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The Boston Globe: “Predators beware: Face on MySpace may be police decoy”

When a 12-year-old middle school student from Raynham began receiving sexually explicit messages on her MySpace page from someone she didn’t know, she found a way to turn the tables on her harasser.

The girl printed out the conversations and brought them to Louis F. Pacheco, a policeman who works in the public schools as the school resource officer. Pacheco phoned MySpace and got right to work.

This was not Pacheco’s first time looking for a sexual predator on MySpace. Pacheco says he has several fake profiles on Facebook and MySpace – posing as a young girl, a little boy, or as an older gang member – in an attempt to make contact with wrongdoers.

“The bottom line is these predators pretended to be someone they’re not, [so] sometimes we have to pretend to be someone we’re not,” he said, and do “whatever it takes to track this person down.”

As social networking websites such as MySpace and Facebook become ubiquitous, more police are using these sites for their detective work, particularly in cases that involve young people.

These efforts are not welcomed by Facebook, which discourages false profiles, and some civil libertarians, who argue that fake profiles amount to warrantless searches. But in an informal survey of 22 police departments in the region, officials in 14 of them said they use these types of social networking for investigations.

In West Bridgewater, police tracked down a missing 15-year-old girl in November, thanks to a social networking site, said Detective Sergeant Victor Flaherty.

After finding the girl’s MySpace page, Flaherty said he contacted MySpace, obtained the Internet provider address of the computer the girl was using, and was at her front door in about two hours. The girl, who had been missing for a couple of weeks, was at her boyfriend’s house, 45 minutes away.

He explained that in emergency cases, such as this one, no subpoenas were necessary.

Detectives at the West Bridgewater Police Department also have fake profiles on MySpace and Facebook – complete with false names and photos – which they use to scan for information about drug deals, fights in schools, and underage drinking parties.

“We get a lot of information in terms of what’s going on this weekend because kids think they’re talking to another buddy or a friend,” Flaherty said.

In Stoughton, police used MySpace to arrest a graffiti artist who defaced town businesses for two weeks, causing more than $70,000 of damage. The vandal used the name “Tres 3,” which was traced to his MySpace page, said Executive Officer Robert Devine.

Braintree police, meanwhile, identified two accomplices in an armed robbery using the suspect’s online friend list, said that town’s Deputy Chief Russell Jenkins.

At the state level, the Office of the Commissioner of Probation has an employee who checks the activity of juvenile probationers on Facebook, to see what mischief they may be planning, said Coria Holland, spokesman for the agency in Boston.

The Middlesex district attorney’s office also uses the social networking sites as one method of gathering evidence. District Attorney Gerry Leone said Facebook and MySpace have been useful in cases involving pornography and child enticement, and officers engage in undercover conversations on Facebook if they have “a reasonable suspicion.”

In November, a Winchester Middle School teacher’s aide was arraigned on child rape and pornography charges based on evidence the district attorney’s office obtained from social networking websites.

“In light of the explosion of the Internet and the use of electronic communications, it’s more important to us than ever,” Leone said.

Marc Zwillinger, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents social networking sites, said requests from investigators to websites for information about individuals “are steadily increasing,” and he’s seen subpoenas from the police as well.

Law enforcement officials request access to information that users provided when they registered for the site – such as their name, IP address, zip code – and sometimes want to look at their private message exchanges, Zwillinger said.

“We see a lot of it in sexual assault cases. They want to know what kind of messages were sent back and forth,” he said.

In cases where one person argues the sex was consensual, while the other says it was rape, messages on social networking sites can shed light on what happened, he said.

But some critics say this practice is against Facebook’s rules – and unethical.

Facebook spokesman Simon Axten said the site’s rules forbid people from using fake names, and that Facebook would not make an exception for police officers working undercover.

“Facebook is based on a real-name culture, so fake names and false identities are actually a violation of the terms of use,” Axten wrote in an e-mail. “We disable the accounts of people operating under pseudonyms.”

Jennifer Lynch, a lecturer at the law school of the University of California at Berkeley, said there are ethical issues involved when police pretend to be someone’s friend to get access to their profile.

“If police are creating a fake profile and asking to be a friend, they are not going through the court” to obtain a search warrant, she said. “So you’re losing the checks and balances that we value in our criminal justice system.”

Kyle Bannon, 19, a Bedford, N.H.-based member of the Facebook group “Bedford cops need a life,” agrees that police working undercover on Facebook is akin to “searching without a warrant.”

“It doesn’t seem like the forefathers of our country would be too keen on that idea,” he said.

The group has more than 200 members, mostly Bedford High School students who are frustrated with police and use the site to share their stories about what they say were unfair speeding tickets and other incidents.

A similar Facebook group in Reading has 63 members, and even features comic strips about students hijacking a police cruiser with a shotgun in the back seat, and a caricature of an officer with doughnuts falling out of his pockets.

A recent post on the group’s “wall” suggested that the students suspect the Police Department may have discovered the group.

“Being in this group is the stupidest idea,” wrote a Reading Memorial High School student on Dec. 3. “The Reading cops know the names of all the people who are in it.”

But Reading Police Lieutenant Detective Richard Robbins said he doesn’t believe his department uses Facebook.

Officials in several other departments also said they do not use Facebook, and some said they did not know what it is.

“Safebook? It’s called Safebook?” asked Dunstable Police Lieutenant James Dow. “I don’t even know what it is.”

The police dispatcher in Merrimack, N.H., asked: “Spacebook?”

SIDEBAR:

Who’s watching

An informal Globe survey of 22 police departments in Eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire found that 14 of them used the social networking site Facebook for their investigations.

Use Facebook: Braintree, Bridgewater, Randolph, Raynham, Sharon, Stoughton, West Bridgewater, Boxborough, Harvard, Lowell, Westford, Wilmington, Woburn, Nashua, N.H.

Don’t use Facebook: Avon, Acton, Dunstable, Methuen, Reading, Shirley, Tewksbury, Winchester

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