Your Social Media Accounts Are A Criminal’s Best Friend

One California burglar tracked women using their Instagram locations

Feb 26, 2016 at 12:47 PM ET

Think twice when you add that location tag to your next Instagram post. Police in Fullerton, California have charged Arturo Galvan with burglary, after they say he targeted 33 different women and stole more than $250,000 worth of items from them including laptops, and more disturbingly, their bras and underwear. They say he specifically targeted women using Instagram.

From the L.A. Times:

For at least a year, 44-year-old Arturo Galvan, of Menifee, allegedly snatched up the unmentionables of men and women alike — sometimes as his victims slept close by. He also stands accused of hauling off electronics such as computer laptops and tablets. Investigators say Galvan identified his victims by hanging out in public gathering places in Fullerton and Orange and searching for social media posts where people “checked in” or otherwise provided clues to their location, according to Fullerton Police Sgt. Kathryn Hamel.

Galvan pled not guilty to 33 felony counts in an Orange County court on Tuesday.  In this particular case, Galvan is believed to have first scoped out his victims in public places like coffee shops and malls and then tried to identify them on Instagram and other social media sites. Police say he’d then track them using geotagged locations on their photos to find their home address and map his way there. Even in cases when the photo didn’t have a location tag included, Galvan is said to have figured out where a girl lived was using photos that appeared to be taken in and around her home.

Police say this is a unique case, but it’s nonetheless unsettling given the ubiquity of social media posts with location data. You might not share your location ever, but you might be tagged in photos that have location information on them. When put in context of your social media presence, there’s a lot someone can figure out about a person. And criminals have been using the internet to commit crimes since the dawn of the internet. Social media and location data just opens up more opportunities. For example, Fox 5 DC reports that earlier this month in Maryland, two teens were robbed at gunpoint by men they had met on the app OfferUp, through which they had arranged to buy a dirt bike. Police were able to catch two suspects by staging a sting operation, posing to be people also trying to buy a dirt bike through the app. Prince George County police say that these types of robberies with some kind of online connection are on the rise.

But if you’re familiar with a little thing called Craigslist, this type of situation sounds familiar. We’ve all heard of the now-infamous case of the Craigslist killer, a medical student named Philip Markoff who robbed and murdered a masseuse he had contacted using the site. The story has since been immortalized in its very own Lifetime movie. He’s far from alone. A 2015 study by Law Street Media found that there have been 58 murderers and 45 murder victims somehow linked to the site since 2009, and another study found 86 murderers connected to Craigslist since 2007.

Scary stuff, although it should be taken with a grain of salt. Within the context of how many people use the site on a regular basis (around 60 million each month in the U.S.), 58, 45 or 86 don’t sound like such overwhelming numbers. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful. You could still get ripped off (or worse), so use common sense. Always meet in a public place where there will be a lot of people around, like a post office, or ideally, a bank. That’s the easiest way to avoid ending up the victim of a scam, or worse.

Planning to meet for the IRL portion of internet commerce in a secure, public place that doesn’t account for all the other ways a predator could use social media to harm you in some way. Your location footprint is online, thanks to Instagram and other apps, even when you don’t intend for it to be, and sidestepping this danger requires a bit more thought. For starters, don’t ever location tag your home. Do you have friends who give their house or apartment a name and add the location when they post on Instagram? Don’t be like them. This will protect you from the most obvious risk, but not all of it.

Definitely don’t be like self-proclaimed “Instagram king” Dan Bilzerian, whose wealth-flaunting have invited burglars into his home as well. Thanks to his prolific flexing, thieves knew exactly what they’d find when they broke into his Hollywood Hills home last September. Kylie Jenner’s family is said to have issued her a warning along these lines, urging her to stop posting her luxe possessions on Instagram so much because it’s just bait for burglars. It’s not just celebrities who are cautionary tales. Philadelphia police believe that a break-in last February was caused by a series of social media posts about inheriting jewelry, along with accompanying Instagram photos of Rolex watches.

Do these recent cases mean you’re going to get ripped off because you posted a pic at your local coffee shop? Of course not. And you’re probably not going to find a random man in your room stealing your underwear while you sleep. But you might, so consider these incidents fair warning.