LinkedIn: When To Say No To Connecting

Should you accept LinkedIn connection requests from strangers? Before deciding, make sure you understand the security and reputation risks.

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10 Social Business Leaders for 2013

10 Social Business Leaders for 2013

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Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the like make sense professionally for some people, but not for others. Presence on LinkedIn, on the other hand, is a no-brainer.

Although LinkedIn has gone through lots of changes lately, for the most part it is what it is: the leading social network and collaboration space for people who want to make and develop professional contacts and their own careers. What's less clear about LinkedIn is how far your network should extend. Sure, having lots of connections looks good on your profile, but is any connection a good connection? Can some connections actually hurt you?

There are two schools of thought on this issue, according to Ari Lightman, professor at Carnegie Mellon University and director of its CIO Institute. "If you're an open networker, it makes sense to connect to as many folks as possible -- that broadens your network and gives you reach which might come in handy and provide greater visibility," he said. "The other camp says if you do not know the person you should not connect with them."

Lightman said the arguments for being more selective about the people you connect with are focused on relevance and security. "More people make it more difficult to receive information that really might be of value," he said. "Another argument for no is that you open up yourself to spam from folks who want to sell you products and services. This is commonplace, and many people simply tune it out. But when there is malicious intent -- say, a phishing attempt -- then clicking on a link can load a virus onto your system. There have also been several fake connection requests infecting the unsuspecting user with virus attacks."

[ Get more ideas on making the most of LinkedIn. See LinkedIn Tips: 10 Ways To Do More. ]

And as LinkedIn and other social networks soak up more and more of our personal information, people may be looking to connect to perpetrate identity theft.

"There is plenty of information that someone could mine if they wanted to try and recreate your identity, including work history," said Lightman. "Exposing your information to a wide community gives them access to lots of data about you that could be used maliciously. LinkedIn, as well as all other social networks, are trying to get this under control by allowing people to adjust their privacy settings. It comes down to the classic trade-off of openness/transparency versus risk mitigation."

In addition, indiscriminate connecting isn't just a threat to you; it could be a threat to your company and your colleagues, according to security consultant Brad Causey.

"LinkedIn is a goldmine of reconnaissance and attack opportunities," he said. "Once connected, competitors will have access to your other connections, and can often dissect the organization chart of the company. This can lead to targeted recruitment efforts, or even insight into proprietary processes. ... In addition to recon and competitor insight, spear-phishing campaigns allow fake groups or fake profiles to target specific company employees for compromise."

However, Bruce Hurwitz, president and CEO of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing, warned that refusing invitations could close off opportunities you haven't even imagined.

"I once did a search for an economist in Columbus, Ohio," said Hurwitz. "I know no one in Columbus. So I sent a message to all my first-degree connections in Columbus. I got a candidate. Now, as a recruiter, the old-fashioned way of doing business would have been for me to call financial institutions and universities to see if I could find someone. But I used LinkedIn. The person who got me the candidate was the owner of a beauty parlor. One of her customers was married to the economist. Never in a million years would I have called beauty parlors in Columbus to look for an economist. But through LinkedIn, that's how I found him. And that's the best example I can give of why you do not want to limit your network."

Jake Wengroff, founder and principal analyst with social business consulting firm JXB1, noted that this issue is not a new one. In fact, he said, it's been divisive for years, and it's an issue that people may change their minds about, depending on where they are in their careers: "Closing yourself off to people may make sense when you are happily, gainfully employed, but what happens when circumstances change?" he said.

He added that connecting to strangers improves search results on LinkedIn, especially when searching for jobs -- as connections increase, so do job listings.

That said, Wengroff and others noted, it's important to do some level of digging when you get an invitation from someone you don't know -- especially when their profile information is scant.

"When I receive an invitation from a stranger," said Wengroff, "I find the email alert in my external inbox and send a reply message with a short note saying, 'Hi, thank you for the invitation to connect on LinkedIn. How did you find me?' This helps in determining whether it's a good idea to connect with the stranger. It's been hit or miss, but I have met about a dozen such strangers who took the time to craft original messages and explain why they wanted to connect with me."

Hurwitz said he accepts all invitations to connect, with a few exceptions.

"I accept invitations from everyone," he said. "If I have a competitor who wants to connect with me, I have no problems with that. They will receive tweets and updates about what I am doing, and that's how I build my reputation in my industry. I do not, however, accept invitations from individuals with provocative photos or who are members of the 'adult film industry.' That's because I care about my reputation."

What's your cutoff for connecting on LinkedIn? Do you have to know (or know of) the person who is making the invitation, or do you throw caution to the wind to grow your network as much as possible? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Follow Deb Donston-Miller on Twitter at @debdonston.

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