Crime associated with social networking sites increased dramatically.
When Kai Leighton was born with a life-threatening heart defect, his mother and father did what many modern parents would do: they kept their concerned family and friends up to date with regular postings on Facebook.
For five weeks, father Haydn and mother Jamie-Leigh maintained an anxious vigil at the child’s bedside in Leeds, updating everybody with one message at a time instead of making dozens of phone calls to their home town of Hull.
And when Kai went into the operating theatre, they were able to announce with relief that the surgery had been successful.
Hard to believe, then, that someone would take advantage of their Facebook messages not to send flowers and heartfelt congratulations, but to burgle their home safe in the knowledge that they were 60 miles away.
Not once, but twice. ‘Everyone was anxious to know how Kai was doing and it helped us to share what was happening day-by-day,’ said 18-year-old Haydn. ‘We never dreamed for a minute that someone would read our messages, realise we weren’t at home and steal from us. It was utterly devastating.’
Haydn and Jamie-Leigh aren’t alone. They’re among an explosion of crime victims who have been targeted through social networking sites such as Facebook.
A Daily Mail investigation revealed this week that over the past three years, numbers of crimes associated with the networking site have increased by as much as 7,000 per cent in some areas — including cases of murder, rape, paedophilia, bullying, assault and burglary.
Police, insurance companies and IT security experts are so concerned that they have issued urgent warnings to users to be more vigilant about the personal information they post on the web. But all the evidence suggests that while the public isn’t growing any more internet savvy, the criminals are.
In spite of the warnings, Facebook users continue to tell their ‘friends’ when they are going on holiday; what the address of their party is; when their birthday is; what expensive items they have bought for their homes; and just how sexy they look in that new outfit.
And, as one security expert told me: ‘You might as well put up signs saying: Burgle me on this day. Stalk me at this address. Or, here’s everything you need to steal my identity.’
Haydn and Jamie-Leigh found out the hard way.
Their son, Kai, was born on September 12 with a severely-constricted artery. ‘It was life-threatening and we were concerned he wouldn’t survive,’ says Haydn, a motor mechanics student.
‘He was being treated at Leeds General Infirmary and we were staying there in a house for parents. Each night we would use our phones to update everyone on Facebook.
‘After three or four weeks, we got a call from a neighbour to say she had seen people with torches creeping around our living room.
‘My mum went home to check and they had taken an Xbox and several computer games. And one of our TVs was down on the floor as if they were going to steal that, too, but were disturbed.
‘About a week later, they went back and finished the job. They took two flat-screen TVs, my dad’s computer and lots of DVDs, and we weren’t insured. You just don’t expect people to take advantage of you when you’re going through something so awful. But I suppose we had told them it was safe to burgle us.’
Haydn says his mistake was to set his privacy settings on Facebook to allow ‘friends of friends’ — effectively, people he did not know — to see everything he wrote on the site about his whereabouts.
On that setting, they could also see his profile — including his biographical details, name, address, phone number and educational and employment history, if he chose to put them there — and all his personal photographs.
‘I ended up with about 250 friends, but I suppose I didn’t know a lot of them,’ he says. ‘I just thought that if they were friends of friends of mine, then they must be OK.
‘I now have the site very secure, with only my closest personal friends and relatives allowed to view it. And if I get people asking to be my friend, I refuse unless I know them really well.’
Freedom of Information requests to 16 police forces by the Mail have revealed that officers are being swamped with cases associated with Facebook. There have been more than 100,000 in the past year, including 7,545 since January. In 2005, there were just 1,411.
I conducted a search on a UK newspaper database, inserting the words ‘Facebook’ and ‘victim’ and got 2,693 results. This doesn’t mean that Facebook is responsible for any of these crimes. That would be like blaming roads for helping criminals drive away from bank robberies.
And as Facebook says: ‘With the number of people using Facebook rising rapidly from 100 million globally in August 2008 to more than 500 million globally in December 2010, Facebook’s name was bound to feature more in the conversations we all have every day. As such, it is no surprise Facebook is also mentioned in criminal reporting.’
But it does suggest there is a whole new world for criminals to exploit — and they are doing so.
The information people give out on Facebook, when linked up with other information freely available on the internet, is an absolute goldmine for criminals,’ says Michael Fraser, a reformed burglar who presents the BBC’s Beat The Burglar programme.
‘One year, you might have a party and give out your address. A while later, you might tell everyone that it is your 30th birthday.
‘So, if you’ve accepted me as a friend of a friend, I know your name, your address and your birth date.
‘From that, I can go to 192.com and on there I can find out what you do for a living, how much your home is worth — and whether you’re likely to be worth burgling.
