When I first signed up to Facebook it was simply a way of arranging a trip to the pub with my mates, without having to spend money on phone calls and text messages. Marvellous.
However, as the site has developed, people have become more and more lax with the information they share via their status updates, or via certain applications which require them to 'check in', which then publishes their location.
And it really should go without saying that publishing your location on a public forum is not the smartest thing in the world to do. In fact, it could end up costing you a lot of money.
Last year, in the UK, a new geolocation application called Facebook Places launched. It works like this: you log into a certain location on Facebook, perhaps a public park or restaurant, and all of your friends on the site are told your location via their news feed.
I've noticed a ton of my friends doing just this, letting me know they are at the pub, or the cinema, or staying late at work. Anywhere, in fact, but at home. And that's part of the problem.
The US burglary ring
Over in the States, the loose-tongued status updates have already been exploited.
Last year, police have arrested a group of men in Nashua, New Jersey who have been taking advantage of the status updates from residents of the city. Whenever a user posted that they would not be home — perhaps going on a holiday — the crooks would spring into action.
More than 50 homes were burgled during one month alone.
Such tactics have found their way over here as well.
Recently, two men in Cambridgeshire appeared in court, accused of monitoring Facebook accounts in their local area, waiting for the perfect opportunity to steal from a home in the town. After seeing that a local family had posted they were going away, the thieves helped themselves to computers, jewellery, DVDs and a purse.
Thankfully a neighbour spotted them, and they were caught red-handed.
It's tempting to dismiss such incidents as one-offs. However, insurer More Than has conducted a survey of ex-crooks — yes, they really have — to highlight the clues we give out to burglars that make us ripe for a robbing.
And more than one in ten of these former burglars said they would use social networking sites to pinpoint the location of targets, and how long they would likely be away from their home.
Clearly, posting information about your location on social networking sites likes Facebook and Twitter is not the smartest thing to do from a security point of view, as you open yourself up to burglaries. However, it's not just your own wallet that may be impacted by such stupidity — all users of such sites may end up paying for your lack of discretion.
These cases make clear that users of certain social networking sites are more susceptible to theft. What's more, it's not like the applications which involve publicising your location to the millions of people worldwide who use such sites are decreasing — if anything, they are getting even more popular. Indeed, while I was writing this piece, a friend of mine (who should know better) checked into an application on Twitter, publicising the fact that he was at Victoria Station.
Add to that the fact that reformed criminals are making clear that they would use such sites to identify future burglary targets — in surveys carried out by insurers, no less — and it can only be a matter of time before those of us who use social networks are hit with higher home insurance premiums.
Some industry experts have already predicted the price of home insurance premiums could rise by as much as 10%! And that increase wouldn't only apply to those users daft enough to publicise their location - it would apply to all of us who use these sites, no matter how sensibly.
What's more, if you do get robbed after posting your location on Facebook, there's a chance that your home insurer may refuse to pay out, arguing that you've been negligent or reckless by advertising the fact that you are away from home. The Association of British Insurers says that insurers are very aware of this issue and, just as you wouldn't stand up in a pub and announce to loads of strangers that you were going on holiday and your home was empty, they advise you not to do so on a social networking site.
Keeping your identity
It would be one thing if all we were doing was giving away our location on social media sites. However, we regularly reveal far more than that, all sorts of personal details which expose us to the risk of something potentially even worse than being burgled — identity theft.
By advertising such details, fraudsters are in some instances able to wreak havoc, taking out all sorts of financial products and services in your name.
And it's not just mere mortals like me and you that are getting caught out by identity theft on social networking sites — even the security general of the international criminal police organisation, Interpol, admitted his Facebook identity had been used by fraudsters in an attempt to find out information on which criminals are being targeted by specific operations.
Facebook is now taking steps to protect user security, adding measures like additional security measures whenever you try to log on from an unusual location, as well as text and email warnings if a new device is used to access the site. However, it's really down to us to ensure that we protect our identities and our homes when using social networking sites.
5 tips to stay safe on social media
- Don't ever give out your location on social media sites, or use applications which will publicise your location.
- Ensure that your personal details are not visible to people you do not know.
- Turn down friend requests from strangers.
- Do not add personal information, such as date of birth or address to profile pages.
- If the social media site you are using allows you to vary the security settings, go for as high a setting as possible.
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