Is Your Facebook Friend a Digital Criminal?

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You bought the plane tickets, a bathing suit, and twenty bottles of sunscreen - you're all ready for your vacation.  But before you leave for the airport, you update your Facebook profile page, letting your friends know that you will be out of town for a week.  Your plane departs, and you enjoy an incredible vacation.  And when you return, you discover that thieves broke into your house and stole your most prized possessions.  Maybe you shouldn't have revealed your vacation plans online...

In a study titled "The Digital Criminal Report," conducted by British financial services company Legal & General, 38 percent of social media users posted vacation plans online.  Perhaps more troubling was the fact that 48 percent of respondents didn't worry about security or privacy on social networking sites. 

"The Digital Criminal Report" gave the results of an experiment that sent out 100 random "friend" and "follow" requests.  Of those 100, 13 were accepted on Facebook and a staggering 92 on Twitter - even though the requests came from strangers. 

Unfortunately, the dangers of sharing your personal information online are very real.  Digital criminals are using online information to break into houses in the real world.  So just how could a digital criminal make away with your personal data and your brand new television using Facebook and Twitter?

A thief stumbles across your Facebook profile or your Twitter account.  He likes what he sees - you have posted a lot of personal pictures, and you have a lot of friends and followers.  So the thief sends you a "friend" request - which you accept, because you accept all "friend" requests, even those from strangers.  The thief will then keep an eye on your profile page.  When you post pictures of the exterior of your new house, he'll make a note of the window hidden behind the bushes - a perfect entry point.  He'll read the tweet you send to all your friends about how your new plasma television is so large it doesn't fit in your living room.  He'll memorize your address when you post directions to your housewarming party.  And he'll make his move when you change your status update to "going away on vacation."

Fortunately, you can protect your home, your identity and your belongings from digital criminals by remembering some words of wisdom from your parents - don't talk to strangers. Sometimes sharing just isn't a good idea.

Before you post any piece of personal information online, ask yourself if you would broadcast that information to a stranger.  Would you show a man on the subway a picture of your new house?  Would you give the teenager working at the movie theater directions to your housewarming party?  And would you let the woman at the coffee shop know you are about to take your vacation?  If you are not comfortable sharing your personal information with strangers, don't share that information online.  Some basic rules include:

- don't reveal your vacation plans.  Tweeting about your two-week honeymoon in the tropics or your three-day business trip to Montreal only broadcasts to thieves that your house is sitting empty - an ideal target for a robbery.

- don't post pictures of your home or anything inside it.  Resist the urge to brag about your new television or gaming system.  Pictures of your latest purchase will make both friends and thieves envious.  Don't give digital criminals a reason to break into your home. 

- if you are a woman living alone, keep that information to yourself. 

- never post your home address or telephone number.  A thief can't break into your house if he doesn't know where it is.  If you are selling an item on Craigslist and you need to post your contact information, use your cell number or an email address.

- don't reveal your schedule on Twitter.  A thief doesn't need two weeks to break into your home and steal your television; it takes only a few seconds to break the glass in a patio door, and only a few minutes to carry a television through that broken patio door.  If you are shopping after work or heading to the gym in the early morning hours, don't let your Twitter followers know - or you could come home to find your patio door broken and your television missing. 

Social networking sites have changed the way the world communicates.  Facebook and Twitter make it easier than ever before to keep in touch with your loved ones around the world.  Unfortunately, thieves and criminals are also reading your tweets and Facebook updates.  If you don't want to become another robbery statistic, keep your personal information off the Internet.  If you're careful with what you post, you can enjoy your vacation knowing that your home and all of your belongings are safe from digital criminals.

Have your own social networking experience to share? Let us know.
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