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Long lost cousin or cybercriminal?

Hey, here's a question we answered in our newspaper column, published today, about how to tell the difference between a friend request from someone you can't remember versus someone who is pretending they know you. (Bridget is already regretting using herself as an example; judging by our co-workers' comments about Googling her):

Use care with new `friends'                                                

Q: Someone sent me a Facebook friend request that said, ''Hey cousin, how's it going?'' I have no idea who this is even after looking at her profile, and we have no friends in common. How do I politely find out who this is?

A: The first step to avoiding awkwardness is to do some cyber-sleuthing. Google them. Check their profile for schools, organizations and cities you have in common. You might find clues on other sites this person shows up in. If that doesn't pull much up, do a search with their name and an organization or business they are a part of (i.e. ''Bridget Carey'' and ``Miami Herald'').

In this case, they gave you a clue: cousin. Call a family member and ask if they recognize the name. Of course, this might just be another dead end if the person is using cousin as slang.

If nothing jogs your memory, then it's time to send a reply. Don't be embarrassed. You obviously weren't close with this person, and you've confirmed whether or not they are actual family, so they shouldn't be too offended. We like to use self-deprecating humor to ease the awkwardness, such as making light of it by saying you are too old or lost brain cells from drinking. (Example: ''I'm sorry, I'm having a senior moment. When was the last time we saw each other?'') That's clearly better than just coming out and asking who they are.

Of course, there's also another possibility: This person may not know you at all. Be careful. This could be a cyber-criminal, such as a spammer, who has built a fake profile to befriend strangers. In a worst-case scenario, the links on their profile are malicious and could harm your computer. And be careful about sending back messages. On Facebook, that could give them access to your information. Here are some tell-tale signs: You have no friends in common, and their profile page isn't personal, but full of links to some site they want to promote. Finally, check out their wall: Does it have messages from people asking ''Hey where do I know you from?'' with no response?

If you challenge these people, typically they will not respond because they were banking on the fact that you were too embarrassed to challenge them and/or that you feel too guilty to admit it. And that works: It's amazing how many people accept friend requests from unknown people because they don't want to seem rude.

Which begs the question: why do people blindly accept random friends?


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