A new US study has shown the risks that surfers are taking when using social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

The study, conducted by enterprise IT management company CA and the National Cyber Security Alliance, reveals that users of such sites are vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves.

As social networking sites have grown in popularity, hackers and identity thieves have started to focus their attacks on these sites.

Their attacks are made easier by the behaviour of surfers – the survey reveals that 83% of adults download unknown files from other users’ profiles, potentially exposing themselves to malware in the process. This statistic will also be of concern to businesses whose employees access these sites from work.

Social networkers were also free with their personal information, with 74% of adults surveyed admitting to giving out e-mail addresses, names and birth dates.

Contrary to the perception that social networking is enjoyed exclusively by teenagers, 48% of adults use sites like MySpace, and 53% of those adults are over 35. According to Ron Texeria, executive director of NCSA, this increases the potential risks:

“Although the general community thinks most social networking users are teens, the CA/NCSA survey showed the popularity of these sites is extending beyond young early adopters to other segments of the population. Those who frequent these sites should be aware the data they share may make them prey for online attacks.”

He added: “Giving out a social security number, paired with a birthday and name, could provide enough ammunition for criminals to hack into financial records and compromise users’ personal information.”

The complete CA/NCSA survey on social networking can be found at www.staysafeonline.org.