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Facebook: A tool for cops and robbers

In Venezuela criminals use Facebook to research targets. Cops use it too — but not always for scrupulous purposes.

A Facebook fan page dedicated to Mafia chieftain Toto Riina, Jan. 12, 2009. In Venezuela, criminals are increasingly turning to Facebook and other social networking sites to research potential targets. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — It has taken Venezuela by storm, but it seems that Facebook and other social networking sites also come with their perils.

Police here revealed that a pair of students at a private university in Caracas had been robbing their virtual friends’ homes using information they had compiled using Facebook.

Police raided the apartment of one of two students who, working in tandem with another couple, had been using Facebook to befriend classmates. They then used the information their new “friends” posted on their profiles to find out where they lived, what they owned and when they were not at home.

"They observe the families’ movements, they study the residencies — the comings and goings, the security measures," said Wilmer Flores Trosel, director of the CICPC, Venezuela’s eqivalent of the FBI.

Security analysts in Venezuela say it is becoming increasingly frequent for criminals to use social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Sonico and Hi5 as a source of information for house robberies, fraud and kidnappings.

And it's not just the criminals capitalizing on this online data source, the police too are using it, to go after both hard-core criminals and political protesters. In a country with little tolerance for dissent, many fear the government has designs on controlling these sites. And the crimes aided by Facebook, might give them cause to do just that.

“There's a certain amount of intelligence work involved in kidnapping that Facebook makes easier,” said Roberto Briceno Leon, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence. “Before, what did kidnappers do? They could spend months checking accounts, studying a person's daily movements in order to be able to plan the kidnapping. That implies an investment. Now, Facebook makes that easier.” 

Briceno Leon said that even an innocent photograph of a user’s home could reveal valuable information about security systems that could be used to plan robberies or kidnappings.

Leon's Venezuelan Observatory of Violence did a survey and they estimate that there were between 8,000 and 9,000 kidnappings in Venezuela in 2008. The official figure for last year was 554 but most kidnappings go unreported because victims' families prefer not to involve the police as they are often involved in the kidnappings.