Investigating with social media

Did you hear about the woman who stole a car and robbed a bank in Nebraska, then posted a YouTube video bragging about it? And calling herself “Chick Bank Robber”? Here’s the Omaha World Herald account, with the video.

Your fictional law enforcement officers and amateur sleuths simply must use social media. Why? Because we all do — including the crooks. Law enforcement agencies have units dedicated to social media investigation — and they’re searching for evidence in all kinds of cases, not just cybercrime. Many use online investigation services and databases, such as Leads Online, which calls itself “the nation’s largest online investigation system used by law enforcement to recover stolen property, help stop meth makers, reduce metal theft, and solve crimes.” This article in the Daily InterLake describes one police department’s use of the service to recover $20,000 worth of property in the first two months, justifying the $2,500 annual fee.

Law firms routinely search public profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, and other sources for public information on opposing parties, on their own clients — you gotta know what they’re really up to — key witnesses, and more. To my knowledge, all state bars and ethics committees that have addressed the issue have concluded that a lawyer and staff may not “friend” an opposing party or adverse witness to obtain information.

Pedophiles and probationers with sentences that restrict their use of computers sometimes post on Facebook. People claiming injuries — from workplace incidents, car accidents, and other causes — that limit their activities often post photos of a day skiing or riding snowmobiles. Dumb — but common.  Your fictional investigators should look.

According to the Next Gen eDiscovery Law & Tech blog, published cases involving social media jumped more than 85% in the first half of 2012 over the first half of 2011.  Next Gen also says 83% of LEO are using social media to investigate crimes. The blog is a good source of info on social media investigation, in both criminal and civil cases, and related legal issues.

And NPR reported recently on a Pennsylvania’s police department’s use of Pinterest to share mugshots of people wanted and to identify suspects from surveillance photos — with a dramatic increase in arrests and tips.

For writers, the possibilities are limitless. In S.J. Rozan’s On the Line (2010), PI Bill Smith enlists Lydia Chin’s hacker cousin Linus to help find and free Lydia–and Linus uses Facebook to share info and call on friends to help. It’s a great example–and a believable one.

But in a series, the challenge is to avoid repetitive plots. If your amateur sleuth uses Facebook to track down a witness or find a photograph that puts the suspect at the scene of the crime in Book One, she can’t do the same thing in Book Two. But you can’t ignore it, either.

How are your characters using social media?