Ultimately, we’re going to look at some specific instances of social media activity coming back to haunt people in the courtroom.
But first, let’s consider how law enforcement uses social media to investigate criminal activity.
A friend of mine related a story to me about how the police use social media to identify individuals like pedophiles or to conduct drug dealer investigations. Police will often set up fake Facebook accounts to snare a variety of criminal types, but none are more active than those searching for pedophiles.
An officer will create an account using a photo of an underage girl, for example. It’s usually one of those photos where the young lady is trying to look older and sexy, as so many young women try to do on social media.
The incident my friend relates is about a cop who was being lazy, thereby making a page that would fool only the dumbest of criminals.
I have a teenage daughter, and we monitor her Facebook activity as best we can. In the process, I have taken note of how she and her friends interact, the kinds of things they post, the way they decorate their pages with digital bling.
My friend works in entertainment and social media, so he regularly deals with a large number of friend requests. Because his feed sometimes contains harsh language or touches on topics he feels are inappropriate for children, he only accepts requests from people age 18 and up.
“The one exception I make is when I am friends with the kid’s parents” he says. “And even then, I draw the line at 16, and they must have their parents permission or I won’t add them. I became very uncomfortable on one occasion when I noticed a friend’s daughter, who was 13 at the time, had been commenting on my posts. Because my posts are set to public viewing, she was seeing them turn up in her mom’s feed. I wrote her mom a note and suggested she adjust her daughter’s settings to block posts from my feed. She did and we’ve had no issues since.”
The tale he relates about the “Lazy Cop” (his term) is both amusing and alarming.
“I get this request from a very pretty young lady” he said. “The first thing I notice is we have no friends in common, but sometimes, because I’m in entertainment, I take into account this person may have seen my post activity and simply finds my posts amusing, so the first thing I do is check their page out, and the first thing I look at is their age. If they’re under 18, I drop them a note explaining I don’t accept friend requests from people under 18, because I don’t want to hurt their feelings. But this page was different. It looked like it was a grown man’s version of what a teenage girls profile would look like. Very little bling, no kittens at all, no silly girlish posts from friends, no talk of boys they like, or music young people are listening to. Just a series of posts– very few from her– from creepy older men thanking her for the friend add, or worse, making sexually charged remarks and suggestions. After a few moments, I realized it was a fake profile.”
What my friend had encountered was a classic online “sting” operation. Once he realized it, he could have simply declined the request and moved on, but he didn’t.
“It really kind of bothered me” he says. “I thought, ‘Jeez, could you try a little harder, Officer?’ I mean, I’m all for busting perverts who target children, yet this was so obvious to me, I felt I had to say something, so I wrote the officer a note.”
Basically, my friend took a few moments to make some suggestions about how to make the page more believable. I couldn’t help but laugh as he described taking the officer to task for a sloppy job and lambasting him (or her) for not including any kittens at all!
But something inside me said, “Damn, he’s right.” I mean, I have a teenaged daughter and I certainly want the police to bring their A-Game when engaging in this type of activity. Here was an example of bad police work, the kind of thing that a former Prosecutor like myself finds unacceptable. If you’re going to engage in sting operations, you better cross your “T’s” and dot your “I’s”.
My friend used the term, “Creepy Older Men”, and I’m sure some were. Others might just be careless, and automatically approve a friend request from a pretty girl without first checking who and how old she was. As a Criminal Defense Attorney, I cringe at the thought of how this might play out should it be revealed during a criminal trial or a child custody case. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, and even if it was an innocent mistake, a revelation like this could do serious damage to the credibility of the person in question on many fronts.
So the next time a pretty young girl sends a friend request, verify her age before deciding to become friends. A forty year old man has very little in common with a 16 year old girl, so why a grown man would even accept such a request is questionable in the extreme.
And to my friends in law enforcement, please do some research before setting up fake profiles.