The Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department has been creating covert social media accounts to investigate social network-based crimes and catch criminals.
The initiative began in November 2012 to track potential criminal activity after sheriff’s investigators learned many drug deals were being openly discussed on social media sites, Sheriff Mark Gorbett said.
Some dealers were openly bragging about their illegal exploits and putting up pictures of their offenses, he said.
A recent Pew research study found a Facebook user who uses the site multiple times a day is more than three times as likely as non-Internet users to feel that most people can be trusted. That trust aids the police’s investigations.
“Hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country are doing the same thing, and are now sharing the information they receive,” Gorbett said of the sting operations.
To date, the covert social media accounts have produced two arrests.
A 27-year-old Columbus man was arrested Nov. 30, accused of selling methamphetamine. He was preliminarily charged with dealing in a Schedule I controlled substance with intent to sell, and resisting law enforcement. Formal charges have not yet been filed. Although final lab results have not been received for the substance, Gorbett said his investigators believe the Columbus man was attempting to sell counterfeit methamphetamine over the Internet when he was arrested.
A 46-year-old Edinburgh man was arrested Jan. 10, accused of using a social network website to solicit sex. When the subject arrived at a local motel early that afternoon for a Web-arranged contact, he was met by an undercover female officer. After the two agreed on a price and money traded hands, two male undercover officers arrested the Edinburgh man, Gorbett said. Formal charges could take up to two months to be filed, authorities said.
The results of the Sheriff’s Department investigation indicate that the Edinburgh man had been soliciting for sex over the same social network for at least three weeks, Gorbett said.
He added that the man was fortunate something worse didn’t happen to him.
“He may not see it now, but he’s lucky he’s only facing embarrassment and a misdemeanor,” Gorbett said. “He could have been robbed, disfigured, permanently disabled, or even killed by someone who wasn’t an undercover officer. You just don’t know who you are communicating with over these social networks.”
Gorbett said people need to be careful about whom they communicate with on social media sites and what information they share.
“Because of its anonymity, the only thing that crimes involving social-media sites are going to do is increase over time,” Gorbett predicted.
Data from the Internet Crime Complaint Center back up Gorbett’s assertion.
The agency, a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center, was created in 2000 because of the increasing number of online fraud cases.
The center received nearly 125,000 complaints in 2003, more than 207,000 in 2004 and more than 300,000 in 2009, 2010 and 2011, according to its 2011 annual report. The 2012 annual report has not yet been released.
FBI-related scams, identity theft and advance fee fraud were the three most common complaints received in 2011, the annual report said.
While the sheriff is encouraging parents to keep warning their children about the perils of social-media sites, he stressed adults need to heed that same advice.
Gorbett said his department would “continue trolling the Internet.”