Burglars shopping for victims online

27 August 2009

Burglars are using social networking websites to ‘shop’ for their next victims in a new crimewave that experts say could result in higher insurance premiums.

There are now 8.5 million people using Facebook and a further 2.4 million on Twitter in the UK, yet many display a lax attitude to their personal security, according to a new report.

‘The Digital Criminal’, written by reformed burglar Michael Fraser for insurer Legal & General, reveals that 38% of social network users post status updates with details of their holiday plans while others discuss trips away from home outside the privacy of their own page.

The report warns that such bahaviour is an open invitation for burglars, especially as many users reveal their home addresses on their pages.

"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that burglars are using social networks to develop relationships with people to identify likely targets,” says Fraser.

He adds: “I call it ‘internet shopping for burglars’. It is incredibly easy to use social networking sites to target people, and then scope out more information on their actual home using other internet sites like Google Street View, all from the comfort of the sofa.”

The finding within the report suggest that the rise of the internet could see crime levels soar in the UK. And it also offers a grim outlook for the cost of insurance, as insurers could potentially penalise homes targeted by burglars to hike their insurance premiums.  

Legal & General says that 16 to 24-year-olds are the worst offenders to posting potentially sensitive information online – suggesting that households with teenagers and student flatshares are most at risk of being targeted online by burglars.

“This social networking trend is clearly one that is making home insurers sit up and take note,” it says in the report. However, it adds that the industry continues to ensure the “fair pricing” of premiums for consumers.

The report comes after a man was stabbed in the heart after responding to a car advert on the website Gumtree. The victim was ambushed and stabbed after he travelled to Barking in east London to buy a VW Golf. The £5,000 he was carrying with him to pay for the vehicle was stolen.

People responding to adverts posted on websites such as Gumtree are being advised to meet potential sellers – and buyers – in a public place and take a friend with them for safety.

Too trusting

‘The Digital Criminal’ report found that many social networking users are not concerned about the risks posed by posting personal information online. Nearly half say they have no concerns about using such websites.

Another piece of research, this time by insurer LV=, suggests this blasé attitude to personal security extends beyond the internet. It found that over eight million adults have given their chip and PIN details to someone else to make a purchase on their behalf over the past year, resulting in 24% falling victim to fraud.

Again, the worst offenders are younger people, says LV=, with 36% of those aged under 35s admitting they have given permission for someone else to use their cards. 

Fraudsters can use information such as a PIN to quickly steal thousands of pounds from their victim. And if people who fall foul of identity theft willingly gave out the PIN, they might not receive any compensation from their bank.

The Banking Code, which covers the theft of people’s own money, states that a victim of identity fraud is liable for their loss if they acted ‘without reasonable care’ – this includes writing down their PIN, failing to take due care of their card or failing to inform their provider about any loss or theft.

John O’Roarke, managing director of home insurance at LV=, says: “We would strongly urge all card-users not to tell anyone their PIN. Not only does it undermine the security of your account and increases the risk of ID fraud, but also card holders could end up out of pocket if they are found to have shared their card details.” 

A safer way to use social networking websites

* Try to avoid posting any sensitive information about yourself on your pages, or at least modify the information so it can’t be used by fraudsters. For example, rather than show your date of birth, instead give just the month or year you were born.

* Treat any unsolicited emails or messages sent via the website as suspicious. Spammers and fraudsters use social websites for phishing acitivity.

* Use a strong password and avoid allowing your computer to remember this information. Even if no one else uses your computer, if it is stolen the thieves will be able to access your private information and even hijack your identity.

* Find out what tools the website offers you to protect your personal information, and make the most of these privacy settings.

* Avoid posting photos of yourself at home or with expensive items. If you do, then adjust your privacy setting so only your friends can view your photos.

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