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Don’t Get Robbed for Using Social Media

Photography: Feral Indeed!

Burglars lost a valuable resource recently. They didn’t mislay their crowbars and they can still get hold of bags marked “swag” if they really want to, but PleaseRobMe.com is no longer listing tweets with location data. The shopping list for home-raiders is now empty.

PleaseRobMe.com was never meant to help burglars, of course. The site, which simply reposted tweets whose writers had  indicated they weren’t at home, was created to alert people to the dangers of sharing too much information on social media sites – information such as the fact that they’re enjoying a two-week vacation in Cancun, the house is empty, and there’s a giant pile of cash in the unlocked office drawer.

It’s a risk that’s easy to understand. Location-based services such as Foursquare, Facebook’s Places, and Twitter’s “Add your location” feature should all be vital boons for criminals. There’s little point in leaving the lights on when you go to the cinema or asking a friend to pop around and empty the mailbox when you’re on vacation if you’re also going to announce to the entire world that you’re not at home. It’s really not hard for any criminal capable of opening a Facebook account or surfing to Twitter to discover who’s out and about in their area and whose homes are safe to rob.

And it might have happened. The media is full of reports about people who posted their location information on Twitter or on Facebook and came home to a jimmied front  door and a house emptied of valuables. Geo-location for posts and careless tweeting have made targeting so simple that it’s no surprise that potential victims are worried.

Don’t Tell People Where You Are

The simplest solution, of course, is never to announce where you are on a social media site — unless you’re at home watching the television with your guard dog and a large shotgun. Turn off the geo-location features, steer clear of Foursquare (because really, who wants to be the mayor of a café?) , and only tell people what you’re thinking or doing, not where you’re thinking or doing it.

In practice, that’s harder than it sounds. If you’re enjoying a great meal and want to post a picture of it, there’s a good chance that you’re not at home. If you want to share your vacation experience before your return flight, you’re also telling burglars that it will be a while before anyone notices the break-in. While you could simply sit on your hands and wait until you’re home before making your announcements, that’s not going to be an option for hard-core social media addicts, the types with a gazillion friends and the need to tell everyone what they’re doing all the time. Nor will it be possible for Twitter users attending conferences and hoping to join the online discussions taking place about the content.

And it’s something that a surprisingly large number of people do. According to a survey by insurance firm Legal & General, almost 40 percent of Facebook and Twitter users share vacation plans online.

On Facebook though that may be less of a problem. Although with more than 500 million members, Facebook is the largest social media site on the Web, it’s also a closed system. Work out how to use the privacy settings and you can be sure that your post is only seen by people you trust. Even if someone comments on your post, it should still only be viewable by friends and family. If you know your friends mix in the same circles as the criminal classes, then you might want to be cautious, but otherwise there should be little risk in telling your nearest and dearest that you’re heading away for a few days.

It’s a bigger issue on Twitter whose posts are open to anyone who wants to read them. According to Legal & General, 92 percent of Twitter’s users accept follows without checking who wants to follow them. Only 13 percent of potential burglary victims on Facebook do the same thing.

Thieves Can’t Burgle a Facebook Page

While never making a post that suggests you’re not at home may be the safest advice then, more useful rules to live by would include only approving as friends people you know and want to be in contact with, and being more cautious among the strangers on Twitter than you are among the friends on Facebook.

And even then, there may be little to worry about. It’s one thing for a burglar to see that someone isn’t at home, it’s another to discover where that home might be. With a little research, that information may not be impossible to discover but most burglars are opportunists rather than dedicated professionals. They’re unlikely to plough through directories to dig out an address of someone on Twitter in the hope that they’re within burgling distance when they can walk around their own neighborhood looking out for darkened windows and cheap locks. There’s no evidence that homes robbed after their owners posted their absence on Facebook or Twitter were targeted because of their announcements. Of 50 homes attacked by one gang of thieves, only one turned to be linked, loosely, to Facebook.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful. Even when the odds are small, in a community of 500 million people, anything can happen. But it does mean you shouldn’t worry too much.

And the good news is that while criminals could find social media useful, there’s no doubt that law enforcement has found it even more useful. Police forces around the world are using social media to make announcements, distribute wanted posters, track gangs, and more. One burglar was even arrested after stopping, mid-raid, to post an update on his victim’s computer. Because he didn’t bother to log out, police were able to trace him.

Social media does offer all sorts of privacy challenges. Information that we used to keep to ourselves, or which was only available to a small number of people, is now posted online for the world to see. It pays to be cautious about who you talk to and what you say on a social media site. But don’t let fear of strangers ruin your fun.

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