Location SoftwareWalk by The North Face store in several major cities in the near future, and your mobile phone may suddenly buzz with a new text message — a coupon from the store.

That’s because the company is planning to push offers over your mobile phone whenever you’re near one of their stores. The service is available to anyone who signs up for ShopAlerts.

It will be easy enough to sign up — at the store, on The North Face Web site, or via text message, mobile Web sites and even Facebook. ShopAlerts also plans to carry coupons and offers from American Eagle Outfitters, REI and others.

It sounds like a very useful new service, but the technology holds dangerous pitfalls, say the experts.

Services that track your physical location through your mobile phone or other mobile device send information about where you are to various sources. Some sources are legitimate, such as retailers, restaurants, and other businesses. But some sources that get access to the information about where you are may intend to do you harm.

For example, if you use a service that publicises where you are, such as FourSquare, a tool you can use on your phone to “check in” at a restaurant, cinema or other location, you are also indicating that you are not at home. A Web site called PleaseRobMe has popped up to point out that this very public information can alert thieves and the like that your home might not be currently occupied. As the site states, “The danger is publicly telling people where you are. This is because it leaves one place you’re definitely not … home.”

Most of us — 95.7 million, according to research group Gartner — don’t think twice about allowing these services to know where we are. We get in our cars and turn on the GPS map to help us get to our destination; it couldn’t function without pinpointing our exact location. We are thankful when 999 is automatically clued in to where we are in times of trouble, like car accidents. And when a service on our phone lets us connect with others by broadcasting our location at that moment, it seems just as harmless. That’s just what thieves are counting on.

“Knowing where a target is is crucial,” says Richard Weinblatt, director of the Institute for Public Safety at Central Ohio Technical College, who runs the TheCopDoc.com. He advises that you give out information selectively and that you consider whether you trust the service with your information before you sign up.

In addition to the risk of having your home burgled, you are also putting some crucial data in jeopardy when you give the OK to services that ask for your location to help you find what you are seeking. There are two primary ways these services find you: Your cellular service approximates your location based on your distance to nearby cell towers, or the GPS software in your phone relays your spot to satellites. Your wireless provider then transmits your location to the service company, which in some cases stores that information on its servers.

The good news is, location-based services find out where you are only when you let them. Whether you’re actively posting your location or allowing a service to use GPS and cellular service technologies to find out where you are, it’s because you’ve made the choice of letting them know. What this means is that it’s already within your control to manage what information gets out there.

Here’s what you can do to protect yourself, your belongings and your personal information while still participating in these useful location-based services:

  • Don’t link your home address to your account. This is the easiest way for thieves to find out where you are not. Most services either won’t make this information public or will allow you to choose what information you share. Pay special attention to ensure control of this information.
  • Don’t use your full name. Robbers can easily look up your name if there is a record of your home address available anywhere online or even in the local phone book. To limit broadcast of where you are, hide your full name.
  • Be selective about which services you allow to pinpoint your location. Many applications will automatically ask you if they can find out where you are so they can offer you content and services most useful to you. Allow them access only where you feel most comfortable.
  • Be selective about who sees your location. In social networking applications involving your location, set limits on who is able to see that information — everyone, all your contacts, select contacts or no one.
  • Read the privacy policy. Above all, arm yourself with information on how each service works. Each privacy policy should indicate how the service uses any of the data it requests from you.

So-called location-based services can be as innocuous as the GPS-enabled maps you use in your car or on your mobile device, and they can even help save lives. But be vigilant about your use of them, and you will enjoy only their benefits.

Story by Laura Rich, Laura is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado.

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