Social Networking and the Rise of Break-Ins

You wouldn't put a Steal My Stuff! sign on your front door, but you may be sending criminals a similar message by saying too much on Facebook or Twitter. Follow our rules and you'll lower the odds of being the victim of a break-in.

Keri McMullen was stoked. It was a Saturday in late March, and that morning, the 33-year-old had completed a 10K race. To celebrate, she and her fiancé, Kurt, and four of their friends were going to see the Fire Department Band, a local group, play at the Phoenix Hill Tavern in Louisville, Kentucky, about 10 minutes from the house Keri and Kurt were leasing.
Just before 6 p.m., Keri logged on to Facebook and posted a typical status update: "Heading to the Hill with Kurt...to see Fire Department." About two-and-a-half hours later, the couple was having a great time listening to music at the bar. Meanwhile, two men wearing hooded sweatshirts were burglarizing their house.
When the concert ended at midnight, Keri met up with girlfriends at another club to continue partying, and Kurt, who had to work the following morning, headed home.
He first saw the empty space where the plasma TV had been. Then he noticed their laptops were missing from the kitchen table. He checked a surveillance video (the homeowner was trying to sell the place, and Kurt had installed a camera to keep tabs on potential buyers) and confirmed what his gut had already told him. All told, the burglars had stolen $10,000 worth of valuables, including Keri's grandmother's wedding ring.

The next day, Keri posted news of the break-in on Facebook and uploaded video stills of the burglars. Within minutes, she got a message from somebody who recognized one of the suspects as a guy who had Facebook friended Keri six months before. (She wanted to confront him, but police told her that could jeopardize the case.) According to police, one suspect had lived across the street from Keri's family when she was growing up, but she hadn't seen him in about 15 years. (At press time, no arrests had been made.) Like all of Keri's nearly 600 Facebook friends, the alleged suspect had access to her profile page…and her status updates. In other words, she had basically told him that her house would be empty all night.
You've been warned countless times about the dangers of disclosing sensitive information like your Social Security number when you're online. But you may not realize how dangerous it is to share random details of your life, like what your plans are for the night, where you're going on vacation, or how psyched you are about your new computer. That's because those bits of information are like candy to criminals.
According to research interviews with 105 burglars — seriously, a criminology professor questioned active criminals — they're likely to target people who somehow reveal info about their daily routine. Years ago, the opportunities to do that were relatively rare; the only people who would know you were out at a concert were the friends you were there with and maybe a coworker you had mentioned it to that afternoon. But these days, technology — in the form of Facebook, Twitter, GPS-enabled cell phones, and blogs — has created many more ways to divulge sensitive information and made it available to an exponentially larger group of people.

"Generally, whenever someone means to commit a crime, he preplans it," says Robert Siciliano, a security consultant to adt.com. "Well, criminals no longer even have to sit outside your home to see you come and go. They can sit in their own home and see you come and go on Facebook and Twitter."
Luckily, you don't have to become a virtual recluse in order to protect yourself. You just have to know the info that criminals are looking for so that you can make sure never to give it out.
"The number one thing that puts you at risk of a break-in is oversharing the details of your life," explains Richard Wright, PhD, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri and author of Burglars on the Job: Streetlife and Residential Break-Ins. "What burglars have always craved is information about you." As Keri found out, simply announcing your plans for the night can be dangerous — burglars prefer to strike houses when they are certain no one is home and they have a clear idea of how long the house will be empty.
During a 10-day crime spree last summer, two men burglarized five homes in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, stealing thousands of dollars' worth of property. They chose their victims simply by logging on to Facebook; the pair were either friends or friends of friends with one resident of all the houses. In fact, in every single case, a person had posted information revealing that the occupants of the house would be away on vacation.
The average Facebook user has 130 friends — which means she also has an average of 16,900 friends of friends. And even if you discriminate about whom you accept, there's no way of knowing how careful your friends are. So instead of worrying about who sees what you post, don't post your plans in the first place. Make it a rule to wait until after you return to comment on how great the trip or concert was. If you want to invite people to an event, e-mail them or send out a text blast instead of writing on Facebook walls.

