Darren Bates thought he'd hit pay dirt when he wiggled his way out of the unfriendly confines of Hancock County Jail in Georgia last summer and fled to Philadelphia - away from imminent and unpleasant legal proceedings.
In Philadelphia, the escaped auto-theft convict enjoyed his newfound freedom by hanging out on MySpace, the social networking site, free from law enforcement - or so he thought.
Now Bates is back in Georgia facing multiple charges after police tracked him down via his MySpace page.
Law enforcement might not be everywhere, but police increasingly are following young adults and criminals on Internet sites like MySpace, where they seek out the Darren Bateses of the world who use their own names and inadvertently (and sometimes not so inadvertently) spill the beans about their criminal pursuits.
It's well known that sexual predators do much of their hunting online, where unsuspecting youths gather. And law enforcement is making its presence felt on these sites, trying to stop predators before they connect with children. But it's not just sexual predators who look for trouble on the Web. Drug addicts talk about their fixes online, and evidence of myriad crimes is waiting for police officers willing to log on.
"It's a necessity," said Todd Shipley, director of training services for the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, who instructs officers on fighting computer crime. "The fact is that there's so much crime being committed through the use of the Internet that it's something law enforcement can't avoid anymore," he said. "And it's going to become more a part of law enforcement in the near future - more than it has in the past - simply because they've got to keep up with what's going on in the world. Everybody is moving to the Internet, even the criminals."
A growing number of officers use the Internet to turn the tables on crooks.
In Nevada County, Calif., police recently logged onto MySpace and investigated a rapist by viewing his page and reading his habits.
Massachusetts police posted a video on YouTube showing two men using a stolen credit card to buy stuff at Home Depot. The idea was to get as many eyes on the video as possible in the hope that somebody would recognize the men and call police. It worked.
Police in south Florida had the same idea in February, streaming video on YouTube of a man in his 20s who was seen with a 78-year-old woman shortly before she was murdered. The rationale is that the same young people who might recognize the man are more likely to be viewing YouTube than watching the evening news.
At Penn State University, campus police busted a party and cited underage drinkers after learning about the party on Facebook, another popular social Web site. The surprise visit didn't go over well with the students, but their public information is fair game. There's no reasonable expectation of privacy when posting on the Internet.
Of course, police also are in tune with the online auctions and phishing scams, and they even peruse eBay and other sites for stolen property. If they find it, they set up a buyer and make an arrest.
"On the corporate side, investigators are using the Internet to investigate stolen property," Shipley said. "Big companies that deal with a large amount of product theft find the suspects and are buying back their property online and are conducting investigations that way."
Even homicide and domestic violence can be linked to the Internet. "We've had the occasional case where it's a domestic violence situation, and the person will write about what they want to do to this person in an e-mail, send them
the threat and follow through," said Mike Phillips, special agent supervisor of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Computer Crime Center.
"Back in the mid-'90s we used to ask the students to try to name the kinds of crimes that electronic evidence would just intuitively be found in, and of course what you heard was fraud and maybe cyber-stalking," said Robert Hopper, computer crimes section manager of the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C). "Today the question has changed. The question today is what crimes can you name that you couldn't potentially find electronic evidence? That's a big paradigm shift for law enforcement."
And police aren't just surfing the Internet looking for evidence after the fact; they're logged on regularly looking for lawbreakers and using the medium to focus attention on certain crimes and individuals. "It is a pop culture phenomenon. If you choose to ignore it, you're running the gamut of all the possible bad outcomes," said Detective Tom Stella, of the North Port, Fla., Police Department.
"It's across the board," said Detective Keith DePersia, of the Computer Crimes Unit in the Charlotte County, Fla., Sheriff's Office. DePersia spends two to three hours every day on the Web as part of a strategy implemented this year. Online he investigates everything from child pornography to stolen merchandise to drugs. "Believe it or not, people will advertise that they have drugs, even on MySpace," he said. On the Internet, drug users know they can find illegally sold prescription drugs, and college students know to look online to buy their choice drug rather easily.
"We're finding that a lot of the college students - what you would define as recreational users of drugs - are finding their dealers on the Internet and so we use undercover operations to try to identify these people," Phillips said.
Phillips said one-third of all routine cases - those conducted outside the computer crime center - are tied to computers in some fashion.
It's become routine for law enforcement to conduct background investigations on the Net instead of pulling information from criminal history files as they used to do, Phillips said. "It used to be that we would gather background information off public records and look through investigative files," he said. "Now we are doing searches on the computer for articles or Web sites that may contain information that gives us a little more insight into the suspect."
Criminals and crimes have remained much the same over the decades. What has changed is the way crimes are initiated and the way evidence is being collected.
"We still get the same old crime, but we're finding that in all investigative focus areas the computer has made a connection - whether it's a homicide where an e-mail threat was sent, or some communication, drugs users on MySpace, text messaging from cell phones or e-mail to hook up a drug deal to financial crimes," Phillips said. "There are tons of records on the Internet."
In one Florida case, the crime was painfully obvious, but it took computer know-how for the police to present the evidence in court. When a Florida man found that his wife had been chatting online with another man, his anger was so explosive that he shot both the wife and the hard drive of the computer she was chatting on.
Luckily Phillips and his investigators were able to capture vital information from the hard drive to piece together the story and show in court how the Internet chats provoked a raging fight, then a murder.
Police say certain criminals tend to be more forthright with their criminal exploits on the Internet. For instance, prostitutes are rather brazen about advertising on the Internet and most stalkers aren't shy. But drug dealers tend to be a little sneakier.
"For drugs, it's usually not that straightforward, somebody usually tips us off -