Criminals use social media in choosing their victims

Don’t give your specific location or vacation information, police say.

Posting on your online social network that you are having a weekend away could leave you vulnerable to criminals targeting your home.

According to 2011 Pew Research Center data, 65 percent of adult Internet users say they use social networking sites and 9 percent have opted into the Facebook and Twitter functions that automatically tag their posts with a location.

Local law enforcement officers say they’ve increasingly heard about cases where home burglary targets were chosen because the resident posted online that they would be on vacation. None had made any local arrests where the suspects admitted to using these tools, however.

It’s an emerging area of study for criminologists, according to Art Jipson, associate professor of sociology at the University of Dayton. Early studies are indicating that professional burglars are taking advantage of the opportunity created by over-sharing on the Internet. “There is this need to share deeply personal information and to do it immediately,” Jipson said. “People are more concerned about ‘will my boss see this.’ The idea that you might have criminal trolling is distant.”

There are confirmed cases in other states of criminals using specific online tools like Foursquare and Twitter to track the movements of their victims.

In Sept. 2010, police in Nashua, N.H., said they busted a burglary ring in which the three suspects targeted Facebook users who posted their locations. They committed more than 50 break-ins while homeowners were away, and police recovered more than $100,000 worth of property when the suspects were caught.

“More and more, these tools want to know ‘Can I use your location?’ ” Jipson said. “There is an assumption of privacy that is simply not warranted.” He said no matter how careful users are about setting their privacy controls, they can never completely control the audience that will see their posts.

The prevalence of identity theft has led many people to hide or omit personal information like their address and birth date. But studies show that social media users are more willing to share details about their daily lives and their plans.

A 2009 survey of 2,092 social media users by British-based Legal & General found that nearly four in 10, or 38 percent, of people using social networking sites post details about holiday plans and 33 percent post details of a weekend away. The study also found that 13 percent of Facebook users and 92 percent of Twitter users were willing to accept a friend or follow requests from complete strangers, allowing them the same access to information as their real friends and family.

Men were more likely to put themselves at further risk by including personal information on their profile. Thirteen percent of men allowed access to their cellphone number compared with 7 percent of women. Nine percent of men also posted their address compared with 4 percent of women.

“When they are doing that kind of thing, then that’s a beacon to a would-be criminal to look further,” said Michelle Boykins, director of communications and marketing for the National Crime Prevention Council.

It’s also a signal to insurance companies that customers aren’t being as careful with their possessions as they could be. In a MetLife Auto & Home safety poll earlier this year, 79 percent of respondents said they never leave their doors unlocked under any circumstances, but 35 percent of Americans aged 18-34 “check in” to locations and tweet about their whereabouts on a regular basis.

State Farm spokesman Matt Edwards, told that his company watches for people who are giving away too much privacy information online and will advise the sender to remove it.

Boykins advised never posting vacation plans or duration on social networking sites. “Checking in” on Foursquare or other location-based sites while at a sporting event or amusement park can also indicate to an onlooker that the family will be away from home for an extended period of time. Hashtags on Twitter can pose a similar threat, when used for a conference, for example.Smartphones have the ability to geotag every photo you take with the built-in camera. Unless this function is disabled, the exact latitude and longitude where the photo was snapped is available when the photo is posted online.

Social media-aided crimes aren’t limited to home burglaries. There was a rash of local robberies in 2010 involving items advertised for sale on Craigslist. In one incident in Dayton, a man agreed to meet a potential buyer for his dirt bikes and was shot in the face.

A Lima woman was convicted in August of setting up an armed robbery via Facebook.

Social media has also been used to orchestrate flash mob robberies, including several violent looting incidents in Philadelphia this summer.

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