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Social media sites provide people with an easy way to stay connected with family members and friends, but these sites can also serve as a helpful crime-solving tool for law enforcement officers.

Michael Whalen, a Criminal Justice and Legal Studies instructor for South University Online Programs, says that although most police departments do not have a dedicated social media unit, detectives are beginning to use social network sites more often to investigate crimes.

“For instance, YouTube is a popular place for people to post videos of fights, vandalism, etc,” Whalen says. “With video cameras integrated with nearly every cell phone these days, criminal behavior is caught on tape and shared every day.  Sometimes the clips are uploaded by the offenders themselves.”

Whalen says that one British study found that a high percentage of the burglars they interviewed admitted to using social media sites when choosing their targets.

“If you have a Twitter account, anyone can ‘follow’ your tweets without having to be approved by you, so anyone could be watching your account to see when you tweet a message about how you’re waiting for the movie to start or what you’re doing on vacation,” Whalen says. “Google Maps ‘Street View’ is also helpful to burglars who can use it to plan in advance how they will try to get into your home.”

With video cameras integrated with nearly every cell phone these days, criminal behavior is caught on tape and shared every day. 

He advises social media users not to announce anything on Facebook, Twitter, or FourSquare that they wouldn’t tell to a total stranger.

“Think about that, would you turn to a stranger in a bar, show him your address, and tell him you won’t be home for two or three hours,” Whalen says? “That’s exactly what people do all the time when they carelessly update their Facebook status, tweet, or ‘check in’ on FourSquare. The average burglary only takes about 15 minutes to complete.”

He advises social media users to check out the Internet Crime Complaint Center  to learn more about ways to protect themselves from becoming a victim.

Connecting with the Police Department on Social Network Sites

Officer Jon Agnew, public information officer for the Bryan Police Department, in Bryan, Texas, says the department maintains a presence on social media sites.

We have a Facebook page and we also tweet,” Agnew says. “Citizens can contact us via Facebook for complaints or concerns. We also publish all of our safety recommendations and press releases on these websites.” 

Hacker glove on keyboard

Agnew says the most difficult part of maintaining the department’s social media presence is getting residents to go to the sites and register.

“The people who care and are good citizens go and register or ‘like’ us,” Agnew says. “But those who we really want to reach, do not have the capabilities or do not care to be reached.”

In addition to using social media as a way to connect with the community, George Richards, a Criminal Justice instructor for South University Online Programs, says police departments commonly use social networking sites to investigate and apprehend suspects for crimes such as cyber stalking and cyber bullying.

“However, these are not uncovered by police, but rather reported to them,” Richard says.

As social media scams are becoming more common, Richards advises people to think wisely when using them.

“The same advice for any type of scam will also serve in cyberspace,” Richards says. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Use common sense and don't be too trusting.”

Agnew says the laws regarding crimes committed on social media sites can be tricky.

“This is really a nightmare when it comes to policing social media,” Agnew says. “It is like trying to police pirates in open waters. Who should investigate, what laws apply. Laws have recently changed that say you can investigate where the crime originates or where the victim lives.”

Regardless, Agnew urges residents to report social media crimes to their local police departments, so they can launch an investigation, or at least get the right people involved to solve the crime.   

Avoiding Internet Scams on Social Media Sites

John Harrison, group product manager at Symantec, says internet scams on social networking sites are increasing, as more people join these sites. 

“With user groups with hundreds of millions of members, there is always some black sheep with malicious intent,” Harrison says.

Harrison says scammers generally focus their efforts on the most popular social media sites, as they offer the greatest return for their efforts.

Harrison says there are countless types of internet scams on social network sites, but he describes these as the most common:

  • Copy-Paste Script Attacks: The user is tricked into copying malicious JavaScript into the address bar of the browser and executing it under the context of the domain.
  • Like Clickjacking: The user is asked to click on some places on a page, but is not aware that he or she is actually clicking on an invisible iframe tag that is overlaying the page. The invisible layer contains the Facebook Like button, with a prefilled text and a link of the attacker’s choice.
  • Manual Like: The user is asked to manually like the rogue site in order to get access to some promised content.
  • Event Scams: Facebook allows users to create events with text and images and invite random people to it. This allows them to send the usual bait messages with URLs to many people, such as “find out who is stalking you.”
  • Phishing: It comes in various forms, such as fake email notifications that tell you that you have a friend request pending, or that your profile was suspended. If you follow the link in the email you are brought to a site that mimics the original Facebook login page, but in reality, it is a scam that will record your password before forwarding you to the real Facebook site.
  • URL Shortening Services: Users can create a short URL out of any given long link. This makes it easier to share as there is no line break and it fits well into short messages, too.

Harrison advises social media users to protect themselves from becoming a victim of an internet scam by being skeptical of any information or people that appear suspicious, checking site privacy policies and settings, using strong passwords and not sharing them, thinking twice before posting information, keeping software updated, and running a security suite from a trusted vendor, such as Norton.

If a user suspects they’ve been victimized by a social media scammer, Harrison says the type of action they need to take varies according to the scam. Resolving the issue can be as simple as changing the account password or unliking a Facebook page.

“If one of your friends’ accounts has been compromised the best thing is to try to let them know about it via a different communication channel,” Harrison says. “Merely replying back to the email or account where the scam originated from will tip-off the hacker.”