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Crime and Social Networking Sites

Are You Putting Yourself at Risk Online?
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Do you constantly update your status on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and other such social networking websites? Do you tell your online contacts where you go, what you do, and whom you are with?  If you do, you are unintentionally extending an open invitation to burglars and antisocial elements.  First, let us take a look at some numbers.  

A recent survey by Credit Sesame says that 35% of Americans check-in and tweet about their whereabouts and 15% of Americans regularly use social networking websites to tell their friends when they are not home. A recent report from Legal and General Group says that nearly 40% of Facebook users post details of their vacation plans on the website.

It sounds pretty harmless, right? After all, what could go wrong with sharing some information with your friends online? As it turns out, a lot could go wrong.

Studies show that an alarmingly large number of burglars use social networking websites to identify potential properties for burglary. A survey conducted among ex-burglars shows that 78% of ex-burglars used Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare to target potential properties and 74% of them used Google Street View to scope out potential properties and know more about the location.

The Way It Works

Annie decides to go on a vacation. She shares the  information with her friends by posting the following message on Facebook and Twitter.  "I'm going on a vacation with my family on Nov 21. Looking forward to a great time. Bahamas, here I come".

One of her online contacts, who happens to be a  burglar, reads this message and proceeds to do what any burglar in his place would do. He checks out her profile, makes a note of her address, and uses Google Maps to take a good, close look at the property he is about to burgle.

Annie has also posted a lot of photos of her household items – right from the hi-tech home theater system to the super expensive crystal vase – to let her friends know that she truly lives in style. The burglar also takes a good look at these photos to get an idea of what he is about to get his hands on.

 Having all the details he could possibly ask for, the burglar pays a quiet visit to Annie’s house, takes everything he wants, and leaves without a trace.

 The scenario could be a little different for different people. Some may post the details of the charity event they are about to attend, some may reveal that they are watching a movie with their family, and someone else may tell their friends about the wedding they are about to attend.

Whatever the scenario is, the result is likely to be the same – A planned, calculated burglary. Studies show that it takes only two minutes for a burglar to break into a home and only about ten minutes to steal everything. In other words, it does not matter if you are going on a long vacation or going out to have a cup of coffee. All a burglar needs is 10 to 15 minutes of alone-time with your property. So, it is never a good idea to reveal your whereabouts online.

 The Stalker Syndrome

Posting your photos online and revealing too much personal information can also attract the attention of stalkers, sexual predators, identity thieves, scammers, and other such unwanted elements.

For example, Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, used Facebook to know more about his female classmates and stalked them. Similarly, in 2006, a cyber stalker sent death threats to a Kansas University student, posted her photos on his website, and published derogatory remarks about her looks.

Teenagers, in particular, fall for this trap as they often reveal too much information in an attempt to ‘open themselves up’ to find true love or friendship. This is why a lot of colleges and universities these days ask their students to be very cautious and not share their personal details with strangers online.

 The Other Side of the Coin

Social networking is not all bad either. There have been a number of instances where social media websites have been used to catch the bad guys.

In February 2007, police nabbed a University of Connecticut student and charged him for hit-and-run by following leads via Facebook. In October 2008, police charged an Alberta based man with first-degree murder charges by monitoring his Facebook activity, which turned out to be an important piece of evidence.

There have also been many instances where burglars, bullies, rapists, and miscreants have been caught by the police with the help of social media outlets. As a result, law enforcement agencies use social networking websites as a weapon to catch criminals. The Salt Lake City Police Department, for example, has set up an online community policing program to stay in touch with people and solve crimes.

 What Can You Do?

Social networking is a wonderful way to connect with people, make new contacts, share what you know with others, and learn new things. You should, however, be aware of the fact that the web has its fair share of bad elements that prey on the vulnerable. So, watch what you post online and stay safe.