"Think before you Tweet" could become the newest slogan for law enforcement, with more people than ever sharing sensitive information via social media.
Popular social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter help people stay in touch with friends, but they also allow personal information to spread quickly to unintended recipients. A Tweet about weekend plans or a post saying you're out to lunch with friends may seem innocuous, but could signal criminals that your home is or will be vacant for a time.
Recently a Web site, www.pleaserobme.com, aggregated such Twitter posts to show the dangers of posting location-based messages. The Twitter post feature of the Web site since has been taken down, but the message remains.
Sgt. Jerri Weary, a Chattanooga Police Department spokeswoman, said police have not begun tracking factors such as social media in relation to burglaries, but she advised residents to be mindful of the information they choose to share on the Internet.
"It definitely isn't a good idea to share that kind of info," she said. "But for someone to take advantage of someone in that manner, there has to be some connecting factors outside of social networking."
WHO USES SOCIAL MEDIA?
* Median age of Twitter users is 31, compared with 26 for Facebook users.
* Thirty-five percent of Twitter users live in urban areas and 9 percent live in rural areas.
* Nearly one in five, or 19 percent, of adults ages 18 to 24 online have used Twitter.
* Seventeen percent of Internet users in households earning less than $30,000 use Twitter, compared with 10 percent of those earning more than $75,000 a year.
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project
But with a population that has evolved with social media, a more tech-savvy criminal could be on the horizon, said Chris Willis, who teaches a social media class at Chattanooga State Community College.
"There are criminals who are just doing random acts of crime, but there's also a population now who's grown up on Facebook," he said. "And that's unfortunately going to filter into the crime that takes place. So there probably will be more and more issues of people using shared information against you."
Mr. Willis said he doesn't think many criminals are searching Twitter to find a pattern to burglarize a home, but there are still problems with posting sensitive information on such public platforms.
"Usually, most of our criminals and home invasion people probably aren't that smart. They're probably not using these tools that way," he said. "I think it's probably more for a sexual predator or somebody stalking you. There's probably more personal issues with it than just random people finding out when you're gone during the day."
Joshua Sledge, a student in Mr. Willis' class and a Twitter user, said he has a hard time believing the average criminal would go to such lengths. The 24-year-old said he uses his account to post vague messages about what he's doing during the day, but when he puts something up on social media he expects it to be read by anyone.
TWITTER AND FACEBOOK
Several students in Mr. Willis' class made a distinction between the information they share on Facebook and Twitter, saying they are more likely to share personal information on Facebook because they know exactly who can view their posts. But one student said the perceived anonymity of Twitter could lead to more information being shared.
"Twitter can be more anonymous than Facebook," said Scott Daniels, 30. "You can post a lot more things anonymously."
The differences in privacy settings between the two platforms is something Mr. Willis said he tries to highlight in his class.
"On Facebook, it's your friends who you would share that information with and, if you've been careful about who you've added as friends, that should be fairly secure," he said. "On Twitter, it's not, though. If you post that information out there on the Twitterverse, where everybody can search and see it, then you're really running a big risk."
Mr. Willis said it's important that users of social media understand how the privacy and account settings work on the different platforms. He said users need to manage accounts actively to control access to the information being posted.
Sgt. Weary recommended other common-sense precautions, including not sharing sensitive information with anyone -- even family members-- and letting a neighbor or the police department know if you'll be gone for a while so someone can watch your home for suspicious activity.
Despite safety concerns, social media have increased our level of communication, Mr. Willis said.
"We went from a culture before television and radio when you talked to people, you talked to your neighbors, your family, you probably lived closer together, there was a lot of personal communication," he said.
When radio and television emerged, people retreated inside their homes.
"Now we're talking all day long about every random thought that comes into our head, but also some very interesting things, some important things ... things going on in the world that would not be communicated otherwise," Mr. Willis said.
"It's kind of like we're going back to that campfire where we talk about things, but now it's a digital campfire."