A headline for a recent local social media message screamed, “Lost chickens!”
“My three hens are missing if you see them near town hall on high street or by bike path. One blonde, one brown, one black and white speckled. They love sunflower seeds and are very friendly. Please call or text…” and the writer gave a personal phone number to reach her.
This came from one of thousands of registered “neighbors” listed as living in Narragansett and South Kingstown who share information about any number of matters. In addition, other sites collect information to pass along to service contractors whom homeowners have never met.
But how much sharing in social media is too much?
Police and experts in online security and privacy report that even a phone number is too much. Sharing information online, while helpful for a specific issue, can also invite problems ranging from fraud and home break-ins to identity and credit-card theft, according to security experts.
Narragansett Police Chief Sean Corrigan cautioned that people need to be careful about disclosing online their home addresses, phone numbers and other kinds of information that could lead to unwanted personal confrontations or simple intrusions into expected personal privacy.
This recent post came from a social media site that advertised, “We will share service provider recommendations, items for sale/free, lost pet notifications, safety updates, local events and much more,” in a letter mailed to residents in the Woodruff, Kenyon and Lake avenues area.
“It’s 100 percent free and private - just for our neighbors,” the letter noted. “Our neighborhood is using a free private online network…and you should join us.”
The site, however, is sponsored by a worldwide social media organization. It provides access for targeted crowdsourcing, which involves enlisting large groups of people in specific geographic areas to share information and help solve problems.
The company’s website explains how it protects personal information collected by the firm, but there are no disclaimers for those posting messages and sharing information other than tips to avoid scams when selling items. Users’ real names are listed on each message posting.
That’s where potential problems start, say experts. Information might be privately kept by the company, but anyone can join using a local address. This opens up the possibility of registered users also collecting the personal data and using it for illegal purposes, they said.
Large numbers of people join some form of social media today. The Pew Research Center reported in June that just five percent of American adults in 2005 used at least one form of social media and by this year that number rose to about 72 percent.
The majority of people know that openly posting their personal or confidential information is a problem, said James Frew, from the online publication “MakeUseOf,” which provides advice and guides on using the internet, computer software and mobile apps.
“However, the real problem with each small leak of data from your posts is that they can be collated into something much more useful — a profile of who you are, what you like, and where you are,” he said.
Beyond social media sites with general information, there are sites for finding service contractors that require disclosing some specific personal information, such as phone number and email address.
“Remember, you are asking this person to come into your house, your most personal space you have, be vigilant,” said Lt. Jeffery St. Onge, detective commander at the North Kingstown Police Department.
Corrigan agreed and also offered that sometimes the best references for work come from trusted friends or relatives.
Police in North Kingstown, Narragansett and South Kingstown said that they have not received many complaints about issues related to sharing online personal information.
“The fastest growing criminal complaint that we receive are scams where people are randomly contacted by telephone or email and convinced to pay fraudulent tech support, IRS, electric bills, utilities, etc. with gift cards,” said Detective Sergeant Trevor Richmond of the South Kingstown Police.
Corrigan also emphasized that vigilance in neighborhoods — since the sharing of information is common online today – is also important.
“We do encourage citizens to report suspicious activity. For obvious criminal activity or life-threatening situations, they should immediately call 911,” he said, adding that for observations that just seem unusual they should call police departments’ routine numbers.
“I’d ask people to keep in mind that information that does not make sense to them may, when combined with other information in an investigation, assist police to resolve an issue,” he added.