FACT OR FICTION?
Social Media has become more than just a social network. For most users, it is now a daily source of news and information which, if controlled and verified, could be a great tool, particularly when it comes to fighting and preventing crime.Unfortunately this is not always the case. While crime related stories that emanate from credible news agencies are generally factual and reliable, more often than not the crime stories that “go viral” on social networks:
a) Are completely false, based perhaps on hearsay or misunderstanding;
b) Carry some elements of truth, but contains factual errors;
c) Are based on an incident that occurred in some part of the world, but had the location changed numerous times – such as to different places in different countries, as the warning has been shared on; or
d) Are based only on an idea of something that could, in theory, occur, but that has never taken place, nor may ever take place
Therefore, instead of being a potentially useful tool in either the fight against crime, or as words of caution/advice for people, crime warnings can, instead:
a) Create unjustified fear and panic;
b) Incorrectly advise people, placing their safety at risk; or
c) Be automatically dismissed by those who have no faith in their accuracy, which poses a danger if the warning is genuine
Although some warnings are false and based only on hypotheses, they can still be beneficial to readers in that they create awareness of possible risks – even if not probable. And in South Africa’s crime climate, one can never be too vigilant, aware, or prepared.
How crime and news warnings are disseminated
Like any social media posting, crime warnings have the potential to spread throughout the world in a matter of minutes, and social media users also then have the ability to create spinoff posts based on what they read in such warnings.
What fuels the spread of information on social media is the ease and speed at which posts can be shared. Facebook in particular is a powerful source of news and information dissemination as with just a quick click of the “share” button, posts are readily available to eventually be read by anyone anywhere in the world.
Often those who share posts do not even fully read or understand them, and even more often, those that read them do not have the ability or desire to rationally evaluate their accuracy.
An example of how quickly information, and false information can be spread on social media, can be seen in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings in the US in 2013. USA Today published an article looking at the spread of information following the blasts.
The article read: “Yet while social network updates can feed a news-hungry audience with relevant and interesting updates, they can also breed false information, says social media expert Dave Kerpen, CEO of the social media marketing firm Likeable Media.
As people on social media, including journalists, sometimes conveyed wrong information last week, "it was challenging to know what (sources) to trust," he says.
Even Kerpen accidentally shared incorrect information. He can't recall what it was -- he deleted it from his Twitter feed and apologized for posting it.
Last week, after CNN and the Associated Press wrongly reported that the suspects were in custody, many others picked up the news. WCVB-TV Boston, crediting the AP with the news, wrongly said that an arrest was "imminent." It was retweeted 87 times
On Monday, social media site Reddit acknowledged its role in helping to disseminate false information, saying, "Some of the activity on reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation."
Reddit also said it apologized to the family of missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who was misidentified on social media as a bombing suspect.
Recent crime warnings and analysis:
- Warning: Do not post children’s locations and photographs on social media:
- The claim: These warnings have been doing the rounds for years, claiming that predators and child trafficking rings are using Facebook to source victims. It states that such rings are able to find photos of children on Facebook – posted innocently by their parents, and, via the geolocation tag, know exactly where they can find the child.
The most recent posting did the rounds in about June this year and starts off telling the story of a woman who hurriedly accepted a Facebook friend request from a stranger with a “cute profile pic”. Later that morning she posted a photograph of her beautiful, 5-year-old daughter, and wrote that it was her child’s first day of school. She wrote of her pride and also “checked in” to the school.
Meanwhile her new “friend” had already disseminated the photograph of the child to paedophiles, looking for a “buyer”. When the mom went to fetch the child after school, she found that her daughter had been kidnapped before she got there, due to the child’s school name and location being posted online.
- Truth or myth: The author of this story was unknown but the post went viral. One of the Facebook pages that originally posted it later deleted it after commentators pointed out that the origin of the child’s photograph was actually taken from a children’s hairstyling page. There was therefore no truth to this posting.
- Further analysis: Excellerate Security is not aware of nor has been able to source any stories or confirmed cases of this happening in South Africa or other parts of the world.
However, social media platforms like Facebook have greatly facilitated crimes of a sexual nature and human trafficking, particularly in some overseas countries, such as Indonesia where, in 2012, about 27 children reported missing were believed to have met their captors on Facebook.
In June this year, a Kensington, Cape Town, teenager (19-years-old) was kidnapped. Although she escaped a few hours later police were investigating whether the incident was linked to a recently-accepted Facebook “friend” who had been sending her messages which, among other things, indicated that he could see every move she and her mother made in their home.
In America, a recent report in the Journal for Adolescent Health, found that, an alarming 65% of online offenders utilised social media sites to gather information about their victims.
A common belief by Facebook users is that their personal information is safe as they only have friends and family members on their Facebook friends’ lists. Statistics show, though, that approximately 80% of sexual abuse victims know their assailants, so limiting Facebook friends to genuine friends and family does not necessarily mean users and their families are safe from potential crimes. It is also important to remember that Facebook friends are able to share each other’s posts and photos, meaning they can be seen by strangers. This is known as the Networking-effect.
The presence of Geotagging also has the potential to facilitate crime as it adds location data to posts or photographs. With the know-how, perpetrators can track the location that you were at when the photo was taken or when you update your status.
- Verdict: Although there is no evidence of young children’s safety being risked by photographs of them on Facebook, the idea that it is technologically possible for their identities and locations to be known to strangers is enough to make parents take heed.
- Warning: New hijacking modus operandi includes tying tins cans to the back of cars, removing license plates, and throwing eggs at windscreens.
- The claims: Hijackers are using new methods to hijack vehicles, including tying cans to the back of them. This is usually done in a parking lot when motorists are away from their cars. Once motorists drive their cars away they hear the cans dragging, and stop the car to inspect it. As soon as they get out of their cars, the hijackers strike.
Another warning is similar to the one above, but warns of hijackers removing car number plates. Again, this is usually done in a parking lot when motorists are away from their cars. Once motorists drive off, the hijackers get their attention by holding up the number plates, implying that they had fallen off of the cars. Once again, the motorists stop their cars in response, giving the hijackers opportunity to rob them.
Then a third warning is that hijackers throw eggs at motorists’ windscreens, resulting in motorists instinctively turning on their windscreen wipers to clear the screen. Once mixed with water the egg spreads, making it impossible for motorists to see where they are driving, resulting in them having stop. This is when the hijackers strike.
Truth or myth: There have been no confirmed cases of tin cans being tied to cars or hijackers removing number plates. The ‘egging’ of vehicles first emerged in 2009 on a YahooGroups mail list post, and was then spread via email, with details changing. For example, later versions had included specific places in the world where it was occurring, such as Johor Bahru, the capital city of Johor in southern Malaysia whereas the original post did not specify where it had occurred. The warning was dismissed around the world as a hoax.
In 2014, a motorist travelling along the R300 in Cape Town posted online that he noticed a few men standing on a bridge ready to throw what looked like stones. As he approached the bridge, they lobbed their “stones”, but luckily missed. The motorist claimed that he was advised by nearby Metro Police Officers that a syndicate was throwing eggs at the windscreens of vehicles. SAPS in some parts of the country have also warned motorists about this modus operandi.
- Further Analysis: Despite there being no confirmed reports of hijackers attaching tin cans to vehicles, there have been numerous reports of hijackers placing items such as bricks and cardboard boxes on road or in driveways. This is done with the intention of the driver either hitting the object or stopping to remove it, which would render themselves vulnerable. In 2014, Wesley Ford pulled over in Cape Town to avoid rocks that had been placed in the road. He was subsequently attacked and robbed. In 2015, Nazir Sadack, the Northern Ethekwini Coastal Sector Community Policing Forum Chairperson, said patrollers had reported the deliberate placing of rocks in the road on many occasions.
- Verdict: The release of the 2014/2015 crime statistics saw an alarming 14.2% increase in hijackings, revealing that hijackers were becoming increasingly active. Because criminals are not only ruthless but also often ingenious, motorists should be prepared for any situation which may arise. In 2010 Gauteng Police Spokesman Superintendent Lungelo Dlamini said motorists should never underestimate the lengths to which potential hijackers would go. As such, motorists should be extra vigilant and not stop for anything which is not blatantly safe. Rather drive to a nearby safe area or the nearest police station.
- Warning: Hijackers cable-tie electric gates closed
- The claim: Numerous reports have emerged over recent months that hijackers are cable-tying electric gates together with cable ties, waiting for residents to return home. Upon their return, the gates obviously do not open and the residents get out of their cars to further investigate the problem. This is when the hijackers strike.
- Truth or myth: Although no confirmed cases of this have occurred recently, the warning dates back to at least 2008, when community safety organisations warned that this was in fact happening. New Germany and Westville were two areas specifically mentioned. Recently, the warnings have been widely distributed by many security companies, CPOs, and crime prevention websites. It is highly possible that there is some truth to this warning.
- Verdict: The majority of hijackings take place in driveways as motorists generally become more relaxed and less vigilant. It is also an easy spot for hijackers to strike as vehicles often stop while gates open, or are being opened. A study conducted by forensic and crime expert Professor Rudolf Zinn in 2010 saw one robber disclose that he would sometimes jam an electric gate or place an object in front of the gate. Cable-tying of electric gates should then not be ruled out, nor should other methods of obstruction or distraction when people arrive home. Always be vigilant.
