How Facebook Can Ruin Your Vacation

How Facebook Can Ruin Your Vacation

A Florida couple vacationing in New York returned home to find their home ransacked and $30,000 of jewelry and electronics missing. Who let slip that they were away and the house was empty? Perhaps the homeowners did. There is suspicion that the couple's vacation snaps on Facebook were the real culprits. The Barrios from Port St. Lucie, Florida, are the latest in a list of people who blame revealing posts while on vacation for home invasions.

And that couple isn't the only one to have their vacation memories ruined by social networking. Like many people, Boris and Claudette McCubbin from Knoxville chronicled their holiday adventures on Facebook. "We posted when we were leaving, where we were going, what we were doing," says Boris McCubbin. "We even posted when we would be back." The sociable McCubbins shared their Florida vacation highlights with their hundreds of Facebook friends during their trip. Unfortunately, the news they had to share when they got home was not so happy; their house had been ransacked. The McCubbins couldn't even get in their front door.

How Facebook Can Ruin Your Vacation

How to Keep Your Home Safe

1. Location, location, location. If there's any way for anyone to find out your home address online, don't use locator services such as Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places while away. If you're determined to post about having been to the hottest bar or club, wait and check in when leaving. And never check in at home. There are aggregate sites that compile such data into a handy thief sheet for potential burglars.

2. Choose friends carefully. Only accept requests from actual friends. Security expert Jason Hart of CRYPTOCard Network Security compares a Facebook friend request from someone you don't know to inviting "a perfect stranger into your house simply because they knocked on your door and said they wanted a look around." If you have hundreds of "friends," set up a friend list with your actual close friends on it -- not everyone you once met at a party -- and change custom privacy settings so that only these people see what you're up to. This includes setting privacy filters for any photo albums you load while away.

3. Keep certain info quiet. Don't list your home address anywhere online -- even on event invites. For similar safety reasons, don't list your kids' names, your birth date, phone number or social security number. Always ask yourself what malicious eyes could do with information before you post.

4. Don't boast-post. Don't post about the incredible new $3,000 MacBook Pro or expensive jewelry you just got. Think about what's in photos that you post of your home and possessions. Is that a shiny new flat screen TV in the background of those party pictures? Those photos show potential thieves what you've got and even which room it's in.

5. Learn without learning the hard way. If you're going to upload information, photos or activity details, take time to locate and understand privacy and application settings on Facebook.

6. Silence is golden. Cyber-silence is usually the best insurance, whether you're going for vacation or for lunch, but prolific posters may want to update with a few strategic, innocuous posts that seem to be coming from home -- the social networking equivalent of putting your lights on a timer.

Photo: gill.holgate, flickr
"Everything was in a shambles," he says. "It looked like the burglars had installed themselves in our home while we were on our trip." The McCubbins found empty liquor bottles strewn round their home, marijuana residue in the office, plus evidence that their uninvited guests had made beds on the floor and had even done their laundry while in residence. While the burglars left their empties and some clothes behind, they took plenty more with them when they left. The young couple lost DJ equipment including a mixer, laser light machines and a projector, plus cameras, $1,000 in cash and some of Claudette's mother's jewelry. More belongings were stolen from the McCubbins' car. The Knoxville police soon identified prime suspects. The McCubbins were aghast to discover that the main suspects were on their Facebook friends list. The police retrieved concrete evidence such as fingerprints, two cell phones left at the house, and the numerous pieces of clothing belonging to the suspects. Sadly, they have not made an arrest. "Some of this information is still under investigation," Boris says.

While Facebook aims to do much more than simply share users' locations, social media options such as Gowalla and Foursquare exist almost entirely to report where people are. These location-based social networking applications allow people to "check-in" to let others know which bar, sight or other such spot they are currently at. For those who don't strictly screen which of their friends or followers can view their announcements, the security implications are huge. Many Gowalla and Fourquare users' updates are then posted to Facebook or Twitter, letting even more people know where they are -- or, perhaps more importantly, where they are not. With so many documented empty homes, one security expert has called such revealing posts akin to "internet shopping for burglars."

But it's not just householders who have to be wary of the potential downsides to Facebook; in Pennsylvania, a burglar was caught after stopping to check Facebook during a robbery -- and forgetting to log out.

Meanwhile, insurer Legal & General, concerned about the risks that social networking poses to people's homes and contents, commissioned a survey that found that 38% of social networking site users post details of vacation plans, and 33% post about weekends away. The "Digital Criminal" survey also found that out of 100 "friend" or "follow" requests sent out to random strangers, 13% were accepted without question on Facebook and 92% on Twitter. Results showed that 13% of men included their cell phone number on online profiles, compared to 7% of women. While 9% of men posted their address, just 4% of women did. The overall findings: a startling number of people still don't give enough thought to online and related offline security -- until it's too late.

Has the robbery changed how the McCubbins use Facebook? Yes. "We still believe Facebook is a valuable tool to keep in touch with friends and family, but as far as vacations go, we only post vacation status in the past tense and after we have returned home," says Boris. So that there are no more unwelcome surprises, the McCubbins now also employ a house sitter when they are out of town. Boris has this advice for other Facebook users, "Never use the Facebook Places locator app. Never post future plans; only speak of vacations in the past tense after you have returned home."

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