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Crime fighting: There’s an app for that

Law enforcement use social media to solve crimes, find missing persons

Earlier this summer, a vehicle was found abandoned in La Plata County. Local law enforcement responded and had reason to believe the owner of the vehicle, a man from South Carolina, was suicidal and possibly dead.

As search parties were being assembled in an attempt to locate the man, Suess Beyer, a forensic examiner for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, began his search for the man using a computer. Beyer found the man’s Facebook profile and sent him and his friends messages. His friends were able to get a hold of the man, who said his car broke down and he took a bus to get back to Durango. Beyer used Apple’s FaceTime to confirm the man was OK.

“The speed that we got this done using the tools that we have saved hours of sending more search parties out to try to find him,” Beyer said. “Something that would have taken days to find out, we got handled in a few hours.”

Whether it be solving crimes, locating missing people or mining information about potential suspects, law enforcement has increasingly used social media to aid officers in their daily duties. As a forensic examiner, Beyer examines phones, computers and social media to gather information to aid investigations. Currently, he is working on 23 cases and will in some way investigate social media accounts for all of them.

“The majority of people are all on social media,” Beyer said. “I’m not saying that everyone uses social media, but there’s a lot of people, and a majority of them use some sort of media.”

Beyer has an iPad with several social media applications that he uses to investigate crimes. Because new social media applications pop up all the time, Beyer regularly downloads the new apps.

“There’s so many of them now that you have to keep on top of all of them,” Beyer said. “And they keep coming all the time, and as an officer, you have to do the research. They’re not all going to be the same.”

For example, Beyer recently downloaded the app Tik Tok, formerly known as musical.ly, a live video broadcasting app that has recently increased in popularity. Though he has yet to use the app to help in an investigation, he believes the popularity of the app and the number of people on it will necessitate its use.

“These apps are not designed for criminal activity, but people will find out how to use them for criminal activity,” Beyer said.

When Beyer is tasked with looking up a suspect or person of interest, he usually searches for them on social media platforms. A lot of people use similar usernames for multiple sites, so once he finds a common username, he can begin to gather information from various platforms. Even if people use fake names, with enough cross-referencing, Beyer can discover someone’s true identity.

“What used to be a dead-end – they used a fake name and a fake phone number – everyone is starting to link themselves in via numerous social media applications,” Beyer said. “They use all kinds of them.”

Beyer uses fake profiles to scour the different social media platforms. He has four or five Twitter accounts, a couple of Instagram accounts and has so many Facebook profiles that he has lost count.

“You can do it with such ease now,” Beyer said. “In four or five minutes, you have a fake page.”

If a potential suspect has a Facebook page set to private, all Beyer can use is the individual’s profile picture. He has no legal authority to attempt to obtain information via any other means. The only information he can legally obtain is public posts, he said.

Beyer also uses social media to investigate thefts. He uses some of the fake Facebook profiles to join online garage sale groups specific to Durango. When items are reported stolen, he’ll simply search for what was missing and investigate from behind a computer screen.

“It used to be you would search pawn shops,” he said. “Nowadays, I just search these groups on Facebook or look on Craigslist. It’s the same stuff that we do. It’s just newer technology.”

Social media also allows the public to have a direct link of communication with law enforcement. For example, in early July, San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad received a photo featuring three people illegally driving motorcycles off-road over the alpine tundra in the Eureka Gulch area north of Silverton.

Conrad posted the photo on the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, where the suspects were identified by commenters.

“It worked like a charm,” he said.

Law enforcement also uses social media to post messages to the community, which can provide valuable information. Every Tuesday, the Durango Police Department posts a wanted poster on its Facebook page. After the post is public, police regularly receive tips in the form of Facebook messages, which are passed along to officers during their daily online briefing.

“Some of the tips have helped us catch somebody quite a few times,” said administrative officer Cindi Taylor, who runs the page. “It’s helped us quite a bit.”

Though the department receives tips via the Facebook page, it isn’t the intended use. The department’s goal for the page is to improve its relationship with the community. The DPD posts community events, updates about investigations and Q&As, where users can ask questions and receive answers in a timely manner, she said.

“Our biggest thing is to be as transparent as possible with the community,” Taylor said. “We just want to put everything out there and let people know what we’re doing.”

asemadeni@durangoherald.com

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