How to locate fugitives with Facebook by Seth Davis
John Dillinger might not have been such a successful bank robber if he had kept a Facebook page. These days, more and more bail agents, private investigators and law enforcement agencies are using social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to locate hard-to-find fugitives. With a quick Google search and a little creativity, it is now possible to find out everything you need to know about your subject without leaving the office.
Social networking has become an especially useful tool for bail agents who stand to lose money if they can't locate their skip. Some fugitives will leave town and remove nearly all physical evidence of their whereabouts, yet they faithfully update their Facebook page and give away details that lead to their capture. In New York, for example, one fugitive who had been on the run for months listed detailed information about himself on Facebook and MySpace including the town he lived in, the name of the tattoo parlor where he worked and even his work hours. It seems like some fugitives are practically begging to be caught, which is why you should include social networking in your efforts to locate fugitives.
Social networking use in legal industries slowly gaining momentum
Even though social networking sites are home to many criminals and fugitives, their pursuers have been slow to follow. Vic Pichette, president of Genesis Investigations in Rhode Island, began using social networking during investigations about two years ago. It has since become the first step of any attempt to gather background information or locate people. Pichette has seen a gradual increase in the number of people conducting investigations via social networking, but he said there is still a long way to go.
"It bums me out that people don't understand not only how they can use it to locate somebody and get background information, but use it as your own tool to make money and promote yourself and brand yourself as a professional," Pichette said.
David Stuckman, from American Surety Bail Bonds in Manhattan, Kansas, said the younger generation of bail agents has a head start because most of them are already familiar with social networking. But he thinks that veteran bail agents are starting to come around.
"If it's a bondsman that's in his 20s and 30s, he knows how Facebook works," Stuckman said. "I've actually got a flowchart on how to do it myself because I'm in my 50s, or I'll recruit one of the younger people. The older generation is saying that it's a pretty good idea."
Assuming a new online identity
Stuckman said Facebook is his site of choice for finding people who have skipped town. His company is located near both Kansas State University and Fort Riley, a military base, so the majority of his skips are college students or GIs between 18 and 25 who have committed "minor" offenses such as DUI. In order to locate some of these kids, Stuckman said he has to trick them into talking to him on Facebook. One of his favorite techniques is for him, his son or his daughter to create a dummy account on Facebook so the subject thinks he or she is being contacted by another college student. After establishing dialogue with the subject, they send a message asking where he is, or telling him they are holding onto a check that came in the mail for him and that he should come pick it up.
Once Stuckman and his associates have gained the trust of the subject on Facebook, they begin gently probing for information that they can use to locate him. Stuckman asks questions such as what kind of bars the subject frequents, which tells him a lot because there are only a certain number of sports bars, Western bars and reggae bars in Manhattan. If the subject says he attends KSU football games, Stuckman might strike up a conversation by saying, "I think I saw you the other night at the KSU game." Another trick Stuckman employs is to befriend the subject's friends online and ask if they've seen the subject because he owes him $50.
Stuckman said that many times they eventually tell the person that he or she is talking to a bail agent. At that point, they attempt to talk the person into returning. Even if they aren't successful, they can print out the time- and date-stamped communication and show it to the judge, which proves that they are in contact with the subject. This proof of effort is often enough to convince the judge to give them more time to bring the person back.
Protecting your own privacy
Flow of online information is a two-way superhighway, meaning you might be just as guilty of sharing too much information as the people you're trying to find. Be very selective about the information you share online when using social networking sites for personal use. Phil Johnson, owner of J J Associates International in the U.K., offered some advice for protecting yourself.
"Just put on what you would be willing to share with your friends," Johnson said. "If you do not want your phone number, e-mail or personal address, do not put it there."
How to use social networking to your advantage
If you are interested in using social networking to find people or gather background information, here are six tips to get you started:
1. Create accounts for social networking sites you want to use for searches. Joining social networking sites is usually free and easy, and it allows you more access to subjects' profiles than if you are not a member. Popular sites include:
* Social Mention
2. Start your investigation by entering search terms related to your subject into search engines such as Yahoo!, Google and Bing. These terms include names, addresses and telephone numbers. Johnson recommends searching for relatives, interests and information about places the subject frequents because this data is useful for skip tracing and process serving.
3. Search for the person using sites such as Pipl and Social Mention, which may turn up information that the big search engines miss.
4. If your broad searches are not proving fruitful, try searching for the person on specific social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
5. Vic Pichette recommends setting up Google Alerts or using sites like Social Mention to set social media alerts. These alerts notify you whenever news or information related to your subject pops up online.
6. Some bail agents and investigators are more comfortable pretending to be someone else on social networking sites to gain the confidence of a subject, so whether you choose to use that tactic is up to you. You should check the rules in your state to make sure there are no laws against creating a fake profile for investigative purposes. If you choose to do it, customize each effort to the person you are tracking. Create a profile that looks like it could be someone the subject knows, use what you know about the subject to tailor the profile, and adopt a convincing persona when contacting the subject.
The Internet has made the world a much smaller place, and with a quick search you might find who you're looking for right in your own backyard. Using social networking can be a trial-and-error process because it's still a relatively new investigative technique, but the results are often well worth the effort. And if you need a little help, why not enlist the help of your nearest neighborhood teenager.
Story by Seth Davis