Is this the first confirmed case of Foursquare stalking?

Man standing on rural road holding road map, head obscured by mapEarlier this week I received a tweet, from a buddy of mine, someone that I know offline and just happens to be on Twitter. He sent me this link and asked my opinion, as someone who has worked on the web for a long time. He wanted to know if stalking via social media channels like Twitter and Foursquare was common. Until reading this post, I had heard stories, but always in a game of telephone, friend of a friend way. I hadn’t seen a first hand account until now. It puts a sobering sheen on the social media world. It isn’t all Old Spice Guys and Lol Cats anymore. We’re definitely not in Digital Kansas anymore.

The link was to the blog of a woman, with a pretty scary story of being stalked on Foursquare. She was out to dinner with some friends, and checked into the restaurant. A short while into the meal, she received a phone call, on the restaurants phone. It was someone who had seen her Foursquare checkin, knew what she looked like from her photo, called the restaurant, and described her to the waitress. The conversation they had is at a minimum very creepy, but can easily be construed as threatening as well. The stranger ended the conversation by saying “You probably shouldn’t be telling people where you are on Foursquare, should you?”

That’s the big question. Should you be telling people online where you are? If you had asked me the question earlier, I would have said share away; sharing is the driving engine behind the social media world we’ve created. After reading a first hand account of social media gone psycho, I’m not sure.

I check in on Foursquare everywhere. I’m a Twitter-a-holic. You can hit any of my lifestreams and figure out where I am in a second. I’ve had many strangers approach me over the years, with lines like “I saw you tweet that you were here, and recognized you from your avatar” or “I saw you were also checked in here on Foursquare.” These interactions have been some of the most positive experiences I’ve had from being on the web. I’ve met cool, smart people, made new friends, and learned a lot about how connections are made online, offline and where these worlds intersect.

I’ve never had a creepy encounter like the one described in the blog post. Then again, I’m a 6’1” guy who lives in Brooklyn and knows how to throw down. Are the issues different for women? Are the issues different for younger people? Is there an issue at all, or is this a case of one maniac ruining a good thing for everyone else?

I don’t have the answers, and location based social media technology is still very much in its infancy. Will we see more of this type of behavior, as services like Foursquare and Gowalla grow their user bases? I’m not an alarmist, but the numbers say we probably will, human nature being the sketchy thing it is.

I want to know what you think. Do you know other first hand stories of people being put in uncomfortable or dangerous situations through social media? What are the best ways to stay safe using location based tools, without losing the positive benefits? Is it even possible. This is a discussion all of us in the industry need to have – sooner rather than later.

Michael Dolan is a geeky strategist and pr flack who invents fun ways for companies to get the word out. He’s been behind the scenes running the online show for a lot of companies you’ve heard of, since a dial up modem was required to access something called ‘the internet’. His social media games and wacky hi-jinks have been extensively written about by the tech and mainstream press. He’s a loudmouth jerk that calls Brooklyn, New York home. You can find him on Twitter @EvilPRGuy or hire him to make you famous through The Blog Studio.

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  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    Michael -

    This is a great post and very timely. I'm lucky in that a very few people know what I look like (and like you are in the 6″ range and if push comes to shove could do both as needed) — but I frequently advise friends to avoid checking in when going someplace solo where they expect to be for any length of time (or if they insist on checking in not updating twitter with the information and only allowing known individuals to follow them on 4sq itself).

    Some additional considerations –

    * Checking in at the same place everyday means you're travel is predictable so 'only being there for a few minutes' means nothing if I know you hit a certain bagel shop/gym/bar every day or every week at the same time

    * In a city like NY (dense population but small geography) it only takes a few minutes to get from Point A to Point B by cab – a brief stop at a bar is enough to track you down

    * For purposes of the 'game' (badges, recommending places, etc.) there's no harm in checking in on your way out (or a few minutes before).

  • jeffespo

    @EvilPRGuy – That is as Cartman would say “Hella-scary,” but I am not surprised by it at all. Think about the weird stuff you can find on the Web (including some of the stuff we've shared) and all of the weirdos on there.