- Warning: House robbers/burglars mark homes to identify their vulnerability or whether they are a target
- The claim:The warning is that house breakers and robbers mark their targeted homes with everyday items that will not look out of place, such as coke cans. Some warnings say these syndicates also mark properties with spray paint. The markings indicate that a home is ready to be targeted. There have also been posts which show specific diagrams that house breakers or robbers are said to use, indicating whether the home has an alarm, who lives there, whether they are wealthy, and if it is good to target, among other things.
- Truth or myth:This debate has been ongoing for many years, with some theorists and law Excellerate Securityment officers supporting the claim and even deciphering and translated markings. Others, however, strongly disagree, saying it is only a myth and that syndicates either more highly organized than this or opportunistic.
The diagrams which give information about homes and their occupants are said to have been distributed by police overseas.
- Further analysis: A report issued by local news in 2014 revealed concerns amongst Centurion residents regarding the markings on their houses and gates. The report also quoted Lyttelton Police Spokesperson, Warrant Officer Hero Gumbu, stating that criminals leave markings at gates and driveways to determine if the resident is home.
Excellerate Security Managing Director Derek Lategan had previously met with a specialist in this field. This specialist boasted the ability to decipher the markings and utilise them to predict when and where crimes would occur. On meeting this specialist, Mr Lategan selected a random client site – of which the expert was not aware and had no prior knowledge of. On arrival at the specific site, he took Mr Lategan along a route marked with various items such as sticks, and which lead to the bottom of the building. He then predicted that the site would be hit within the next few days. And it was, three days later.
In 2010 Professor Rudolf Zinn conducted an in-depth study with 30 convicted house robbers in 2010. In the book that he released regarding his findings, Zinn revealed that the responses suggested that this method was not commonly used, with 80% of the respondents stating that they had not heard of properties being marked before a robbery. Two of the respondents did say that they, at times, marked a house/farm to ensure that they could easily locate the premises when they returned to commit the crime.
The respondents also revealed that marker objects were sometimes used to determine whether residents were at home. A can or bottle would be thrown into the yard or they would close the water inlet pipe. Another technique was the placement of tape or a piece of paper within the gap of the gate. The perpetrators would then later check whether the markers were still in place. This would tell them whether the residents were home or not.
- Verdict: There seems to be some aspect of truth to property marking warnings, but does not appear to be to the extent that many people believe. Often spray paint on walls and other areas near properties is the work of vandals or youths, while random objects outside homes, such as cold-drink cans or empty bottles, are simple cases of litter or rubbish being blown by the wind. But with all crime warnings it may be advisable to remove anything suspicious-looking just in case, and for peace of mind.
- Warning: Criminals look at “stick family” stickers on vehicles when choosing targets
- The Claim: These stickers, which depict motorists’ family make-ups are said to give criminals information as to how many people are in motorists’ families. For example they can determine very easily whether there is a father or male figure, a single mom, and/or a small dog. This information helps criminals determine the vulnerability of people’s homes.
- Truth or Myth: A multitude of reports have been issued, warning motorists about the underlying dangers of “family stickers” commonly placed on the rear glass of cars. Although no cases have been linked to the use of these stickers, numerous forms of law Excellerate Securityment and organisations do warn against their use. The idea does seems improbable though.
- Verdict: Although there is more than likely no truth to this warning, some personal details are perhaps better kept to oneself as a method of protection, and to prevent potential offenders from gaining any form of advantage.
- Warning: do not keep your home coordinates stored in your car GPS
- The claim: It is speculated that hijackers are able to find their victims’ homes by reviewing their GPS devices, in which often people save their “home” coordinates. The can then break into the house.
- Truth or myth:There have been no confirmed cases of this occurring, and it also seems unrealistic in that hijacking syndicates and those who break into or rob homes usually work independently and have their own sets of modus operandi. Furthermore, most hijackers are opportunistic and look for easy targets, such as when vehicles arrive or leave home.
- Verdict: Although this warning does not seem to have any truth to it, it is plausible that it could occur. Motorists who are security conscious and feel their families could be at risk by having their home details saved, are advised to then give themselves peace of mind by deleting any stored information.
Most of the recent crime warnings bear no, or very little truth to them, yet none of them are unrealistic, especially given the ever-evolving capabilities and intelligence of criminal syndicates. Therefore, if the idea is even slightly conceivable – even if improbable, it makes sense to take precautions. After all, if someone without a criminal mind was able to conceive the warning or methodology used, a criminal mind could do so even more easily. With South Africa’s current crime landscape it is advisable that residents rather take unnecessary precautions than fail to take those that are necessary.
Social media users are also advised to consider what they share before doing so as spreading false information does not help in the fight against crime. It can also cause unjustified fear and panic. Rather first try ascertain whether posts are true – or even possibly true – before sharing them to the world.