consumers should be careful what personal information they include in their profiles ... use common sense when giving someone else information."
Here are some tips to keep your finances safe:
1. Don't let your ego trick you into oversharing.
"Don't go bragging about your finances, or things you just bought," Siciliano warns. He points out that the plot of this year's movie "The Bling Ring," which is based on true events, illustrates why. In the film, thieves break into celebrities' homes and steal their items after they posted about their whereabouts (and recent purchases) online. Posting about finances can immediately turn you into a target, he adds.
2. Guard your information.
While bits and pieces of information, such as your email address, birthday or hometown might not enable a fraudster to hack into your account, fraudsters can slowly acquire facts about you from various sources on the Internet to impersonate you or otherwise steal your identity, Sileo says. Even downloading free apps that collect your information, including your whereabouts, can lead to identity theft, he adds.
3. View "official" emails suspiciously.
Griffin points out that Experian never reaches out directly to consumers, so if you get an email that claims to be from Experian, it's not. "It happens all the time, as it does with every company. There are scammers that set up websites that look just like a legitimate website and use it to try to defraud people," he says. Instead of clicking on urls in emails, he recommends contacting financial companies directly if you want to interact with them.
4. Get your free credit report once a year.
Every consumer can access a free credit report once a year from the website annualcreditreport.com. Many credit bureaus also offer consumer websites with more detailed information about credit and identity theft prevention, including Equifax's identityprotection.com and Experian's livecreditsmart.com.
5. Don't leave a cookie trail.
TransUnion warns consumers against saving passwords on public or work computers, which could enable the next person on the machine to log into your accounts. The credit bureau also recommends adjusting settings on social media accounts to maximize privacy.
"The more we share, the more it puts us in a certain category of someone who buys certain things. It shows a certain income and demographic," Siciliano says. Advertisers can then use that information to send you more targeted ads, but "bad guys" can also use the information to stalk you. So you might want to think twice about posting your credit score - even an impressive one - to Facebook.