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."


Changing Tactics

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."


Not-So-Perfect Crimes

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 -

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor