Web site 'helps' thieves rob homes

PleaseRobMe.comI'm not one to usually use salty language, but my first thought when I saw this Web site was WTF?

That's because PleaseRobMe.com looks and acts like a how-to manual for burglars. And in many ways, it is.

If you go to the Web site, you'll find that it's constantly updating messages from people who use FourSquare.com, a popular social networking site that's designed to let people who follow you on sites like Twitter know exactly where you are. The idea is that not only are you sharing where you are, you're also exposing people to different parts of the city, including restaurants, shops, parks and other places that your friends, family and other followers might want to visit.
Which seems like a good idea, until you realize you're also telling people that you're not home. And herein lies the problem, as the folks who created PleaseRobMe.com point out: "The danger is publicly telling people where you are. This is because it leaves one place you're definitely not...home. So here we are; on one end we're leaving lights on when we're going on a holiday, and on the other we're telling everybody on the Internet we're not home."

And they have a point. Which makes this site a great tool for a burglar. For instance, if you want to find people who aren't home in a certain city or state, you can type in a location and get very specific feedback on who isn't at their house or apartment.

Typical updates found at the site look something like this:

"[Name of Twitter user] left home and checked in less than a minute ago: I'm at Denny's restaurant."

"[Name of Twitter user] left home and checked in less than a minute ago: I'm at the Holiday Inn."

Actually, I just made those two up. I don't feel comfortable even putting down the exact text since if those had been actual updates, there would have been a link following, showing the address of the Holiday Inn the person is staying at. And while it's pretty innocuous to know that some stranger is at a Holiday Inn or a Denny's restaurant, for someone with less-than-honorable intentions, it's a gold mine of information.

For instance, I found one update that alerted this person's followers that he'd just picked up his daughter at preschool. So I clicked on the link and found the exact street address of his daughter's preschool. Now does that mean this guy has endangered his daughter? Not necessarily -- it's a preschool, and any creep knows kids are going to be there.

But the guy did mention his daughter's name, so now I know that this guy's daughter goes to this particular preschool in a particular state. That's not necessarily information I'd want to out there about my kids.

The good thing is, nobody's home address is available at this site -- unless, of course, someone alerts their followers that they aren't at their own house but are at their cousin's house. But with a little digging, I'd bet someone could eventually track down a street address, if they were so inclined.

Text at the bottom of the site's home page reads, "Our intention is not, and never has been, to have people burglarized," and I'm going to give the three founders (Barry Borsboom, Boy van Amstel and Frank Groeneveld) the benefit of the doubt. After all, while they've made it a pretty handy tool for thieves, it's not like a criminal can't already use Twitter or FourSquare to find out what people are up to -- which is their point.

It may also be better to create a site like this and hope word spreads that maybe it's not necessary to tell people what you're up to every second of the day.

I know I'll likely get reamed by some readers for even writing about this, but I'm not the first. I spotted the Web site in someone else's tweet on Twitter, and then I found a blog posting on Mashable about PleaseRobMe. People are going to hear about this site whether I write about it or not.

Finally, for any would-be criminals reading this article, it's important to note that just because someone says they aren't home, that doesn't mean someone else isn't. I work out of my house, for instance, and my wife is a Facebook addict who will probably discover FourSquare some day.

It would be just my luck that some burglar would read one of her updates on PleaseRobMe.com, say to himself, "Hey, she isn't at her house -- I'll go rob it," do some digging to figure out our address and then come over to our home and break in just as I'm about to make lunch. If that would happen, though, and I didn't think I could take the guy in a fight, I'd probably just offer him whatever I'm cooking. Knowing my culinary skills, that would probably finish him off.

Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the new book "Living Well with Bad Credit."
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