How Social Media is Changing Police Investigations



4 out of 5 officers say they’ve used social media to gather information during their investigations, and at least 50% say they check social media at least once per week in conjunction with an open case.


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When an identity thief tried to cash forged checks at a grocery store in San Antonio, police turned to social media to track down their man. Police posted surveillance photos on Facebook and shortly thereafter received several tips, including one that led them straight to Christopher Dudding, who was taken into custody and charged with fraudulent use or possession of identifying information, reports KSAT news.

Dudding’s arrest thanks to Facebook is the most recent example of how police are using social media as a tool for criminal investigations. From posting photos of unknown suspects to using social media to gather evidence that links suspects to the crime, police are embracing social media as a must-use crime-fighting tool.

Police Leverage Facebook to Track Criminals

According to a 2012 LexisNexis Risk Solutions survey of federal, state and local law enforcement officials, four out of five officers say they’ve used social media to gather information during their investigations, reports CNN. At least half say they check social media at least once per week in conjunction with an open case, and the majority report that social media helps them solve crimes faster.

As anyone who has tracked down a long-lost high school crush knows, social media can be a treasure trove for information. And even if suspects keep the information their pages private, friends and family members may not be as savvy. For example, police say that drug dealers have been known to make seemingly innocent public updates about their location (“at the mall shopping” or “making a grocery run”) that are designed to give clients a head’s up about their location. Unfortunately for the drug dealers, this public information makes it easy for police to track down their sales.

Once the police obtain sufficient evidence for a subpoena or warrant, they can compel Facebook to give them private access to a user’s account. For example, when police suspected a Minnesota man of talking to underage girls, detectives first had to obtain a warrant in order to get Facebook to turn over data associated with the mans’ profile. Police used the private profile in court to obtain a conviction; the man, Darrin Anderson, was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Fake Facebook Accounts Lure Criminals: Is This Legal?

One investigative approach that’s not without a bit of controversy is the use of fake accounts by police to gain insider information about suspects. Police have no qualms about creating fake Facebook accounts, although Facebook strongly disavows the process. Facebook told CNN that these so-called covert accounts go against Facebook’s terms of service, which prohibits fake accounts. But even if the accounts violate the social network’s terms of service, the accounts themselves are not illegal, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

In some cases, detectives don’t even need to create a fake account– they just need to find their own “social media snitch.”

“Someone on the inside who is willing to share information with the police can be an invaluable investigative resource,” says Grant Bettencourt, a criminal defense attorney who has closely tracked the use of social media in police investigations. “Law enforcement has long depended on the eyes and ears of the community to identify suspects, capture fugitives and recover stolen property. Facebook and social media is just one more tool being used by everyone from the local sheriff’s department to the FBI.”

Bettencourt points out that the online world is just like the offline world: detectives can go undercover on social media to “catch you in the act” and your friends can inform on you and become a so-called “social media snitch”

Social Media as a Channel for Publicly Tracking Criminals

As Dudding’s case demonstrates, detectives do not always need to go undercover or find their own “social media snitch” in order to track down criminals. Facebook is also a beneficial resource for instantly distributing crime alerts to a specific community or neighborhood. Or, in Dudding’s case, simply posting surveillance photos.

“Facebook and social media, they have become valuable tools for law enforcement,” said James Keith, the spokesman for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, which apprehended Dudding following his attempts to cash fraudulent checks. “This is a situation where we might not have been able to identify this man had we not been able to post his photo.”

Bottom line:

Whether police are posting photos of wanted suspects on Facebook or using a suspect’s profile to find incriminating evidence, social media has become a major factor in police investigations. And while criminals who break the law certainly deserve to be caught, these cases are also an important reminder that anything you post on social media is there forever– and could one day be used against you. That’s just might be reason enough to quit the Facebook game all together!

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