Talking to tipsters

Web sites and text messages allow valuable, anonymous communication


     For years, an officer answered the phone at his desk and wrote crime tips by hand. Today, telephone answering services record tips and electronically forward them where they need to go. While landline telephone technology has advanced over time, other technologies useful for gathering tips have been gaining popularity.

     About half of the 200 to 250 anonymous crime tips coming into Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay Inc. each month are sent by someone using the Internet.

     "A lot of people like Web tipping because they don't have to talk to anyone and no one hears their voice," says Det. Lisa Haber, program coordinator for Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay Inc.

     Their voices aren't recorded and can't be identified by a voice recognition system.

     For the same reasons, anonymous text message tips from cell phones are becoming popular, too. Schools and law enforcement agencies around the world, including the Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City police departments, are now making Web tips and SMS text tipping available in their communities.

     Technologies that allow tipsters to communicate with officers via the Internet or text messages benefit tipsters and law enforcement.

     Haber describes law enforcement's ability to have ongoing anonymous two-way communication in one word: "priceless."

     On the phone, officers rarely have the opportunity to ask more questions. An informant may call once and never again, leaving many unanswered questions as the investigation unfolds.

     Larry Wieda, executive director of the Northern Colorado Crime Stoppers and past president of Crime Stoppers International Inc., says informants feel more comfortable with ongoing communications through the Web or text messages with no fear of their identities being compromised.

Keeping tipsters anonymous

     They don't need to be concerned either, at least not with TipSoft tip management software from Anderson Software LLC. When police officers use the TipSoft system, no one can obtain a tipster's IP address or, in the case of text messaging, an originating cell phone number. The TipSoft system is made secure and anonymous using a system of encrypted aliases, explains Anderson Software President Kevin Anderson.

Using TipSoft WebTips and TipSoft SMS

     TipSoft WebTips, released in 2005, is the Web-based component of TipSoft. To submit a tip in the Tampa Bay area, for example, people can go to www.crimestopperstb.com. Here they can click on a button to submit tips, and a form will come up on the screen for them to fill out. After they've submitted the form, they receive an automatic response with their tip number. They can also set up a password to log back into the system and have a two-way dialog.

     Within a few seconds of an informant submitting a tip, the tip is received in the TipSoft application and notifications can be sent to officers via e-mail. If they want more information, they can quickly reply back to the tipster through the online tip management application or even remotely through a secure application via their PDA. If tipsters are not immediately available, they often check back. Haber says tipsters who provide information using the Web or text messages are usually good about checking to see if she has sent them a message in reply. And if she asks for additional information, she says they are good about providing it.

     A dialog can last minutes, hours or even days. In one example, a lengthy text tip exchange led to the arrest of a fugitive felon.

     Tampa Bay receives many tips that lead to arrests on fugitive warrants, but the majority of the tips that come in are narcotics-related.

     When tips report the location of a fugitive, protocols are set up to notify dispatch centers. Tip lines, Web tips or text tips, however, should not be used for emergency communications and agencies need to remind the public of that.

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