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