    Now multiply that with an episode or two of Law & Order divided by “where there's a will there's a way” and you get a disaster waiting to happen.

    One thing that I constantly find funny about social media is that while the perception of being free and open is cool we are welcoming in Big Brother and the creepy neighbor. It was just a few short years ago that people questioned adding GPS tracking on phones for kids, and now most wouldn't have it any other way because they like shiny badges.

    To stop this rant, one way that those of the fairer sex could help avoid issues like this could be to, as Cog notes, check in while leaving, carry mace or travel with a group. When all else fails a nut shot always works too.

  • kmskala

    Like Cog said, check in as your leave. Or, don't publish to Twitter and only publish to your friends.

    While stalking remains a major issue with Foursquare and the like, I don't think it'll stop or damage their ability to go mainstream. We had/have stalkers before social technologies, we have it with Facebook.

    Peeps just need to be smart about it and not broadcast everything to the public.

  • http://www.providentpartners.net/blog Albert_Maruggi

    At some point we are going to say, what's the benefit again? A free appetizer? A chance encounter with a friend I haven't seen in a while who is at the bar across the street?

    the evidence is lining up for social media to level off. If that occurs I don't believe it will remain level, it will decline, but I don't know what will replace it, it being some of these real time, mobile interactions online. Perhaps they will be funneled into a closed network limiting discovery.

  • http://twitter.com/michelekerepesi michele kerepesi

    I think where there's a will there's a way. People can find you regardless however, it does make it more convenient.

  • http://twitter.com/bethanyrc Bethany Rae Cramer

    This important to realize, but I don't think Foursquare has to be so dangerous. I posted a few of my opinions about it on my blog today in response – http://bit.ly/dz6SRl

  • http://twitter.com/ben_hebert Benjamin Hebert

    If you're scared of stalking you shouldn't put any of your information online. People are going to come after you regardless, but if you use foursquare you can use the same privacy settings to only share your information with relevant people.

    Maybe a girl will call me when I'm at a restaurant

  • stephmajercik

    This really makes you take a step back and re-evaluate what you're doing online. Many of us have gotten so comfortable building relationships online, that we (myself included) have forgotten the types of people that are out there and who could be watching. While I have never had an experience like this myself and have made many positive relationships online, sometimes we need a reality check. We do need to watch what we post online and remember that what we post can be seen by anyone.

  • http://twitter.com/EvilPRGuy Michael Dolan

    Those are really usable tips. The checking out when you leave is an especially useful one. It's sort of sad though, because I imagine the whole point of using Foursquare, or any other location based service is theoretically to meet up with new people while you are there. Still, safety has got to trump all.

    I wonder if being in a smaller city, or somewhere more rural, makes it easier or more difficult to track someone down, as opposed to NYC?

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    I think there's a certain benefit to the evil-doer in each circumstance.

    Rural there's obviously more access to one's own vehicle, open-unattended spaces, more chance of someone being alone at their car, ATM, easier to follow home (and more chance of a single family home or unattended apartment), etc.

    Within a city there's frequently less geographic distance to cover, it's easy to blend into a crowd, less assumed personal space and fewer things seem odd (have you walked around the W. Village lately – or ever?).

  • http://twitter.com/TiffanyPR Tiffany Winbush

    Establish rules when using Foursquare. I never check in from home or work. And I often wait until I leave a location before I check in. This may defeat the purpose of using Foursquare and connecting with friends while you're already out, but safety comes first.

  • http://twitter.com/tjdietderich TJ Dietderich

    Not to sound cavalier about what is a really scary brush with a crazy dude, but crazy dudes are going to be crazy no matter what you do. If Foursquare didn't exist, this guy would be stalking and frightening women who were just walking down the street. Leaving your home every day, or even just waking up every day, means you are accepting a certain level of risk. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime.

    Yeah, there are things you should do to feel safe and you shouldn't participate in anything that makes you feel unsafe, but as a lady-person, I'm getting a liiiiittle tired of all these scary stories about what I should and shouldn't do.

