Neighbourhood groups on Facebook and other platforms abound these days, and most residents view the sites as a handy way to connect with their local community.

Need a babysitter? See something suspicious at the corner store? Questions about the best local mechanic or electrician? The folks living down the street are eager to listen and offer advice.

But one should be circumspect when navigating these sites, because the cheerful demeanour they exude might create a false sense of security.

Constable Jesse Vujasic of the Niagara Regional Police Service said that their fraud division was not aware of any current criminal issues with online neighbourhood social networks, but that nonetheless members of the public are encouraged to be aware of their online presence, and never share personal information in an insecure setting.

One site that has become popular in Pelham is www.ca.nextdoor.com. Leah Letford, the Town of Pelham’s communications specialist, told the Voice that local residents, especially seniors, are providing personal information on the platform, including their age, address, family photos, names of pets, and other data that should remain hidden from view.

“Digital platforms can be a fantastic way to connect, when done with awareness,” she advised.

Nextdoor promotes itself as “the neighborhood hub for trusted connections and the exchange of helpful information, goods, and services. We believe that by bringing neighbours together, we can cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on.” The site has almost 550,000 followers online.

PC Mag, a technology periodical and website, opines that “hyper-local apps like Nextdoor aim to keep you apprised of what’s going on in your neighborhood, but they also thrive on drama, buzzing our smartphones at all hours with crime reports, suspected illegal activity, and other complaints [and] residents can also weigh in with their own theories and suspicions, however baseless and—in many cases—racist.”

Launched in 2011, San Francisco-based Nextdoor saw an 80 percent increase in site traffic during the pandemic. Users were looking to source everything from vaccine clinics to toilet paper, but they were also lashing out with racist remarks, especially following the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020. Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar promised to better educate site users, and ban those who violated the platform’s rules.

Nextdoor requires that all participants use their real name, and advises that it encrypts all information for security.

Personal information shared on Nextdoor will never show up in Google or other search engines, they promise. The company says that it does not tolerate violations of privacy or personal threats.

The site has discontinued the practise of publishing personal home addresses on the platform. Previously, home addresses were published to user profiles by default, which was problematic because the information could then potentially be used for online scams and phishing attacks.

An address verification feature on Nextdoor makes illicit accounts more difficult to create, but it’s impossible to stop criminal behaviour altogether. Posting your address, social security number, or even your email address is inherently risky, as these can all be used for identity theft or hacking.

Other ways to keep yourself safe when cruising through the neighbourhood online?

Be wary of unsolicited messages on these social sites. They are a favourite tactic of scammers, since they allow criminals to approach potential victims without public scrutiny. And never pay for items in advance when purchased on neighbourhood buy and sell sites. Advanced payments offer scammers an easy way to get paid without providing a product or service, and most mobile payment apps don’t offer fraud protection.