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Police Use Online Activity to Nab Suspected Criminals

December 23, 2010

There’s an old saying about criminals always returning to the scene of the crime, on the theory that lawbreakers like to gloat in the aftermath of their actions. Today, some of that gloating occurs online, in Facebook posts and YouTube videos. And by doing so, many criminals have brought the law down on them.

Minnesota police arrested four teenagers on assault charges in November 2009 after seeing videos they had posted on YouTube of their apparently random assaults of pedestrians and bike riders. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, police officers monitoring an online forum for drag racing enthusiasts were tipped off to the racers’ plans to hold illegal races and were on the site to ticket four of the racers.

Sometimes even perfectly legal online activity is enough to alert the police to the whereabouts of suspects. Alfred Hightower was wanted by police in Kokomo, Indiana, on a drug charge. Kokomo police knew Hightower played the popular online game World of Warcraft, and sent a subpoena to the game’s manufacturer, asking for the IP address being used by his online character. When the information arrived, police were able to pinpoint his location in Ottawa, Canada, where he was found by Canadian authorities and arrested.

Police in Italy were able to use the same technique – tracing a user’s IP address – to discover the location of a purported mob boss who was among the country’s 100 most-wanted. In another case, a man charged with bank fraud in Seattle was hiding out in Cancun, Mexico, and an assistant US district attorney found his Facebook page and noticed that the suspect had a friend who worked for the Justice Department. Authorities enlisted the help of the suspect’s friend to determine his location.

Investigators say that, often, the leads they obtain online are not sufficient to locate or arrest someone, but they do help to corroborate evidence that they already have and let the police know they’re on the right trail.

In other cases, online activity lands someone in hot water after the crime. In 2006, a Minneapolis teenager pled not guilty to vehicular homicide when a car crash killed her passenger. She later took to MySpace and admitted the accident was her fault. When prosecutors found the posting, she was forced to change her plea to guilty.

Today so much about our lives can be discovered online – where we live now, where we used to live, our hobbies, our friends, and more. Everyone should be aware of what clues they leave behind online by doing a simple Google search for their own name. Anyone currently facing a criminal charge must be extra vigilant about not talking about it online. In fact, social network sites like Facebook offer users the ability to suspend their accounts indefinitely – which might be a good idea for anyone with pending criminal charges.

Related Story:

Caught Web-Handed: Social Media Become Valuable Tool in Crime-Fighting

Related Posts: Suspicious Stop-and-Frisk Activity in New York City?, Chief Judge: New York bail process in need of overhaul, Wrongful Convictions: Early Errors Can Snowball and Control Cases, How Reliable Are Eyewitness Identifications in Criminal Cases?

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