‘I might have already made up my mind because you’ve posted party pictures on Facebook and I can see what kind of valuables you have in the house — and which rooms they’re in. Then you go and tell your Facebook friends how much you’re looking forward to going on holiday next Tuesday.
‘I can go on to Google Street View and see actual photographs of your home. I can see if you have a burglar alarm, or whether there are any bushes in the garden to hide in. And I can see all the alleyways I can escape down. And, of course, I know you won’t be at home.
‘Burglars only burgle homes if they think they can get away with it. All of this information is likely to leave them feeling much more confident that they can.’
A quick trawl of those 2,693 victim stories reveals myriad abuses of the networking site.
There is the case of Melissa Wedgewood, from Hull, who was viciously attacked by her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend — because he had made advances to Melissa on Facebook, which she had rejected, and the new girl had become jealous.
There was the revenge attack in Bridgend, Wales, where a man was severely beaten after accepting an invitation by a woman to become a Facebook friend.
The woman’s account had actually been hacked by a man with a grudge and he had arranged a meeting with the victim.
There was the honeytrap where a woman became a married man’s Facebook friend before taking the relationship further.
An accomplice then rang the man, claimed the woman was just 15, and threatened to call the police unless he handed over £1,250.
And, of course, there was the tragic case of Ashleigh Hall, the 17 year old from County Durham, who accepted 33-year-old Peter Chapman as a Facebook ‘friend’. He had posed as a teenager and lured Ashleigh to her death. She had no idea that he was a actually a convicted rapist.
That case led to criticism of Facebook for not doing enough to protect teenagers, while in the other cases the perpetrators were caught. But, in thousands of others, they haven’t been traced.
Robert and Tracy Mullaney, from Bournville, in the West Midlands, still don’t know exactly which Facebook bullies ganged up on their son, Thomas, in May, causing him to commit suicide. He was just 15.
‘Thomas had had some altercation with a boy at school and it escalated, but instead of getting into trouble he just left it and came home,’ said Robert, 48. ‘He was on Facebook and we told him to forget about it. We were going on holiday and we expected it to blow over.
‘Later that night we went out and when we came back he wasn’t there. We weren’t too worried at that stage because there had been a few times where he had gone out with friends and stayed up late.
‘But he hadn’t come back by the next morning. We went looking for him and found him behind the garden shed, hanging from a tree.
‘It turned out that after we had gone out, he had been sent a barrage of abuse and threats from a group of Facebook bullies and apparently this was just too much for him. It wasn’t a sustained, long-term attack. It was just one day.
‘It demonstrates the power of this kind of abuse on Facebook, but parents often don’t know about it or understand how it works.
‘That means the bullies and criminals can take advantage of that ignorance while the parents don’t understand, the teachers are powerless and Facebook puts responsibility for security on to users themselves.
‘We need to come together — the police, Facebook, the school and parents — to see what we can do to make children and their parents more aware of the dangers of using social networking sites.
‘At the moment, everyone agrees there is a problem, but no one is doing anything effective about it. I actually believe Facebook is a useful tool when properly used. But it is being abused by too many people.’
In spite of repeated warnings, it appears that users of social networking sites are not learning as fast as the criminals.
Recent research by The
Co-operative Insurance company revealed that 36 per cent of users regularly make use of them to broadcast their whereabouts when they are away from home.
And a survey by Legal & General found that 45 per cent of users would be happy to befriend someone online simply because they liked their picture.
‘Once you accept a stranger into your Facebook account, they can begin what we call social engineering — delicately asking questions to build up information about you,’ says Jason Hart, senior vice president of CRYPTOCard Network Security.
‘And that can cause havoc. Let’s say they got your email address, then they could go to your email account pretending to be you and saying you have forgotten your password.
‘The account will then ask a security question — something like your favourite food or your first pet. Over the following weeks and months, it isn’t hard for them to work conversations round to subjects like that on Facebook.
‘Once they have that secret information, the email account will let them in. And once they are in there, they can find lots of sensitive information, such as your Amazon and eBay account history.
‘They can then go to those sites pretending to be you and saying you have lost your passwords, and guess what happens then?
‘Those sites send the passwords to your email account — the one that they have already conned their way into.
‘Crooks who do this usually use the credit card details you have stored there to buy online gift vouchers that can be traded on the internet. It is a form of instant currency.
‘Even worse, if you have a PayPal account and have credit in it, your so-called friend could clean it out.
‘Effectively, they have become an electronic version of you, they can change all your passwords and begin stealing from you.
‘The message is simple: you wouldn’t invite a perfect stranger into your house simply because they knocked on your door and said they wanted a look around. So why do it on Facebook?’
Via Daily Mail