Social Networking is a fad, and I dare say growing fad because it has gone beyond it. We make friends with people on sites like Facebook and Twitter. However, we might not know most of them personally and might have never met them too.
On one hand Twitter is safer for anonymous or unknown friends because your profile does not have information about your actual location (unless you specify it explicitly in your bio). However, Facebook on the other hand provides detailed information about your location, home address, telephone numbers and more to your friends depending on how you have set up your privacy settings.
Now, this information would be great if you want your friends to find you and visit you. However, it could also be used by thieves to visit your house and rob you.
According to the Daily Telegraph, a recent spate of robberies in West Sussex, London have been credited to users friending unknown people on Facebook. The thieves have been friending people on Facebook to find out when they are going out on vacations and then ransacking their houses. Considering that it is summer, there are bound to be several hundred targets who update their Facebook page to tell everyone when and where they are going on a vacation.
This information is then used by those thieves to rob their houses while they are away. Scary right? Almost 12 houses have been robbed in the past four months and they might continue to happen if you decide to share critical information without checking your privacy settings and friending unknown people.
This incident might not just be limited to West Sussex though since Facebook makes is easy for users to find people from a particular location. Take for example, the screenshot below which shows how easy it is to find people in a particular area using their search options.
If you publicly share your location information, you will end up being shown in the search results and become a ripe target for the thieves who are looking to find an opportunity. This information is not shared without user consent (well, you can argue about Facebook privacy settings). However, you can restrict it from being made available by changing your privacy settings.
In the end, it is up to you to know what information is being shared. If something untoward happens a website will simply show that you had an option to change everything but did not. In many cases, users are uneducated about such things. I will briefly touch upon how you can stay safe and avoid such things in the section below.
What Can You Do to Avoid Being Robbed and Stay Safe on Facebook?
Don’t Friend Unknown People
Don’t friend anonymous people. Facebook provides an easy way to see if you have mutual friends between the person asking to be your friend and yourself. Take a look at those mutual friends and see if you can make connections. If you can’t make connections or the connections don’t seem known to you, just ignore the friend request.
Update your Privacy Settings to Friends Only
Facebook wants your information to be discoverable and they keep the privacy settings such that people other than your friends along with search engines can see it too. However, it is not necessary. Go to Accounts -> Privacy Settings and Customize your settings such that it is viewable only by your friends. At the most, make your name, school information and work information public. For the rest, let those strangers become your friends before they can view that information.
Please understand that you still have to follow the first step and not friend unknown people to keep your information private from strangers.
Selectively Update Sensitive Information to a Group of People
Facebook provides you an option to create groups of people. You can create groups and add select people to it. For example, you can create a Facebook Group which consists of your family and close friends who you personally know. You can then directly send your updates to that group instead of everyone.
Alternatively, Facebook also provides users to display their updates to a selective set of people. To do that, click on the lock icon under the status update box and click on Customize.
You can customize who can see the update and even specify a certain set of people to receive them. Alternatively, you can hide updates from a certain set of people too. Facebook also provides an option to make it your default setting so that you don’t have to change it all the time.
I find the option to select specific people a bit tedious. They do have an option to create a list of friends, however, it is just for the sake of it. It would be great if Facebook allowed you to share certain updates with a set of people included in a list rather than use groups, which is an annoyance at best.
Don’t Share Your Exact Address and Phone Numbers with Everyone (In-fact Anyone)
If someone needs to contact you or come to your house, they will find a way to get in touch with you and get that information. In fact, Facebook has a private messaging system which could be used for that purpose. For security and other reasons, there is no need to make private and sensitive information publicly available unless you want people to come and visit you or call you often, including thieves.
Go ahead and make those changes to hide that information in your Privacy settings so that only your friends or preferably only you can see that information.
Inform Your Neighbors and Use Security Devices if You Are Going on Vacation
If you plan to go away for a long time, inform your neighbors and use security devices in your home to bulletproof your house. Security systems have become far more cheaper than they were years ago and equipping your house with one will not take more than few days. This is definitely a worthwhile investment and will allow you to enjoy your vacation in peace.
Last but not the least, if you do not follow the above steps you are to the one to be blamed if anything like this happens to you, because the web is something you can’t control. However, you can at-least control what information you share on social networking sites. "Common Sense" can save you a whole bunch of trouble. Stay safe on Facebook and elsewhere.