Imagine it's your day off so you go see a movie, or have lunch and do some shopping. But everywhere you go, you keep seeing the same person.
A disturbing 5 On Your Side investigation uncovered that you might not be imagining things. You could be a victim of geo-stalking, the latest high-tech crime.
The investigation started with an experiment. We walked into a St. Charles coffee shop, ordered a pumpkin spice latte, sat down with the coffee, snapped a selfie, and posted it on twitter.
How many times have you done something similar? The problem is that you've just set yourself up for any stalker or crook to find you.
The experiment was an alarmingly quick success. Ethical hacker Dave Chronister found me in minutes.
"I could figure out where your home is, I can figure out where your work is,” he said.
He shared the details with NewsChannel 5 back at his hacking headquarters, Parameter Security.
"You have to remember that your phone has a GPS device in it," he said. "When you make a post on most social media, you actually embed geolocation."
Take the coffee tweet. In seconds, he pulled up the GPS coordinates embedded in it, and then found every place I had ever tweeted from.
"This software actually creates a heat map, so the more you tweet from a particular location, I can actually start to see exactly, maybe this is where she lives, maybe this is where she works,” said Chronister.
Your location is also attached to the very pics you post. It's called EXIF data, short for “Exchangeable Image File”, which is extra information embedded in the image.
Chronister didn’t even need to know my twitter handle to find me.
He offers a common scenario: “Maybe I was sitting at a table and I saw that maybe you were taking Instagram photos with people.” He can search by location, date and time, and pull up all the social media taken there.
“It becomes very eye-opening once you start to realize that strangers have the ability to figure out who you are,” he said.
Jess Cowl is Assistant Director of Crisis and Prevention at Safe Connections, which operates a domestic abuse hotline.
She says what's called "geo-stalking" is on the rise, making it harder for victims to stay safe.
“We're definitely seeing an increase," Cowl said, "especially with the younger generation."
Just ask this St. Louis woman, who was electronically stalked by an ex-boyfriend. She chose to conceal her identity for that reason.
"It's not easy to hide,” she explains, "I moved four times in about six months, and he always seemed to know where I was.”
Deleting her social media accounts didn't help.
“He would still be able to find me using other people's photos or posts,” she said.
In the end, she says she developed PTSD, and the geo-stalking even impacted her wedding day. Guests were not allowed to post anything online about the ceremony.
“It was depressing,” she said, “You want to tell everybody you're getting married, but at the same time, everything had to be hush-hush."
This stalking victim finally got justice when she was introduced to St. Louis Detective Mark Kurkowski, who specializes in these sorts of crimes. With his help, her stalker was charged and convicted.
"Most of our cases involve some form of that technology,” Kurkowski said.
He said it’s not just stalking cases that involve geolocation technology.
"We also see other types of crimes being committed: burglaries, crimes against children, things like that," he said.
Recent examples include the Pokemon Go! robberies and the Kim Kardashian jewelry heist.
That family picture you're posting from the beach? That means it's perfect time for burglars to visit your home.
“If you're going to use the technology, it's about using it safely and wisely to make sure your personal information isn't getting out there," Kurkowski said.
Here’s how you can stop sending out your location from your device:
On an iPhone:
1. Go into Settings.
2. Scroll down to Privacy and select Location Services.
3. Disable all Location Services by swiping the slider at the top, or scroll down to disable location services for specific apps, e.g. twitter, facebook and Instagram.
4. Select System Services to deny location data from specific features, such as Frequent Locations.
On an Android:
1. Open the App Drawer and go to Settings.
2. Scroll down and tap Location.
3. Scroll down and tap Google Location Settings.
4. Tap Location Reporting and Location History, and switch the slider to off for each one.