  • http://twitter.com/EvilPRGuy Michael Dolan

    Good point Jeff. I totally agree. A few years ago, we WERE all worried about Big Brother. Now between Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook, we're doing a better job tracking ourselves than Big Brother ever could. We're way past 1984…

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    I think a lot of this needs to be looked at from a risk:reward perspective.

    What's the risk involved – someone can specifically target me and find me.

    What's the reward – badges? the occasional discount?

    How can I change this ratio – checking in after the fact isn't tragic (particularly when alone) or only accepting actual friend, friend requests on 4sq — also not horrible.

    This is of course coming from the Plan Z guy who has had a real-life stalker (yes, police reports and all), but a little risk management goes extraordinarily far with almost no downside to the social aspect.

  • Brewster

    Exactly! Surely the onus should be placed on the stalker and his buddies *not to stalk women* or to think that that's a cool thing to do.

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    Surely not – have you seen how we (Americans – yes we have an unusually high number of freaks) operate – Manson, Dahmer, Bundy….

    People can choose to take control of their own lives and not let anyone harm them or they can rely on others to behave because that's what we expect should.

    Are you telling me you don't lock your doors at night? Take your car keys with you when you park your car (yes, folks used to leave their keys in their cars) Avoid walking down dark alleys at 2 a.m. alone?

    And yes, the stalker may be stalking someone else – if that's your concern go volunteer with the appropriate group. Fact is you can't change the guy – what you can do is take steps to ensure you're not his target.

  • http://twitter.com/tjdietderich TJ Dietderich

    Oh sure Cog, no doubt you should do what makes you feel safest. But I think the backlash against technology re: personal safety is really silly. Remember when answering machines came out, and all the local news stations were like ZOMG NOW BUGLERS WILL KNOW YOU'RE NOT HOME. Yeah, that's true, they can, but if someone really wants to rob a house, they'll find a way to do it.

    Caveat: I know Evil (can I call you Evil?) isn't advocating all ladies to uninstall their Foursquare apps, but there are bloggers and journos who have taken that stance in their reporting and I think that's more silly than frosting on a sidewalk.

  • hdueitt

    Thanks Michael for the post. Not that this should be a big shock to us, but it's a great wakeup call. I'm going to review who my friends are on Foursquare ASAP as sometimes I 'friend' people I have no idea who they are.

  • http://www.keithprivette.com/ @keithprivette

    I have personally! I received a phone call at a grocery store after i checked in saying I was buying ice cream. Guy on the phone recommended Neapolitan ice cream. I was a little weirded out, because I had my daughter with me. Played it off on the phone had a conversation with the fella and realized what he was trying to do. No different than a troll on a blog…..

    Yes there are going to be sketchy characters everywhere…..I think the more social we become the more we look out for each other, which a good thing.

    Hey which do think has a worse follow through of creepy action taking checking in on gowalla or match.com? There you are actually making contact with face to face with little or no history…..yeah great you can google someone, but come on.

    I like the fact people have come up to meet you! That is awesome, I have yet to have that happen. But when you live social you have to be aware and take some bad with the whole lot good that comes with all this stuff. Just educate yourself on behind the scenes safeguards you can take!

  • http://twitter.com/EvilPRGuy Michael Dolan

    Evil indeed! I agree though TJ, basically, if someone REALLY wants to make you the victim of a crime, they will whether you on Foursquare or not. I think for me, the big shocker is that this actually happened to someone. I'd blown off the 'social media stalker' angle as hogwash, because I'd never seen it happen firsthand, in a verifiable way. Seeing it in action changed my tune, fast.

  • http://twitter.com/EvilPRGuy Michael Dolan

    You're welcome! I actually did the friends purge last night for the same reasons. That seems to be the most reasonable way to enjoy Foursquare, and also be safe. Along with some of Cog's recs here in the comments as well.

