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Features

Turn Their Gadgets Against Them

Every bad guy has a cell phone and a computer, and the savvy investigator can use the evidence left on them to close cases.

February 01, 2009  |  by David Spraggs


"I love Facebook!" came the shout from the cubicle next to mine. One of my fellow detectives here at the Boulder (Colo.) Police Department—through a simple Internet search—had just discovered the identity of a sex assault suspect.

The suspect was a distant acquaintance of one of the victim's friends. The detective only knew the suspect's first name and a general physical description. By logging on to www.facebook.com and searching all of the involved players' social networking accounts, specifically their online friends, the detective located an individual with the same first name as the suspect. The rest of the investigation stemmed from this simple Internet search.

This is just one example of the role that technology plays in modern criminal investigations. Cell phones, iPods, computers, PDAs, digital video, and other such devices are deeply woven into the fabric of our society. Why not exploit this social phenomenon to help solve crime?

Social Networking Sites

I must admit that while I'm computer savvy, I have no interest in the modern phenomenon of social networking, although my wife—who admittedly is a few years younger—thinks Facebook is the best thing since sliced bread. Millions and millions of Americans have a MySpace or Facebook account. These are free social networking Websites that allow users to set up accounts.

These accounts revolve around a home page. The home page can include a staggering amount of biographical information as well as links to photographs and other online members listed as friends. In the example above, the detective was able to learn the suspect's full name, date of birth, telephone number, home address, and e-mail address, all from the biographical information he included when he set up his account.

Of course, there's never any guarantee the information is correct. In this case the detective downloaded a photograph of the suspect that he had uploaded onto the page. The victim identified the suspect, and the rest of the case came together from there.

Recently an employee at a local coffee shop told me that his apartment had been broken into over the weekend. We were talking about the details of the burglary when he told me that he thinks the suspect knew he was out of town. I asked how somebody would know he was gone. He replied that he posted he was "Skiing in Vail for the weekend" on his Facebook account the morning he left town.

This individual told me that he has more than 300 "friends" that have access to his home page. He doesn't know all of these individuals well enough to trust them. He thinks that somebody broke in because they read his status on Facebook and knew he wouldn't be at home. This is another example of how social networking sites can relate to criminal investigations. In this case it might be warranted to sit down with the victim and go through his or her "friends" to identify possible persons of interest to the investigation.

Social networking Websites are becoming more important in other types of crime, too. I investigate persons crimes, including sexual assaults. I have learned the status and actions of victims, witnesses, and suspects around the time of the crime simply by checking their Facebook or MySpace accounts and reading their blogs or text entries about what they were doing at that time.

Police are not the only ones looking at these sites. I've learned that defense attorneys are starting to look at these sites as well. A local attorney recently told me that he routinely checks social networking sites for anything that could possibly discredit a witness or victim.

For example, he told me that he was defending a client who was accused of sexual assault. The attorney logged onto the victim's MySpace account and discovered numerous photos of her in various stages of undress with different men, including the suspect. These photos were taken at a bar earlier in the night where the sexual assault is alleged to have occurred. I don't know the outcome of this particular case, but the photos were brought to the district attorney's attention. Many police departments are checking social networking sites as a routine part of pre-employment screening, too.

So how do we cops access these social networking Websites? I personally created both www.facebook.com and www.myspace.com accounts that I use only for work purposes. You just need to enter some basic information, including an e-mail address.

I created a new e-mail at www.mail.com for this purpose. I don't use it for anything else. I included some generic falsified personal information, but my homepages are essentially blank with no photographs or anything else. A basic user account allows you to search for members, see their friend lists, and see their homepages, depending on the security settings.

Many users control access to their homepages by requiring you to be a friend before you can navigate to their homepage. Facebook includes the "Add as Friend" icon where you can request to be someone's friend. My friend requests have been granted by people that have no idea who I am, so it's worth a shot. Of course, depending upon the investigation, it's also possible to execute a search warrant on any of these social networking sites to gain access to people's private information.

Tags: burglary, Sexual Assault, Forensics, Evidence Collection, Cybercrime, online social networking sites

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