Foursquare Tips and Tricks: Unlock "Secret" Badges and Reduce Privacy Risks

New to Foursquare? Or just looking for advice on how to find and unlock some of that "secret" Foursquare booty? CIO.com's Al Sacco offers up tips and strategy for locating and obtaining hard-to-find Foursquare badges, as well as reducing potential privacy risks associate with using the service.

You've probably heard of social-networking service Foursquare. If you haven't already jumped in headfirst yourself, you may be aware that Foursquare's a location-based social network that lets users "check-in" via mobile device at restaurants, bars, shopping malls, wherever, to obtain points and rewards in the form of "Mayorships" and "badges." And many are calling it "the next Twitter."

The goal: Check in at your favorite establishments more than anyone else to earn Mayor titles for those particular places--and possibly "Mayor Specials" from those businesses. Explore new locations around your city or area to find new favorite places and earn "badges" in the process. And earn points for every check-in to see if you can outscore your "friends" and all other Foursquare users in the area. (Check out the video below for more detail on how Foursquare works.)

How To Unlock Your World With Foursquare on Howcast

Some Foursquare badges are easy to obtain and require very little strategy on the part of the user, including the Foursquare "Super User" badge, which is awarded to any user who checks in 30 or more times in a single month. Or the "Local" badge, which comes along with three check-ins at the same place in one week.

But other Foursquare badges, the hard-to-find ones, don't show up without a bit of work. For example, the "Pizzaiolo" badge is awarded only when you've checked into 20 different establishments tagged or marked "pizza" by Foursquare users. In other words, users must manually add the tag "pizza" to the 20 establishments you visit before you check in to unlock the Pizzaiolo badge. And as you can imagine, obtaining that particular badge can take some effort.

Here are a handful of tips and tricks on how to discover some of the more difficult to find Foursquare badges, strategy on how to unlock existing Foursquare badges and future badges as they're released, as well as how to mitigate potential privacy concerns.

1) Find a Good Foursquare Badge List

If you're serious about Foursquare and you want to unlock as many badges as possible, the first thing you want to do is locate a good online Foursquare badge list. Foursquare badge lists are mostly user-generated listings of all, or close to all, of the available Foursquare badges. And the good ones are updated fairly frequently with new information on existing badges and recently-added badges. So you'll probably want to check back often.

Foursquare badge lists not only give you a good idea of what kinds of Foursquare badges are available, but such lists can also tell you which badges are location-specific, so you don't spend time in Boston trying to obtain badges that could only be obtained during the South by Southwest event in Austin, Texas, or vice versa.

My two favorite Foursquare badge-lists can be found at TonyFelice.Wordpress.com and TheKruser.com. The former is more comprehensive, i.e., it lists more badges, but the latter provides some instructions on how to obtain specific badges. Neither list provides solid information on how to obtain all the listed badges--in fact, some badges have been "deactivated" and are no longer available. But both provide tips or hints on how to find existing badges, and both are updated somewhat often with new badges.

2) Find Out How to Obtain Specific Badges

Once you've familiarized yourself with the available Foursquare badges in your area, you can pick a few you'd like to obtain and start investigating how to unlock them. As mentioned above, it will be clear how to obtain certain badges for their descriptions, but others require a bit more digging on users' parts.

image of The History Channel
The History Channel "Historian" Badge on Foursquare

It's also worth noting that some badges cannot be obtained without first "following" the associated "parent brands" on Foursquare. Brands that offer their own specific badges to Foursquare followers include Starbucks; Bravo; The History Channel; HBO; Zagat; and The Wall Street Journal. If you want to acquire any of the brand-specific badges on Foursquare, you should login to your account using a PC--some mobile apps, like the Foursquare BlackBerry app, let you add "friends," but it's typically easier on a PC--find those brands' pages and hit the "Follow" button. (Note: The aforementioned brands ink deals with Foursquare in hopes of learning more about their followers, so beware: If you follow one of these brands and they follow you back, you're very likely sharing personal location-information that could be used for marketing purposes in the future.)

But obtaining brand-badges isn't as simple as just following those brands.

Take the Lucky magazine "Elite Shopper" badge, for instance. From a Foursquare badge list, you can see the text that accompanies the badge reads "Wow! You're on a spree! You've hit 5 of our favorite boutiques and still going strong." So it stands to reason that you must check-in to five Lucky magazine recommended locations to obtain the badge. But how do you find those Lucky mag approved establishments?

Simple. You can visit the Lucky magazine page on Foursquare for a list of all available recommended locations. And from there, you can click on any of those locations, to see that Lucky Magazine has left a "tip" on every one of the recommended pages--or the venue has been tagged "luckymag." That means you can search for venues near you on the Lucky mag page itself. Or use the Foursquare search function to look for that specific "luckymag" tag.

Find five listed locations in your area via the Lucky mag page or search for "luckymag"-tagged venues, save the addresses and then hit the road to find them, and you'll have the "secret" Elite Shopper badge just as fast as you can make your way from shop to shop.

Another badge that takes some tagging work to unlock is the "Zoetrope" badge. The text that accompanies this particular badge reads: "That brings you to 10 movie theater checkins! Now, can you pick us up a large popcorn while you're up?" So the badge is awarded to users who check-in 10 times at movie theatres.

However, checking into any old movie theatre on Foursquare won't necessarily count as progress toward the Zoetrope badge; all the theatres you check-in to must also be tagged "movie theater," or they won't count.