The concept of urban-exploration applications like Foursquare is pretty cool: You check in on your phone when you arrive at a coffee shop, restaurant, or any other spot around town and your friends instantly know where to find you. But when you let others know where you are, you also let them know where you aren't — namely, at home. Sure, the Foursquare users who find out your location have been approved by you, but that's no guarantee of safety. For one thing, many users cross-post to Facebook and Twitter. Plus, researchers estimate that about two-thirds of burglaries are committed by someone who knows you at least a little.
Sarah Roberts uses her iPhone for so much — updating Foursquare and Twitter, taking pictures, answering e-mails — so it's very possible that played a role in her break-in last fall. The 27-year-old returned home from work one night to discover that somebody had used a crowbar to force open the back door of the Atlanta home she shared with her then-boyfriend. Inside, her laptop, iPod speakers, and new 52-inch flatscreen TV (a purchase Sarah had snapped with her iPhone and posted online) were missing.
"I'm more cautious today, especially now that I live alone," Sarah tells us. "I make sure that all my privacy settings are high, I don't post pictures of where I live, and I don't announce big purchases."
Sarah didn't even realize it was possible to disclose her whereabouts every time she used her iPhone to tweet, which she did several times a day. That's another way to tip off burglars, Siciliano says. "If you tweet or take a photo with your smart phone and then upload it, you can opt to have the GPS in your phone pinpoint your location and tag it," he explains. "So the bad guy knows that, for instance, you're an hour away from home and he has at least that much time to get in and out of your house."
You can protect yourself by understanding — and utilizing — the privacy tools of any social media you use, especially ones that disclose your location, says Larry Magid, codirector of Connect Safely.org, a nonprofit devoted to issues surrounding Internet safety. That includes familiarizing yourself with the default privacy settings. "If you're not comfortable with what they are, change them," Magid says. "And if you can't change them, stop using the service."
Within days of launching her blog, ramshackleglam.com, this past March, 29-year-old Jordan Reid had 5,000 people checking in daily to learn about her life. She'd blog about her comings and goings, whether it was to the store or to the other side of the country, and she'd regularly post pictures and upload videos that revealed the layout and contents of her apartment.
It took just two weeks before someone broke into her home, while she was in Canada for her grandmother's 90th birthday party (she posted photos of her travels and the party to her blog). The burglar made off with a few purses and a box of costume jewelry. Clearly, the person who did it was familiar with what was in her apartment and had come for specific things. "A regular criminal wouldn't just walk past a laptop, TV, and stereo," Jordan tells us.
Security experts warn against posting pictures revealing what you have and where you have it. Photos of the inside of your home read like a floor plan for burglars, whose main objective is to get in and out quickly.
Last year, a group of L.A. teenagers reportedly used celebrities' Facebook and Twitter feeds to target their homes. Ashley Tisdale, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton were all victims of the group — nicknamed the Bling Ring — who followed their whereabouts with, in some cases, help from the celebrities' very own tweets. The burglars were reportedly shocked by how easy it was to gain access to the stars' homes.
But it isn't just your own habits — online and off — that can set you up for a break-in. Your friends may inadvertently be raising your risk when, for instance, you show up at a party and somebody tweets that you've just arrived or you go away for a long holiday weekend with a group of girlfriends and one of them posts pictures on Facebook.
"Your friends put you at risk by what they expose," notes Danah Boyd, PhD, a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research and a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "You might not have decided to post on Facebook that you're away from home, but then your friend writes about how she's having fun with you." So make a point of asking pals not to post about your upcoming or current plans until you're back home. And when you do see a friend's post, tweet, or blog entry that makes it clear you'll be away, let her know why it's a bad idea. It won't take long before all 17,030 of your friends and friends of friends know how crucial it is to keep criminals in the dark.