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Published: Saturday, 12/24/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Don't use social media to help criminals steal your stuff

BY OMAR L. GALLAGA
AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

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AUSTIN -- In late October, an infographic started making the rounds on tech and media blogs. It showed, in alarmingly cute detail, the ways that people are foolishly posting enough personal information online to give burglars an invitation to steal their stuff.

Titled "Status Update: Does Social Media Use Compromise the Security of Your Home?" the graphic was put out by Credit Sesame, a Sunnyvale, Calif., startup that focuses on online personal finance services.

Among the more sobering bits of information in the graphic were that 78 percent of burglars use Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare to target potential properties and that 35 percent of Americans ages 18-34 check in or Tweet about their location.

Your first red flag that things might not be as they seem: The burglar data was based on a survey in England of 50 ex-thieves (or so they say!). I don't know about you, but I'm always going to take with a Hope Diamond-sized grain of salt the results of a survey filled out by blokes who used to break into people's homes and steal things.

Let's not blame Credit Sesame, though. When reached for comment, the company said that they drew the data from sources such as MetLife Auto & Homes and the FBI's crime data. A spokesman said it's not really the focus of their business and that security professionals and law enforcement officials might be better suited to talk about the issue.

The thing is, whatever the real numbers are (adjusted for criminal dishonesty) and however overblown the issue might sound, the infographic had a point.

We have been too lax about what we post online. We do put ourselves at risk every time we tell everyone on Twitter (and, by the extension, the entire Internet) that we've left home and are getting on a plane.

Nobody's learned the lesson imparted in early 2010 by the Web site PleaseRobMe.com (now inactive), which scraped publicly available information from Twitter and the location-based service Foursquare and made an easy-to-skim feed ostensibly telling criminals whom to target.

The creators of that site went on to say that it should be a lesson for everyone on how much privacy we've given up.

What's surprising isn't that posting your whereabouts and when you're away from home puts you at risk for crime, it's that the rise of social media and always-on mobile Internet hasn't yet created an apocalyptic crime wave, turning our streets into Mad Max-style war zones.

I mean, that's not what's happening, right?

''No," said Dennis Farris, a senior police officer with the Austin Police Department. But, he said, people seem to be forgetting simple common sense when they post this kind of stuff online, even when their information is supposedly only being shared with close friends and family.

"It's not a very good idea," officer Farris said. "It's just not a smart thing to do. Even with the best security out there, your Facebook account could be hacked by anybody."

He said that while there hasn't been a rash of connected incidents in Austin attributed to posting whereabouts online, he anticipates that criminals are using online tools the way they used to skim newspaper obituaries to see when family members would attending funerals.

"These criminals are getting smarter every day," officer Farris said. "I know everybody wants everybody to know what's going on with their lives, but you are setting yourself up to become a victim of a crime."

So what can you do to protect yourself without being anti-social media if you still feel you have to document your comings and goings?

Limit your visibility. As officer Farris says, no social media account, blog, or email is totally secure, but you can at least tweak your setting to either take your account private or set a more limited group for who can see your online posts. For anything personal, letting everyone see everything you post can be a bad idea.

Check out on the check-in. If you use location apps such as Foursquare or Facebook Places, you could check in on your way out of a location as you're about to leave for home instead of when you arrive. I've had social media-savvy women tell me that they do this to avoid potential stalkers and creeps.

De-geotag yourself. Photo editing tools and photo Web sites offer the option to "geotag" your photos, embedding location data into your pictures. Especially if you take photos at home and plan to post them online, disable this option. You should also disable location information if you're posting to sites such as Twitter or Google Plus at home.

Consider a home security webcam. The technology for always-on, Internet-connected home-security cameras has gotten so cheap that you can get a decent remote eye on your living room for under $100. Companies such as D-Link and Cisco make webcams that allow you to see what's going on at home while you're traveling, and some even give you a live feed on a mobile phone or tablet.

Just don't do it. It's tempting to let online friends know you just swam with dolphins in Hawaii or that you met Robert De Niro while dining out in Little Italy the moment it happens, but unless you're confident your home is secure, think twice. It's not hard for criminals to look up your home address based on a minimum of information. Consider waiting to post about it once you're back home.



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