  • OnlinePRNews

    I have also had the pleasure of dealing with a stalker (police reports and all) and I have to say this post made my blood chill. It is very scary when someone crosses the line like that. I agree with everything that has been said here regarding safety trumping badges. Yes, the 'crazies' will always find a victim — but I certainly don't need to make it easy for them to hone in on me! — Tara

  • Shea

    Hi there fellow commenters. I'm actually the girl from the blog post. Yay. Lucky me.

    A few things to add:

    I rarely posted my location to Twitter. If I did, it's when I was with a group in a public place. I never checked in at home. I never checked in at work. I was selective with who I let follow me on Foursquare.

    After what happened Tuesday night, I changed my Foursquare privacy settings and decided I would only check in as “off the grid.”

    But last night I went to dinner with a friend and instead of checking in like I usually would, I felt nauseous. Like it just wasn't worth it. So I'm currently evaluating my relationship with Foursquare. As my fiance said, “It's fun, but is it worth risking your safety?” Answer: no.

    The overall point that I'd like to make is that I was a generally careful Foursquare user and this happened to me. Yes, my Twitter account is public and I blog under my real name (that jig was up a long time ago), but I thought I was being safe. Turns out I wasn't.

    The good news? I received tons of messages yesterday thanking me for blogging about my experience because it made others decide to change their Foursquare habits and make safety a priority. One woman said she had been checking in from her house and is stopping that immediately (and deleting those check-ins and the location).

    So while I've heard plenty of criticism for my actions (perhaps valid, also sometimes a little cruel), good has come out of it too. And that's the best thing I could have asked for.

  • http://twitter.com/JenKaneCo Jennifer Kane

    I had a stalker in college back when the web was just a baby. He did a pretty good job of following my every move without any GPS.

  • http://twitter.com/meznor meznor

    I'm baffled that people don't think about their security *before* using foursquare…

    Not only are you telling the world exactly where you are at any given moment, but you're telling the world exactly where you *aren't* – that is, at home. If you also share somewhere on Twitter or Facebook or wherever that you also live alone, you're inviting all sorts of trouble.

    I've never felt that something like foursquare or any other GPS-locator app or service is a very smart thing to subscribe to.

    Unless it's a closed network of people you trust who you're sharing with (although even that's debateable – what if one of your friends leaves their Facebook/Twitter account open at a public computer and someone who's looking for you exploits that and finds you that way?), or unless you're using it specifically for some purpose – e.g., for work – your location shouldn't be shared with the entire planet… if someone really wants to locate you, why not just text you or give you a call? My $0.02.

  • http://twitter.com/EvilPRGuy Michael Dolan

    Hi Shea, thanks so much for commenting. I don't see how anyone could criticize your actions, you are 100% in the right. It's the creepy guy who is in the wrong. Furthermore, you should get extra bonus points for sharing what happened, so other people can learn something, and hopefully avoid a situation like that themselves.

  • http://twitter.com/meznor meznor

    I think the difference is you're basically inviting crazy people by telling them exactly where you are and what you're doing. Sure, anything can happen at any time, and you can't stop living your life because something bad happens to someone else… but is it really wise to broadcast certain things to the entire world? I think you should draw a line somewhere. For me, it intuitively feels unsafe to let just anybody know my location at any given time.

  • Nicolebeltrami

    This sounds more like an ex who was trying to mess with the girl than a crazy….i'm not judging but I still think it's safe to post on foursquare.

  • http://twitter.com/p7sky Paul Sevensky

    I think you're giving people an open invitation to stalk you by checking in. As someone noted elsewhere in the comments, there were stalkers before Foursquare, but why make it easy for them? On top of the stalking, there's the “we know you're not home” problem the folks at pleaserobme.com have pointed out. You don't even have to follow someone on Twitter to see a check-in; just use a tweet-monitoring tool. At least on FB, you'd have to be a friend to pick up the check-in, assuming the right privacy settings.

    No chauvinisim intended, but it is different for women and potentially more dangerous. I think we can be “too social” and just set ourselves up for bad things to happen. Maybe my thinking is colored by my age (late 50s), but I believe we can do without location-based tools. I wouldn't think a “badge” is fair compensation for an assault; would you?

