A Blog For and About Today's Seniors

by Sandra K. Sprague

Monday, February 15, 2010

Want Your Home Robbed? There's an App For That!

As mentioned in my blog, "Seniors and Internet Safety", more seniors than ever before are on the Internet and are actively engaged in social networking, blogging, maintaining websites and using any number of other high-tech devices, many with Internet and Multi-Media enabled features, such as cell phones, digital camcorders, e-books, GPS units, etc.

Seniors Are Becoming Active Social Networkers

While my previous blog, "Seniors and Internet Safety", focused mainly on the prevention of identity theft, the proliferation of interactive technology combined with a growing seniors' participation in its use presents other dangers to be aware of as well. A recent Pew Research Institute study indicated the age bracket which increased its Internet usage most since 2005 was the 70-75 segment! Seniors participating in social networking is increasing daily. The media-measurement firm, comScore, reported that in 2008 the number of seniors visiting social networking sites such as Eons, MySpace and Facebook grew at almost double the rate of general computer use.

Social Networkers Are Sharing Their Thoughts AND Their Locations!

Social networking can be fun; it is a great way to instantly communicate with your entire circle of close friends and family. One of the latest forms of communication finding its way into social networking communication is location-sharing. With the advent of social networking sites such as Twitter, Google Buzz, Foursquare and others, participants with information - the written word, images and video - about where they are right now! In an effort to build a community of users, there are interactive elements as well. For instance, on Foursquare.com, participants gain recognition for being first on the network to document a visit to a restaurant, bar, cafe, or other locations; Foursquare.com awards members virtual "points" and "badges" according to how often they go out and where they visit; the most-frequent patron of a particular location is crowned "mayor" - another member can usurp the "mayoral crown" by racking up more visits. This can get quite competitive and other members watch the activity for fun and to keep track of where and when their friends and family go most often.

Many Internet security experts and law enforcement specialists are starting to believe crooks may also be watching!

New Twist On an Old Burglar Trick

The idea of burglars using social networking to keep tabs on potential targets is nothing new. One of the oldest social networking instruments, the newspaper, has long been a prime source of location-sharing information for burglars.

For decades burglars have used newspaper society pages and obituary notices to target homes that will be vacant at specific times. A 1996 Pasadena, California newspaper article reads like something out of "Arsenic and Old Lace". Two ostensibly meek and mild sisters, one a nurse and the other a bookkeeper, regularly pulsed newspaper obituary notices and other articles to gather information on homes that would be vacant during viewings, funerals, vacations, etc. Keeping a complex list in a black book and using notations like "D" for dead or "V" for vacation, the police estimated the two sisters committed over 300 burglaries before their arrest.

A "Horrific Crime" Against the Elderly

The little old ladies from Pasadena are just one example of burglars using newspaper information to orchestrate robberies. In 2007, a Reno, Nevada man was arrested and ultimately convicted of leading a three-man burglary team on a multi-state spree of home burglaries using the obituaries to target homes. After their arrest, Reno police stated their opinion that these crimes were particularly "horrific" because the large majority of households targeted were those of vulnerable, elderly persons and couples.

In today's Internet-driven social networking world, the growning trend of location-sharing allows burglars to identify targets and learn exactly when a homeowner is awy from the house, where they are and how long they'll be gone.

In 2009, Israel Hyman, an Arizona videographer, took a trip to the Midwest. He used Twitter to let family and friends know how his trip went, that he had arrived safely at his Midwest destination and how long he was going to stay. While he was gone, his home was broken into and thousands of dollars of video and computer equipment were stolen. Hyman and the police believe he may have unwittingly tipped off the thieves with the info on his "tweets". Although Hyman intends remaining active on social networking sites, he has stated his intention to cease his online sharing of future travel activities.

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself

As I've already remarked, social networking is a great interactive resource for older people wanting to keep in touch with loved ones. We're not advocating a complete withdrawal from social networking - simply take precautions to avoid problems:

  • Don't Post Your Address: As mentioned in my "Seniors and Internet Safety" blog, don't post your address or specific information about your home location on your social networking site profile pages. Your family and friends already know where you live; don't guide a potential burglar to your home!

  • Don't Pre-Announce Upcoming Trips: If you want to let family and friends know you're taking a trip, do so by private e-mails or phone calls; don't post an announcement on the home page of your social networking space!

  • Remove Any Posted Comments About Upcoming Trips: If an exuberant contact in your social networking circle of friends posts something like: "Have fun in Mexico on Cinco de Mayo!", delete it from your page. It is a nice sentiment, but don't let it remain on your site for the world to see.

  • Don't Post Real-Time Trip Updates: Once again, if you want to keep family and friends updated on your trip's progress, do so via e-mail or cell phone. Don't post a real-time stream of updates on your Facebook, MySpace or Twitter accounts; you may be informing more people than just trusted family and friends of your whereabouts!

Remember, when most of us go on a trip, we take great pains beforehand to stop our newspaper delivery, have our mail held at the Post Office, and set timers on lamps to make it appear as though someone is home to discourage burglars. Don't defeat all these precautions by publicly announcing when you're away from home and exactly where you are!