The hypothetical has become real, however, with the news that police in the town of Nashua, New Hampshire have busted a three-man burglary ring which stole at least $100,000 worth -- and perhaps twice that amount -- of cash, consumer electronics, jewelry and other valuables (not to mention ammunition and fireworks) in more than 50 break-ins targeting the homes of people who shared their whereabouts on location-based online networks, including Facebook's new location-based service, "Places."
It's not clear if Facebook Places was the only location-based service targeted by the burglars, or if there were others. If the ring really did limit itself to Facebook Places, as some reports claim, they clearly made off with an impressive amount of loot in a rather short period of time, considering that Places launched less than a month ago.
This would also be indirect (and not exactly PR-friendly) evidence that Facebook Places has made considerable inroads with Facebook users in the first couple weeks of operation.
The news comes close on the heels of a report from Myxer, which helps content companies like Sony deliver music to mobile devices via ringtones and downloads, showing that location-based social networks are still struggling to gain traction with mobile phone users. Myxer surveyed 1,500 respondents and found that just 11% had ever used a location-based social network, even once. However privacy doesn't seem to be the top concern: within the 89% who don't use location-based nets, just 14% cited privacy as their main concern, while 56% cited a simple lack of interest.
Of course, you don't need a location-based service to let people know when you are away from home. In March, a new report from the Association of British Insurers warned that home insurance premiums may rise up to 10% this year, due in part to an increase in home invasions resulting from people revealing their whereabouts on social networks. According to the ABI report, around 40% of British social network users post their holiday plans online, while roughly a third reveal their ordinary weekend plans.
Location-based net users don't appear to be entirely unaware of these risks: in June Webroot conducted a survey of 1,500 social network users who own mobile devices with geolocation capabilities in June, and found 39% were already using geolocation-based tools -- but over half of this group (55%) also said they were worried about privacy concerns related to services that identify your location. 45% of the geolocation-users said they were concerned about alerting burglars when they're away from home.
As the Webroot survey suggests, criminals don't limit their use of social network info to burglary. In June, New Jersey Attorney General Paula T. Dow and the state's Acting Consumer Affairs Director, Thomas R. Calcagni, warned of an increasing number of social media scams on Facebook or other sites, often using hijacked accounts. Meanwhile, a recent report from Criminal Intelligence Service Canada said the amount invested in fraudulent schemes has increased significantly, in part to the rise of social networks, which allow scammers to issue professional-looking press releases and promotional material, recruit accomplices, and exchange lists of victims (according to the report, many individuals are susceptible to repeat victimization). The report named popular sites like MySpace, Facebook, Craigslist, Kijiji and YouTube.
Perhaps the most frightening possible abuse of location-based social networks is stalking, especially cases targeting women. Going back to the Webroot survey, women were more likely to express concern about the potential threat posed by geolocation services, with 49% saying they're very worried about a stalker using their information, compared to 32% of men.