Not one, but two stories of criminals foiled by their own selfies have made the headlines this past week. Tanya Peele, a 26-year-old Atlanta woman, is accused of setting up a fake business account at JP Morgan, then using that account to steal over $100,000. When Peele went to withdraw the allegedly stolen cash, JP Morgan’s security cameras caught her on video. Atlanta police matched the video to selfies she had posted on her Facebook page.
Michigan bank robber Jules Bahler pled guilty this week to robbing a Bank of America branch. Like Peele, Bahler was caught on one of the bank’s security cameras. Police later identified him through Facebook posts of selfies he took while holding the same submachine gun he used to carry out the robbery.
One would think that any criminal would want to keep a low profile both online and off. But criminals are caught because of their online presence all the time (don’t believe me? Just google “criminal” and “selfie”). The most famous such case we’ve written about is that of Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind behind the illicit e-commerce site Silk Road. Ulbricht posted his personal email address on a message board about Silk Road, which eventually led to his arrest.
Most of our clients are lawyers, so we have to be careful when dealing with social media. Ethics rules prohibit us from reaching out to represented parties on social media or “friending” people under false pretenses to gain information that could be helpful to a client’s case. In our experience, you often don’t need to be sneaky to find fantastic information.
We were once able to track down a witness in a case because she posted a picture of herself at a bar on a publicly-viewable social media site. In the background, we saw the name of the bar reflected in a mirror, tracked it down, and found out that she was a bartender there.
In fact, we were also able to find the defendant in that case because he obsessively tweeted messages to attractive female talk show hosts. His geocoded tweets showed that they were coming from California. Until we found his Twitter account, we weren’t sure whether he was living in California or at his parents’ house in Oklahoma. Mystery solved thanks to social media!
As part of our comprehensive pre-investigation briefing process, we always ask our clients to identify the target’s e-mail and social media handles. We have found that HappyGuy73@email.com will also be HappyGuy73 on social media sites and message boards. In one case, our subject, who was a high-level executive at a very large bank, was involved in running a mud wrestling ring in Nevada. We found out because he had posted comments on a mud wrestling message board using a social media handle that our clients had given us.
We have said time and time again that a Google search is never enough for a thorough investigation. However, it can come in handy when using an individual’s online presence to track down information that they have chosen, however ill-advisedly, to reveal about themselves online.