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.