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How your online posts could cost you big bucks

Before you send out that next tweet or post a picture, you might want to think again. What you post online could raise your insurance premiums.

Americans spend more time on social media than any other major internet activity, including email.

But, before you send out that next tweet or post a picture, you might want to think again. What you post online could raise your insurance premiums.

Americans spend at least three hours a day on social media including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Unless you have privacy settings maximized, all of those posts are open to the public.

Sometimes the eyes that land on your profile are those of insurance companies.

"I know it's something that's being considered in the industry, to start actually preparing a social media profile, to the extent that it can help with the risk profile on the potential insurer," said attorney Dennis VanDerGinst, of VanDerGinst Law in Moline.

What you post online could cost you in higher insurance premiums.

"If you are a friend of an underwriter on Facebook, let's say you are posting information about your drinking habits or engaging in risky behavior.  It's certainly something that an underwriter can consider, and from what I understand, there are underwriters that are doing just that," said VanDerGinst.

So, for example, that picture of you skydiving could raise some red flags for life insurance.  That funny status update, about getting pulled over, could sound alarms with auto insurers.

"I don't really think it's quite fair, if they can raise the claim based on what I'm going to post on Facebook," said Emilia Vargas, who uses social media.

VanDerGinst says it's all legal.

"If it's information that's readily available to the public, then its fair game," said VanDerGinst.

Social media is still so new, companies are trying to figure out how it impacts their business, what's okay and what's considered an invasion of privacy.

The concern is, that history and the Internet could combine back to haunt you.

"I liked a page when I was in high school. I've had my Facebook page probably like for six or seven years.  I don't like the same things I liked in high school anymore, and you don't have time to go unlike everything," said Vargas.

"What if you're not posting information about yourself? Somebody else commenting about you, or somebody else is posting information about your photos, showing you doing something that you know you really meant to keep private?" VanDer Ginst said.

Some say insurance companies want to take advantage of social media to boost their own bottom lines.

"They want whatever they can, to enhance the risk profile of their potential insurers. Now, from their perspective this is giving them more information, and it is cutting back on cost, to get that risk program profile," said VanDerGinst.

Insurance agent Dave Williams, at Farmers Insurance, says his company uses Facebook to communicate with customers, and not to condemn them.

"We have discounts that have to do with a person's career that, maybe we forgot to ask them in person, then found them on Facebook,"Williams said.  "That would be an example how that would be helpful."

"We like to use it to stay in touch with our customers, let them know what's going on here, as well a give them a chance to interact with us in another way that a lot of people like," said Williams.

Bottom line:  It's up to you to protect yourself, says Nick Westergaard of Brand Driven Digital, which specializes in online branding for organizations.

Decide how much information you want to share, and change your privacy settings to limit who can see your posts, tweets and pictures. Don't be afraid to get picky about accepting friend requests, or liking certain pages, too.

"It's up to the user to define their own privacy settings; consider the risk and consider what they share and what they don't," said Westergaard.

It's up to you to spend that time online wisely and present the right picture of yourself to friends, family and even your insurance company.

For Facebook:  Click the lock icon near the upper-right corner of your Facebook page to open a menu of privacy settings which you can change.  For more help with privacy on Facebook, click here.

For Twitter:  Go to yourSecurity and privacy settings, scroll down to the Tweet privacy section and check the box next to Protect my Tweets.  Click the blue Save button.  For more help with privacy on Twitter, click here.

For Instagram:  By default, anyone can see your posts.  Even if you set posts to private on Instagram, that privacy setting might not accompany an Instagram photo you share on another social network.  You can change your Instagram privacy settings by editing your profile via your mobile device.  For more help with privacy on Instagram, click here.

For Pinterest:  You can change your name or use secret boards to protect your privacy on Pinterest.  You can change privacy so search engines cannot find your posts, but the change could take several weeks to take effect.  On your profile, click your name, then settings, to see the privacy settings menu.  For more help with privacy on Pinterest, click here.

For Google+:  You can assign different visibility levels to different parts of your profile.  The names of your circles are never exposed to anyone else. You can also control how your profile appears to a specific person regardless of whether they are in one of your circles.  For more help with privacy on Google+, click here. 

For LinkedIn:  Manage your account information and privacy settings from the Profile and Account sections of your Settings page.  For more help managing your account and privacy settings on LinkedIn, click here.

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