Twitter, Facebook and other social networks are also great places to find information on hard to find badges. Just ask your followers. You may be surprised at how many people are willing to help. (Hint: Follow @nanpalmero, the Foursquare King of San Antonio, on Twitter for quality assistance.)

3) Using Foursquare "Tags"

As you can see from the last section, tagging venues on Foursquare is important and you should frequently take the time to do so on your own. Unfortunately, you can't remotely add tags to venues at this point--at least using any of the mobile applications I've employed. So you'll need a PC with Web access to start tagging.

Example of a
Example of a "Tag List" for a Foursquare Venue

You may, for example, want to search for all the local pizza places near you to ensure they're all tagged "pizza" before you start visiting them on your way toward that Pizzaiolo badge, mentioned above. And you can also add new venues that may not show up in your search via the Foursquare desktop interface, and tag them appropriately so you get proper credit when checking-in in person.

To do so, simply log-in to your Foursquare account and start searching for your desired tags in the search-box at the top-right of the page. If you search "pizza," you'll be presented with lists of results in four categories: Venues, with the word "pizza" in their names; People, with the word "pizza" in their names; Tips from users that mention "pizza;" and "pizza" Tags.

If you're simply searching for places that'll get your closer to that Pizzaiolo badge, you want to click the "Tags" option, to view all locations tagged "pizza."

And it's a good idea to start tagging any new venues you may add or that haven't been tagged by others, to give users a better idea of what they might find and to help unlock badges. For instance, I visit Foursquare.com via PC about once a day to revisit my recent history and add tags to places that may need them.

To add a tag to a Foursquare venue, just visit that specific venue's Foursquare page, scroll to the bottom and fill in appropriate tags on the right. (Note: Some tags are "reserved" by Foursquare and participating brands so, for example, you can't add "luckymag" or "historychannel" tags to any venue you please.)

And you can find specific types of venues or venues with specific tags, in areas other than your own, by simply changing your location information. To change your location, login to Foursquare.com via PC, click your location in the top-right corner of the page and type in a new location.

4) Foursquare and Privacy

One of the most common concerns about Foursquare relates to user privacy. Surely, if you're checking in everywhere you go, every day, you're opening yourself up to some fairly significant privacy risks. More specifically, you're handing over your location information to potential stalkers and other baddies.

Foursquare Privacy Settings Page
Foursquare Privacy Settings Page

So the key to reducing the privacy-risks associated with using Foursquare is to set a privacy-strategy. In other words, properly manage who has access to your location information. And don't check-in everywhere you go.

Foursquare works like any other social network, in that you add "friends" or accept connection requests to build out your following. But since Foursquare employs potentially sensitive location-information, you should be particularly careful who you connect with on the service. General rule of thumb: Don't connect with anyone on Foursquare who you don't "know." You don't have to be best friends with all your Foursquare contacts. In fact, you don't have to have ever even met them. But if you can't put a potential contact's name to a face--or at least a name to an online-personality--you should probably think twice about connecting with them.

I currently have more than 50 pending "friend requests" on Foursquare, and I have no plans to accept a single one of them unless, of course, I realize they're people who I know enough to feel comfortable connecting with. As is, I have no desire to connect and share location information with people I don't know. (Note: Anyone who uses Foursquare, or who simply visits the site, can a list of the places at which you hold mayorships, but detailed location information is only available to your friends.)

Perhaps you frequent a bar across town from where you live, and that bar offers Foursquare specials to its Mayor. Let's call that bar "Al's." Checking in at Al's might be okay with you since, it's not in the neighborhood where you live, and you could potentially score some free appetizers or pints for holding down the Mayor title. You need to decide whether or not you want others to know you spend some of your nights at this particular drinking hole. If you feel that sharing this information offers up too much personal data--you're not home on Tuesday and Thursday nights--you probably don't want to start checking in at Al's. But if you're not worried about announcing your location for a few hours a week, this might be an acceptable check-in spot.

Now, let's consider checking in at a local Stop & Shop or other grocer. Lots of people check-in on Foursquare at your Stop & Shop, but there are no Mayor deals, and it's literally just a few blocks away from your home. In other words, someone could potentially determine that you live close to said Stop & Shop, because it's a grocery store you're at frequently, and most folks shop for groceries near their homes. Since you don't have much to gain by checking into Stop & Shop--no badges or Mayor specials--it probably makes sense to avoid checking in there.

I almost never check-in on Foursquare in the neighborhood in which I live, for this reason. But I check-in all around my workplace, since I'm less concerned with people knowing where I work than where I live or spend much of my free-time. I also always "exit" or close my BlackBerry Foursquare application after I check-in, since leaving the app open can identify your location even if you're not checking in.

Privacy-specific settings on your Foursquare settings page also let you decide whether or not to link your Facebook and/or Twitter accounts to your Foursquare profile. And you can determine who can see your e-mail and phone number associated with the account, as well as your connected Twitter/Facebook feeds and whether or not you're at a specific location while checked in there.

I won't say Foursquare isn't potentially dangerous to users--especially high-profile users who may have many fans or followers they don't know. But there's both a right and a wrong way to use services like Foursquare, and much of the risk associated with such location-based services can be mitigated if they're used responsibly.

Read more on how Foursquare has been cracking down on "cheaters" in recent days, as well as the first international "Foursquare Day," which took place last month.

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