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.