A recent survey suggests that users of social networking sites are giving away personal details that could be used by burglars scouting for easy targets. But how real are the threats, and are insurers taking them seriously?

Lock down your broadband and confiscate the kids’ laptops: a new menace is stalking the internet, preying on the naïve, the vulnerable and the stupid – and any one of the millions of users of social networking sites worldwide.

Or that’s the impression you may have got from a spate of articles that started appearing at the end of August, echoing around the world in newspapers, magazines and websites from Hollywood to Sydney, via Ireland, Hindustan, and most of the UK’s national newspapers.

On 27 August, insurer Legal & General released a report claiming that users of online social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, were “giving away vital information about themselves and their whereabouts, which is being used by professional burglars to establish a list of targets”.

It surveyed around 2,000 people who used a social networking site at least once a week and found them disturbingly cavalier about giving away information about their possessions and their holiday plans, and accepting “friend requests” from people they didn’t know.

Legal & General also enlisted the help of reformed burglar and television personality Michael Fraser, who demonstrated the “very real threats” to home security posed by social media by gaining the confidence of strangers. He showed how this information could be used to rob them, by cross-referencing personal information, holiday plans, and photos of people’s homes and possessions, with Google Earth and Streetview to virtually case people’s homes and plan entry and escape routes. In a much-quoted phrase, Fraser described these sites as “internet shopping for burglars”.

False alarm?

This is a worrying threat certainly, not least for insurers, which could find their home and contents businesses assaulted by claims as tech-savvy burglars trick their policyholders into handing over the virtual keys to their home.

But what is absent from the report, and all press coverage relating to it, is any evidence that this is actually happening.

Indeed, when you speak to Malcolm Cooper, Legal & General’s director of pricing and underwriting, it is still very much a grey area. Although he was quoted around the world, suggesting that insurers might start taking into account the number of young people in a household when pricing premiums, Cooper admits that L&G has received no claims that it can attribute to this phenomenon, and indeed that it would be very difficult to isolate social networking as a cause.

“It’s potentially a big deal,” he says. “I’ve got to be honest, we’re in unknown territory here. The scale, impact and how we might address it is still uncertain. The insurance industry is behind the curve. This has really opened our eyes.”

Cooper says he was himself sceptical until he spoke to Fraser. “He was very categoric that it would be happening at the moment. He visited these sites and showed us. The evidence from Michael Fraser is something I don’t think we can afford to ignore.”

He pointed out that there is evidence of mounting fraud and organised crime as a result of the recession. But Legal & General has no plans to change the pricing of its policies or the way claims are assessed as a result. “It’s more about awareness,” Cooper says. “The only tool we have is prevention rather than cure.”

Inside job

The initial idea for the survey came not from Legal & General’s underwriting or claims departments, but from its PR company, Fishburn Hedges. But the concept really developed after they contacted Fraser, who has shed an early life of crime to become a security consultant and public speaker.

Fraser is also a millionaire and something of a celebrity, having presented the BBC shows Beat the Burglar and To Catch A Thief, where he demonstrated how easy it is to break into people’s homes, and Channel Four’s Going Straight, where he mentored ex-prisoners trying to set up a florist’s shop. He’s also taken part in a number of PR campaigns for home security devices, and has a string of corporate and public relations clients.

Right now, he’s working in Nigeria on a six-month security consultancy contract. Down a crackly line from Lagos, Fraser explains that personal security has become something of a crusade for him, in part as a way of atoning for the crimes he committed in his youth.

“Every time something happens, I look at how it occurs. I look at what would make you a target. I love it. I did burglaries as a child, I didn’t realise how bad it was, what I was actually doing. I want to pay back and help society.

“There’s so many of us who don’t think about security until it happens. The law should be harder on burglars. It’s a terrible, terrible crime.”

Fraser admits he sees opportunities for crime everywhere and his own home is “like Fort Knox”. While in Nigeria, he can log on to his security system and view his home, and he receives an e-mail every time someone approaches. He has never been the victim of a burglary, but there have been attempts.

Fraser says that when he was approached by Fishburn Hedges, he leapt the chance to be involved. But his initial interest was in the estate agency websites where homes for sale are posted, complete with addresses, floorplans, and panoramic photos of every room showing possessions and alarms, or the lack of them. He says thieves can target high-value homes, stealing expensive possessions to order and plan their escape route. His friend has been burgled twice in this way, he believes.

But the report doesn’t mention estate agents’ websites, only social networking; Facebook and Bebo perhaps being easier, more media-friendly and less recession-hit targets. Fraser said that he quickly saw the burgling potential of social networking sites, particularly Facebook, and he visited Legal & General’s offices to demonstrate how burglars could harvest information.

“There are a lot of lonely people who will give information quite easily,” he explains. “Once you’ve got their confidence, it’s amazing how much you can extract by dropping in little questions.”

Fraser sent “friend requests” to 30 strangers and only one person asked who he was. The rest simply added him to their lists, allowing him to view their profiles, status updates and online conversations, as well as glean extensive information about their network of friends.

Points of entry

Speaking to Fraser is certainly eye-opening. He says animal lovers would be a target as they’re keen to talk about their pets, and burglars will know that cat flaps weaken doors and dog owners don’t tend to have alarms.

Burglars can build up a picture of a person from their Facebook page and use that information to, say, trick a neighbour about why they’re carrying off the television. They can also make judgments about the person based on their communications online. For example, text-speak might be offputting for a burglar looking for wealthy, professional individuals.

Fraser is passionately against Google Streetview, which shows static photos of neighbourhoods in great detail. By looking at a photo of someone’s house, a burglar can see how many locks there are, whether there’s a handy wheelie bin for climbing on, where to park the car and how to escape quickly.

But as for how common this is, he’s not so clear. “I can’t answer that. I don’t know how widespread it is. It’s happening, I know it happens.” How does he know? “Because I know of people that would and do use the networking sites to target vulnerable people. I still know people, I know what they think and what they do and how they do it.”

Fraser went straight more than 30 years ago. Does he still have links with the burgling community? “I don’t have links, I just know people go on the internet to prime and groom people. I know it happens.”

If this is a growing trend, you might expect it to be included in the Home Office’s burglary initiative, but a press officer said it hadn’t come to their attention. Neither is the police service concerned. “It’s nothing that’s been flagged up to us as a growing trend,” a Metropolitan Police spokesman says.

As for insurers, Insurance Times’s own straw poll of seven major names threw up little concern about a crimewave linked to social networking sites, and no plans to factor it into pricing policies or assessing claims. Several expressed the hope that their policyholders would use common sense when posting information online.

That’s perhaps the only certain thing about the Legal & General study: if press coverage is anything to go by, it has certainly raised awareness of the potential risks of trusting the internet – and your virtual friends – with your personal information. IT