On social media, the term "friend" has a loose meaning. Some people have hundreds of friends and followers. Law enforcement has figured out how to use this to their advantage to elicit confessions, access incriminating evidence or set people up for arrests.
Local police or federal investigators will sometimes pretend to be someone else in order to gather information over the phone, over the internet or on social media. Sometimes they can get access to your private social media through the smartphone of an actual person who is connected to you. Read more about how to protect yourself from these tactics, many of which the police can legally use!
Police are getting smarter about smartphones
Law enforcement is always looking for new tactics. Now that everybody from school children to grandparents have cellphones, police are increasingly using that fact as a tool to fight crime. These are just some of the ways that police are using social media, the internet and smartphones:
- Undercover stings - Police have long used assumed identities to catch sexual predators, posing as underage teens who are willing to "hook up" for sex. Other investigators apply the same tactic, posing as others through text messages to set up drug deals, stolen property transactions and other crimes. It's not necessarily entrapment.
- Catfishing - Law enforcement officers will use phony accounts to "friend" people over social media to gain the trust of those individuals. Over days or weeks, they reel in their prey by getting them to share incriminating photos or texts. Courts have generally upheld this strategy. Sometimes police will team up with an "ex" or someone else who has inside information and an ax to grind against you.
- Coercing friends and family - Police cannot legally hack your phone calls and there are limits on what they can do if they seize your phone. But they don't need to hack you or get a warrant if someone you know voluntarily shows them incriminating texts, emails or pix that you sent to their phone. Law enforcement will lean on connections, threatening to arrest those people as accomplices unless they provide information that will help convict their suspect.
- Asking for an apology - Police may pose as the victim of a crime (such as sexual assault or domestic violence) to contact the offender to trick them into apologizing or verifying the incident. The response can be used in court as an admission of guilt.
- Cold calls - Police will call or text suspects or people with outstanding warrants and leave ominous messages that they will soon be arrested unless they turn themselves in. It works surprisingly often. People show up at the police station and say "You're looking for me? Here I am."
As long as the information or admission is legally obtained, it can and will be used against you if you are charged with a crime. Email, text, SnapChat, Instagram, Facebook - everything. Law enforcement can even resurrect things you thought you had erased.
How you can protect yourself
Your public profiles and anything you post for the world to see can be used against you. But police cannot access your private social media accounts without a warrant, and Facebook and other media companies resist those intrusions. However, if you willingly "friend" someone, even if they are not who they say they are, many courts have ruled that anything you share is fair game. Don't post anything to social media - even to your Circle of Trust - that could be construed as criminal activity or aiding and abetting a crime. This includes photos of drug use, underage drinking, illegal firearms or stolen items.
If someone leaves a message claiming they are the police and they have a warrant or want to "talk to you," you can contact the police department to verify that it is a real officer and whether there is an active warrant for your arrest. You can also call a lawyer. Whatever you do, don't go down to the police station or give any statement over the phone.
Make sure that your social media privacy settings are set to maximum protection. Be careful who you message, who you friend and what you say. Assume that anything that leaves your smartphone could end up in the wrong hands.
If you suspect you are under investigation or that your smartphone or private social media have been compromised, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer.