Where once the local drive-in, school dance or movie theater were the "in" places to hang out, today's teens increasingly log onto the Internet to connect. But young people aren't the only ones plugging in to a social life. Law enforcement officials are using online social networks, such as MySpace.com or Xanga.com, as networking tools of their own — allowing them to spot illegal activity and identify criminals within their jurisdiction.
"If you're going to be in child protection or juvenile work, this is where the kids are," says Det. Rich Wistocki of the Naperville (Illinois) Police Department, who made national headlines for his arrest of John Wentworth, a Naperville man who used his MySpace account to introduce himself to teens and arrange sexual encounters. But this case certainly wasn't his last.
A recent cruise through MySpace turned up a photo of a young Asian girl holding about 5 pounds of uncut weed still wrapped in cellophane. Wistocki tipped off the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency about this image. A visit to a local gang-banger's site uncovered a photo of the man buried in nearly 20 pounds of marijuana with a gun on his chest. Undercover narcotics agents built a case from this picture, he says.
"There is so much intel on these sites," he says. "Online, kids will talk about just about anything and it gets them into trouble because they don't think the police are on MySpace."
According to his MySpace page, the 41-year-old San Bruno, California, resident was single, a nonsmoker and nondrinker, and counted an online stripper among his six friends. But a news article on Wired.com notes California's online database of registered sex offenders offers a different story about the same man, one that includes convictions for forced sodomy, oral sex and "lewd and lascivious" acts with a person under the age of 14.
This individual is just one of the more than 73 million registered users occupying space on MySpace.com. Known as one of the most popular networking services available, this site stands out because of the unique services it offers. Not only are users able to post profiles and blogs, but they can customize their Web pages by adding photos, videos and music. The service also offers instant messaging (IM), e-mail, chat rooms, bulletins and forums.
While MySpace ranks as the most popular Internet socialization site — accounting for 4.5 percent of all U.S. Web activity each day — there are other sites as well, including TeenSpot, Xanga and FaceBook.
Free to be me
For many kids online social networks offer a place to exercise their individuality, free from the prying eyes of parents, teachers and other adults. "It's their way of dealing with school or parents; on MySpace they can actually talk to someone without getting yelled at," says Ada (Ohio) Police Patrolman Rick McGinnis, who combs local MySpace pages to monitor youth behavior.
It's also a place for teens to hook up with other adolescents, in their community and beyond. "MySpace is becoming a computer social club," says Sgt. John Weaver of the Placer County (California) Sheriff's Department. "This is becoming their social club after school."
And there's nothing wrong with that per se, adds McGinnis, who has trained with Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC), the Ohio Peace Officers Training Academy and the FBI on high-tech computer crimes. "Kids that age need an outlet for their feelings, and MySpace is a good place to express them," he says. "They just need to be careful what they list and how they list it, especially about themselves and their friends. I've come across sites where they've listed their phone numbers, addresses, ages and more, which really opens the door for predators."
The majority of teens use MySpace as intended, adds Weaver. But Placer County's 14-member Juvenile and Community Services Unit, which includes school resource, D.A.R.E. and community service officers, routinely monitors this site for the select few who use it inappropriately. These teens post dope pictures, party images, tasteless photographs, and even brag online about their crime involvement, says McGinnis. This information, the 15-year law enforcement veteran says, provides leads law enforcement may not obtain otherwise.
Through these forays, these agencies have discovered that social networking sites also proffer a dark side, where in the shadows, predators lurk and illegal acts are committed.
"I don't think kids realize the degree to which their personal information is public," says Keith Durkin, a criminologist at Ohio Northern University who has studied the Internet and deviant behavior for more than a decade. "They just think their buddies are reading their MySpace; they don't realize creeps examine it as well.
"The thing that scares me is that part of being a young person is finding your identity and pushing your boundaries a little bit, and the Internet appears safe for them to do that," he continues. "But it's not — it's just not."
The power of online data
In the world of law enforcement, the phrase "Information is knowledge and knowledge is power" reigns true. MySpace offers cops a new resource to learn "who's who" among the criminal element in their communities and illegal happenings among area teens. "Cop work is a lot of information," Weaver says. "And MySpace offers tons of that."
All law enforcement should have access to MySpace, agrees Wistocki, who notes his department encounters one to two cases a week from MySpace leads. Unfortunately, he says, some agencies still resist employing these sites as investigative tools. Officers in one agency once boasted to him their community didn't have an online-crime problem. That same department later confronted a case where a 13-year-old girl transmitted nude pictures of herself to a sex offender. Yet, officials in this organization still refused Wistocki's offer to assist.
"But law enforcement agencies must have this kind of expertise," he stresses. "It's the wave of the future."
Wistocki maintains three MySpace accounts — one as an officer, another as a young girl and a third as a teenage boy. If predators want to connect, they send him a message — he doesn't go after them — and then Wistocki lies in wait to see where the offender wants to take the relationship.
In a recent case of his, a 13-year-old girl believed she was corresponding with an 18-year-old African-American male model, whose father counted Donald Trump among his friends. The predator solicited the teen's nude pictures to "help" her land a modeling contract. This action led to cyber sex and further requests for unsavory pictures. By teaming with the FBI, the veteran officer determined the individual, a registered sex offender, lived in the basement of a Salt Lake City, Utah, Cyber café. He assumed the girl's identity to help the FBI catch him in the act.
