Digital Criminals Preying On Social Networks

Its important to be aware of your surroundings and suspicious activity at all times, whether you are crossing a highly trafficked street in Manhattan or posting your profile to a social network. All the same rules apply and then some. Letting our guard down online creates greater risks as an alarmingly high proportion of users are prepared to be 'friends' on social networks with people they don't really know.

Before changing their Terms of Service agreement, Facebook ran afoul of angry parents who witnessed their kid's private data stolen by online predators, as evidenced by this video.

Legal & GeneralLegal & GeneralIn a Digital Criminal Report prepared by Legal & General with the help of reformed burglar Michael Fraser, out of  every 100 'friend' or 'follow' requests sent to complete strangers, 13 are accepted on Facebook and 92 on Twitter, without any kind of research or investigation pertaining to that person.

While this study was conducted in the UK, many of these findings can be considered universal. When burglars size up a home in the physical world, they are checking if your car is missing for any length of time, if your mail is accumulating and if you forgot to stop your newspaper delivery. Online, there is even more transparency, because in addition to phone numbers and addresses posted to one's profile, more and more people communicate about their vacations with dates and times they will be traveling.

As a result, the Internet and social media phenomenon is actually aiding and abetting criminals to commit burglaries, and with a reduced risk of getting caught.

Michael FraserMichael FraserMichael Fraser, of BBC’s 'Beat the Burglar' program has demonstrated how a thief can use the content we share on sites such as Facebook, Bebo and Twitter to build a profile of a person to determine whether they are a suitable target. And then similar to trailing someone in the real world, an online predator can 'case the joint' with tools such as Google Earth and Street View. This video shows how easy it is to target a specific location.

Google Street ViewsGoogle Street Views

According to Fraser, "Using Street View, I can see if a door has two locks, or just one – I can probably tell if the lock is a dead bolt or not, and so assess how easy the door will be able to break. I can see if there are bars on the windows and if there are bushes or trees covering entrance points to facilitate a well-hidden break-in.”

Most alarmingly, nearly half of social media users (47 per cent) are willing to accept friend and follower requests based only on the person having an attractive photo posted to their profile. According to the report, more men (59 per cent) than women (42 per cent) were prone to being attracted to a pretty face. And according to Fraser, woman can target single men very easily as a result.

"Single blokes will be happy to make friends with a good-looking woman who approaches them online, and then offer seemingly harmless information about their interests, whereabouts they live, whether they are into travelling, whether they are going on holiday any time soon… Once the conversation switches to Instant Messaging, it becomes even easier to extract information. Single men will jump at the chance to develop what they think is a genuine relationship,” warns Fraser.

Other findings of the Digital Criminal Report includes the following:

  • Nearly half, 48% of respondents have no worries about the security or privacy of social networking sites.
  • Of all social networking sites, Facebook creates the most concern with 46% of respondents feeling that there are some security and privacy risks.
  • The younger you are, the more likely you are to give information away concerning your whereabouts, with nearly two-thirds, 64% of 16-24 year olds sharing their holiday plans – which could be a cause for concern for parents.
  •  34% of respondents have seen somebody else’s phone number posted on their social networking profile.
  •  Nearly one in ten, 9% of respondents have included their own phone number and 5% have included their address in the personal information section of social networking sites visible to friends.
  •  Some people are sharing mobile numbers and addresses directly with strangers: 6% have written their phone number and 3% have written their address “wall-to-wall” or on pages open to those who are not accepted contacts.
  •  70% of users think that social media sites are a great place to share photos of their cool new purchases and presents.

The Digital Criminal Report is available for download from the Legal & General media centre. It also details the personality types that burglars will target online and offers advice on the type of information that is potentially valuable to a burglar as well as providing tips to social media network users. (for another study regarding the leakage of personally identifiable information via social networks, see my previous blog titled, "Cookie Trails & Social Network Identifiers Can Leak Private Data")

Both reports are informative reads and something we should all take to heart the next time we post our profile or tweet about our whereabouts. Criminals will always prey on the uniformed and careless targets. All social networks have done is make their job a lot easier.