  • Michelle Greer

    I've advised against publishing your location since the inception of geolocation. Getting a restraining order is like a second job. I know–I've had to get one before.

    Not to spam your blog with my blog, but here's a post I wrote on it:
    http://www.michellesblog.net/other-social-netwo

    It is not uncommon for scary ex-husbands to use their ex-wives' credit card statements to track them down. If a woman hides from an abusive ex, but forgets to have her credit card statements forwarded to her new address, an ex can track where she is spending her money by looking at the statement. He can then find her and hurt her.

    By publishing your wearabouts to total strangers, you are making it that much easier for them to track your patterns and general vicinity. It takes only ONE PERSON to reek total havoc on your life. You can assume that everyone is rational and won't mess with you, or you can take the precaution that there are deranged people out there and decide to keep your location private to only your friends.

  • Alecjr

    interesting post and comments.

    i don't use foursqaure because i'm lazy, but more importantly i also value my privacy. i use twitter for fun and business but little invasion to my privacy.

    that being said, if you are online there is no privacy, but i see no reason to tell the world where i am at every moment, what i'm buying, etc. for some little reward.

    maybe it's generational (i'm pushing 50) .. maybe i'm influenced by my wife, a private banker to uber wealthy people and a very private person herself more for professional reasons

    anyway, this issue will explode after the first foursquare inspired stalking-murder-rape-felony takes place. i don;t wish it, but it's bound to happen. then the lawyers will have a field day w/ all these SM tools.

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  • sneakers jordan

    The link was to the blog of a woman, with a pretty scary story of being stalked on Foursquare. She was out to dinner with some friends

  • http://www.veritate-et-virtute.com Christopher (@BurgessCT)

    The reality is all tecnologies and this includes location based services (LBS) which identify where you are have both reasonable and worrisome attributres. Here is my Huffington Post piece on this topic as food for thought: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-burge

  • ginwied

    I'm right there with you Tara. I was a victim of a Peeping Tom who scaled my privacy fence in my backyard to watch me get dressed in the morning. As it turned out, he'd been doing this for quite some time.

    Experiencing that level of violation firsthand has made me significantly more aware, protective, and proactive. I didn't buy into FourSquare before my incident, but after that happened, there is no way I would broadcast my whereabouts.

  • http://twitter.com/dfiske Darlene Fiske

    I agree this is a major privacy issue, so I do two things on Foursquare religiously. I don't accept friend requests from people I don't know (which may defeat the purpose of Foursquare) and I “check-in” to locations right before I'm about to leave, that way I can comment on my experience there and not worry about anyone trying to locate me. I was hesitant about using Foursquare for this very purpose, but now I enjoy telling my REAL friends (people I know) about new places I've discovered. The other thing I never do which I see a lot of on Twitter and FB, is tell everyone I'm on vacation. I'll post photos when I return, but telling the world you are not at your home is not the best move.

  • http://www.kickingsand.com Nicole Jordan

    This has always bothered me about these location-based services and that social boundaries are being erradicated due to the social web, and inappropriate people that like to abuse it all. My pal @melissarowley also wrote about this very thing in April on Lalawag.com: (http://lalawag.com/2010/04/07/fourscared-and-fo…) There will always be people with too much time on their hands. Unfortunately now we're giving them more fodder to play with.

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  • http://twitter.com/danatodd danatodd

    @Nicolebeltrami Even if it was an ex-partner trying to “scare” her, that doesn't make it any less of a threat. In fact, probably moreso given the statistics on domestic violence and the likelihood of being attacked or abused by someone who knows you well (much higher than attacks by strangers). Stalkers stalk. Best to remove any temptation.

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  • Queen Bee

    Good post. My FourSquare trick is to check in after already leaving. I guess I miss the people that might be checked in with me but I prefer to keep any stalkers one step behind with this trick. I have checked in to places right as I leave or hours after. Basically I just use it a map of my favorite spots. Since I live in NYC there is a real danger of me running into crazy exes if I post right away.

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