Zuckerbandits? Alleged 'Facebook' burglars busted

Three males are arrested for allegedly stealing over $100,000 worth of electronics, ammunition, fireworks, and other booty by using Facebook to find when victims are away.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read
A fireworks explosion led to the arrest of the first of three suspects who allegedly burglarized homes based on Facebook posts. CC James Jordan/Flickr

It may be finally occurring to people that telling lots of strangers online that you're not home--and telling them where you live--is not necessarily very smart.

According to several local news outlets in Nashua, N.H., police say they've arrested three young men allegedly responsible for about 50 burglaries in the city last month. More specifically, TV station WMUR notes that the suspects "used social-networking sites such as Facebook to identify victims who posted online that they would not be home at a certain time."

It sounds a whole lot like an experimental site called PleaseRobMe.com, which aggregated public "check-ins" from geolocation services as a statement about just how many people online are letting the world know when they aren't home. And, indeed, many people are on vacation in August and are more than happy to tell the world they're getting away from work for a few weeks.

There are plenty of holes in the narrative so far: no news outlets have explained whether the burglars knew their victims, whether any social-networking accounts were hacked or scraped to provide access to the out-of-house information, or whether the victims had also publicly posted their home addresses in addition to their plans to go on vacation. (Really, that's just dumb--haven't these people seen "Home Alone"?) So it's not clear exactly how the data was gathered. It's also not specified whether thieves took advantage of Facebook's own "check-in" product, Facebook Places, which launched last month.

Although it's counterproductive to devolve into hysterical speculation about just how many bandits out there are constructing social-media war rooms to track down their next victims, there's a clear lesson here: be careful about how much information about your home, location, and life you're putting online, even if you're convinced that nobody's looking.

The alleged thieves, 17-year-olds Victor Rodriguez and Leonardo Barroso and 25-year-old Mario Rojas, were caught because one of the items allegedly filched was a specific variety of fireworks. Cops were instructed to listen for fireworks, and indeed, an off-duty officer was able to connect a local fireworks explosion to the eventual arrest of the first of the three men. Another officer quoted by WMUR says that "four and maybe more" suspects are likely still at large.

Among other items stolen--which totaled about $100,000 in value--were more fireworks, ammunition, electronics, and remote-controlled cars.

UPDATE (7:38 p.m. PT): In a statement, Facebook hinted that its web of social connections may have been less involved in the Nashua robberies than local news outlets were indicating. "We've been in contact with the Nashua police, and they confirmed that they while they have an ongoing investigation and have already made a number of arrests, the only Facebook link was that one of those arrested had a Facebook friend who posted about leaving town in the near future (which is why they believe that home was targeted) and it had nothing to do with Facebook Places," a spokesman wrote via e-mail. "The police confirmed that the other burglaries had nothing to do with Facebook altogether."