Networking with teens
Predators are not the only reason law enforcement should plug in to online social networks. Monitoring local Web postings conveys a lot about what's going down in the community. Weaver recommends juvenile officers search MySpace by high school name — though searches by name, screen name and e-mail also are possible — to pinpoint area teens logged in. "I can pull up 400 kids' sites in 5 seconds," he says. In MySpace's "Browse" section, authorities also can query by location, age, interest, body type, education, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. In order to search individuals under the age of 18, authorities must log in as being between the ages of 14 and 18.
A wealth of intel can be uncovered this way. "It seems a lot of common sense and inhibitions disappear on MySpace," he says. "They wouldn't walk around in public with their bong, but teens think they can put a picture of that on MySpace and it's OK."
These records arm investigators with another piece of the investigative and community policing puzzle. The Placer County Sheriff's Department's Youth and Community Services Unit counts educating kids about drugs and other social issues among its primary goals. When their online ventures uncover drug information in blogs or images, officers question the teens involved about their drug usage.
"We can start an investigation right there," he says.
And, this is how Placer authorities nabbed one teen in a recent arrest. A school resource officer found a local teen had uploaded images of himself smoking pot onto MySpace. The official talked to the youth, expressing concern about his drug use. This investigative work eventually led to a search of the student's car where authorities found bomb-making materials, knives and drugs.
"That case was off of one picture on MySpace," Weaver recalls. "I firmly believe we prevented a crime by being proactive."
Such records also help authorities remove an adolescent from their radar. Take for instance a situation in Ada, where a 16-year-old boy's screen name appeared threatening. Other citizens notified the police with concerns that the teen might harm someone, based on this screen name. Police conferred with the teen, who disclosed he copied the name from a video game — something that would have never been known had authorities not spoken with him.
In other cases, this data offers an excellent way to notify parents about a teen's risky activities. Obviously, if it's a criminal case, police contact parents after an arrest, but if it involves a lesser offense, such as uploading inappropriate photographs, officers can speak to the parents and show them what their child has been doing online.
"The kids say it's a violation of their privacy, but they are the ones putting it in the public eye," Weaver says. "I tell them anywhere any of your friends or any other citizen of the United States can go, I, as a police officer, can go as well."
Walking a fine line
Placer County officers are not instructed when or how often to go online. They are simply advised of their ability to do this. "I tell officers to use it but not abuse it, because I am watching them," says Weaver. To further ensure proper online conduct, Wistocki advises selecting proven personnel, who can be trusted with sensitive evidence and work well alone.
According to Weaver, most Placer County officers spend 1 to 2 hours a week online. He points out once officers separate the good kids from the problem youth, there are less sites to monitor.
But monthly monitoring works well for McGinnis, who notes there isn't much happening in the quiet community of Ada. He advises agencies to not over-monitor these sites nor over-react to the information they contain.
When it comes to MySpace, law enforcement is definitely faced with a dilemma, Durkin agrees. If officers use MySpace to bust up every beer party in town, they may not be able to solicit cooperation from young people in larger cases. "It's a fine line," he says.
All a big lie
"The Internet's anonymity makes it easy to lie -- you can be anybody you want online," says McGinnis. When law enforcement assumes an undercover identity to catch a creep online, they are simply turning the tables on the predators.
Because would-be predators scrutinize each profile's legitimacy to avoid law enforcement detection, McGinnis points out it's critical to create a suitable — and believable — online identity. And once undercover, an officer must remember all the details of this pseudo identity. Creating a reference page including all profile data, such as height, weight, breast size, piercings, tattoos, jewelry, and the kind of cars, music and television shows the individual likes, can help. "It is ideal to have a sheet with this information in front of you," McGinnis explains. "The predators will use not only one profile but three or four to see if you answer their questions the same."
Other tips to creating a plausible online identity, as recommended by Durkin, include:
- Showing vulnerability in the online persona. A weak or abusive father figure or parent-absent home shows a would-be predator the teen lacks a strong male figure or parental influence. To a predator this indicates the young person may be easily manipulated or exploited.
- Being isolated or lonely. Saying you're new to town, you can't make any friends, you're home schooled or suspended from school offers consistency — there's no reason to question why you're online on a Monday morning if you're home schooled or suspended.
- Exhibiting interest in alcohol or drugs. If a meeting is arranged, and the individual arrives with a case of beer for the teen, this shows intent and extra charges may be filed.
- Using age-appropriate words and grammar. "You have to sound like a 15-year-old," he says. "It can't look like a third-year law student is writing it." The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lists chat room acronyms to use. ICAC task forces also educate officers on pop culture.
Once online, officers must adhere to ICAC's rules of engagement in predator investigations. Included among these rules are: officers should not use their home computer, the computer must not be networked, and upon receiving inappropriate images, a specific protocol must be followed. For more information on ICAC's investigative guidelines, visit www.icactraining.org.
When corresponding with a predator, officers should mention their undercover age at least three times to eliminate claims of deception after an arrest has been made, notes McGinnis. He also encourages officials to allow potential offenders to add their online identity to their MySpace accounts, lending credibility to a case. Once arrested these individuals often deny contacting the officer, but if he or she accepted the officer as a friend, MySpace maintains a record of that.
MySpace offers other assistance to law enforcement officials, who can simply request the organization's Law Enforcement Investigators Guide, which sets up the proper way to handle a MySpace complaint from the police department. The guide, available by e-mailing LawEnforcement@MySpace.com, provides sample cover letters and a multitude of other information to help law enforcement collect the correct information.
"Law enforcement and parents need to know there's nothing MySpace won't do when it comes to protecting children," he says. "With appropriate paperwork, they will do whatever it takes to protect a child."
But perhaps the ultimate protection is to drive home the message to kids that the Internet is for "enhancing existing relationships, not making new ones," says Durkin. In the world of Internet socialization, never talking to strangers has never rang more true.