Social Media and Crime: How to Protect Yourself

By Richard Holloway, J.D.

CTU Criminal Justice Degree - Protect YourselfFor several months now, I’ve used social media to engage and interact with the CTU community on topics related to Criminal Justice. For me, one of the most fascinating and enjoyable aspects of social media is the ability to connect with people I might not otherwise get to know. When you think about it, social media enables you to potentially reach millions of Web users worldwide. That idea got me thinking: Do you know who is on the receiving end of your tweet, status update or online post? Could you be unknowingly feeding personal information to a would-be criminal surfing the Internet? 

Consider this scenario described in a recent article posted on, “St. Paul burglary suspects read the obituaries to target empty homes, police say.”

A seemingly innocuous obituary revealed enough information for this criminal to locate the exact location of the home and the best time to rob it. This information was printed in a public newspaper, which is generally limited to the region it is published. But, consider the reach of similar information published online. Someone around the world could have access to your personal information and have plans to use it to commit a crime.

It’s important to remember, that as we become savvier about using social media, so are criminals. But there are ways you can protect yourself:

1. Minimize or eliminate location-based posts

Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and many other social media sites allow users to “geotag” their updates, providing near-pinpoint location information about you. But keep in mind, when you share your location, you’re essentially confirming that you’re not home. More sophisticated criminals have even used uploaded photos and YouTube videos to determine location. Finally, do your best to resist the urge to immediately post pictures and video when you’re on vacation. It’s like a virtual invitation for a criminal to break into your home.

2. Limit the personal information you share online

Take a moment to Google your name. What showed up? Even if you didn’t purposely post personal information online you may be surprised to see what the general public can learn about you with a simple search. You might have found your home address, photos of you children, or status updates you made on your Facebook page that you thought were private. Now imagine, how a savvy criminal might leverage that information to steal your identity, to track your exact location, or to commit a myriad of other crimes against you.

3. Monitor privacy settings, diligently and everywhere you go

When you register for social media sites, you’re agreeing to specific terms and conditions that may expose you to privacy risks. Of course, it’s important to know your rights when using these websites (so spend a few minutes reading them before you accept), but it’s just as important to know how to protect your private information. The National White Collar Crime Center published an article, Criminal use of Social Media, describing ways you can prevent being a victim of crimes related to social media sites, including:

  • Only “friend” people you know and are comfortable sharing personal information with.
  • Avoid clicking links on emails or social media sites, and instead use your saved bookmarks to access a website you know or manually type the URL into your Web browser.
  • Turn off geotag features.
  • And most important, remember that nothing on the Internet is truly private.

The bottom line is that there is no way to completely eradicate crime committed as a result of social media. A persistent criminal will scour obituaries, search online and seek other inventive ways to identify potential targets. Even still, you can proactively take steps to make it harder for criminals to make you a victim. What is the simplest solution? Use common sense and be a discerning consumer of new technology. Just because your smartphones and tablets have many exciting features, does not mean that you have to use those features – especially when the information you are putting out there can be used against you.

Image credit: Flickr/ Alessandro Pautasso