Police utilizing social media to help catch criminals

ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Social media is often a virtual playground for cyber bullies or fake Facebook accounts, but the internet has also proven to be a vital tool in bringing criminals to justice.

The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office posted a list of active warrants online, and it garnered more than 20,000 views on Facebook. Less than one week later, 15 people were in custody.

Social media has become one of the most advantageous crime-fighting tools.

Some criminals can’t resist bragging online. One example is the self-proclaimed ‘Chicken Chasers,’ who were arrested and convicted on drug charges.

Police dismantled the drug ring after using Facebook to identify key members. They posted photos of matching tattoos and ill-gotten money, according to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office.

“With that case it was useful in giving us geographical locations on their whereabouts and when we knew they were coming to the area,” Lt. Steve Stockdale, of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, said.

Leveraging Facebook is one of the many ways police use social media to solve crimes. It’s become a vital component to the policing toolbox.

Think cops and robbers 2.0

“Frequently we find a good deal of chatter about what we’re looking for,” Stockdale said. “We’re living in an age of full disclosure.”

“As our IT guys tell us, you can delete all you want, it never goes away,” Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said.

Sheriff Apple says popular sites like Craigslist have even tipped off law enforcement to tax fraud.

An online bread trail once led investigators to a local man selling untaxed cigarettes, which robbed consumers upwards of six figures.

“We were able to trace that back to NYC where the feds hit a cargo container that was full,” Sheriff Apple said.

When it comes to stolen items, social media is the ultimate snitch.

Sheriff Apple says they’ve recovered stolen crane trucks, lawn mowers, and skid steer loaders.

“That’s how people are trying to make money now,” he said. “I mean a lot of criminals are just doing stupid things. They’ll steal, and then they just try to push it on social media. They basically try to hide in plain sight.”

Social media is also helping police to identify victims. Sites like Backpage are sometimes a front for prostitution rings and sex-trafficking.

We saw how big the problem is in the Capital Region during a NEWS10 ABC investigation last year.

A victim speaking on anonymity to NEWS10 told reporter Trishna Begam how she was sold off by the time she was 14.

“I was taken by knife point and forced into a car. Then, I was given a lot of drugs, and I was forced to actually walk the streets.”

When technology mixes with traditional police work, investigations touch down at hotels, truck stops, and street corners. Police are reaching victims too afraid to step forward.

“One of the things we’re worried about here mostly is sex trafficking,” Lt. Stockdale said. “People are being held against their will and forced into this line work because who shows up is not the girl in the picture. You’re going to get who they send you.”

Most agencies have an arsenal of social media related arrests, which proves the advantage of the internet is the perfect crime-solving partner.

“It’s becoming part of our daily ritual of checking the internet constantly,” Sheriff Apple said. “Our IT guys do it all the time. If they see something suspicious, they’ll kick it over and say you guys might want to look at this.”

And those IT guys don’t necessarily need to have a background in law enforcement. One local agency hired a former math teacher.

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