Offenders on the Internet and Social Media Sites – DC Public Safety – “230,000 Requests a Month

Welcome to DC Public Safety – radio and television shows on crime, criminal offenders and the criminal justice system.

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This radio program is available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2009/11/offenders-on-the-internet-and-social-media-sites-dc-public-safety-230000-reque/

We welcome your comments or suggestions at leonard.sipes@csosa.gov or at Twitter at http://twitter.com/lensipes.

– Audio begins –

Len Sipes: From our microphones in downtown Washington, D.C., this is Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. We have Shannon Blalock today. She is a parole and probation officer with the Kentucky Department of Corrections in Parole and Probation. She is a parole and probation officer. She is with parole and probation intelligence and she is also dealing with fugitive apprehension. What we’re talking about today, ladies and gentlemen, is going to be criminal offenders using social networking sites; Facebook, MySpace, Digg, ten tons of others. Also, the issues of using hand-held computers, commonly known as cell phones, by individuals who are under the supervision of parole and probation agencies throughout the country. But, first, our usual commercial. We are truly grateful and, what I mean by truly grateful, we really are. We’re up to 230,000 requests a month for D.C. Public safety radio, television, blog, and transcripts. We are just as impressed as impressed could be in terms of the numbers and in terms of your interaction with us. We really appreciate it. What you can do is go to media M-E-D-I-A.csosa C-S-O-S-A.gov and leave a comment. That’s what most people do or they get in touch with me directly by email, which is Leonard L-E-O-N-A-R-D.sipes S-I-P-E-S, that’s P as in pumpernickel, P-E-S@csosa.gov or follow me directly at Twitter. That’s twitter.com/len L-E-N sipes (without any breaks). Back to Shannon Blalock. Shannon, you’ve been with the State of Kentucky for, what about four years now?

Shannon Blalock: That’s right.

Len Sipes: And you have a very interesting background. Part of your job as a parole and probation officer is to do the usual things that so many parole and probation officers do throughout the country, but somehow, someway you started stumbling onto this concept of social media sites in terms of fugitive apprehension. Correct?

Shannon Blalock: Yes, that’s right. I was supervising a caseload, a regular caseload, and one of my offenders absconded supervision on me and, at that time, our network servers blocked the use of MySpace and Facebook and other social networking sites the way many government agencies do and so when I was home one evening I decided to look him up on MySpace and sure enough he was there, but the profile was set to private. So, I looked for his wife’s profile, found her and found that she had posted a landline phone number on one of her friend’s comment sections.

Len Sipes: Oh, that’s interesting.

Shannon Blalock: Yes. So, I was able to trace down to Florida and get him picked up.

Len Sipes: That’s just amazing. So, you sat at your desk and apprehended a fugitive.

Shannon Blalock: That’s right.

Len Sipes: Now, think about that. In all of my law enforcement experience when we were trying to apprehend fugitives or when we were trying to apprehend wanted for warrants, every night, if you were working the night shift, the duty sergeant would give you about 12 warrant and he said, if nothing goes on tonight, go out and see if you can serve these warrants. And so you go and knock on their doors at 1:00 in the morning and, out of the 12 warrants, oh, maybe once or twice a month you actually came into contact with somebody and arrested them on the warrant. And you sat at home and were able to arrest an individual sitting at home using your computer.

Shannon Blalock: Right. With, of course, the gracious assistance from different agencies and in particular the one down there in Florida.

Len Sipes: Of course.

Shannon Blalock: Yes. Able to work up usable information in really just a matter of a couple of minutes and a couple of mouse clicks and did a wanted fugitive off the streets.

Len Sipes: It is this larger issue, though, because every time we take a step in terms of social networking sites, every time we take that step it opens up endless, endless doors in terms of what social networking means. In essence, what we’re talking about is criminal offenders and people have this assumption that criminal offenders are not “sophisticated enough” to go onto Facebook and to conduct criminal activities or to go on to Facebook, MySpace, or the hundreds of other social media sites and try, sex offenders in this case, and try to entice that young girl to meet him.

Shannon Blalock: Absolutely.

Len Sipes: But they do, they do it every single day.

Shannon Blalock: Right. And it doesn’t really take that savvy a person to click onto the Web and to click onto a couple of sites and to create a profile and start meeting people.

Len Sipes: So, both of us agree that if we can do it, anybody can do it.

Shannon Blalock: Absolutely. And that’s one way that we’re not all that different from our offenders. I mean, if we’re on social networking sites, meeting and chatting with friends and meeting new friends and things like that, then chances are excellent that our offenders are doing the very same thing.

Len Sipes: Well, there is a problem throughout the country in terms of cell phones in prisons. And, when I say cell phones, again, it’s a wake up call. Somebody once said to me that the cell phone that I now carry, which is a SmartPhone BlackBerry, that that BlackBerry that I carry now is as powerful as my desktop computer was five years ago.

Shannon Blalock: That’s absolutely true and I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be speeding down the interstate and looking up information on tourist attractions. Yeah. It’s amazing.

Len Sipes: Well, but the point is that if they have them inside of prisons and we’re not just talking about a couple in the prison systems throughout the country, they’re reporting hundreds and hundreds in every prison system. So, if we’re talking about offenders inside there, it’s as if they have access to a laptop computer. It’s as if they have access to the Internet. They do have access to the Internet and they do have, as your child is searching social media sites.

Shannon Blalock: Right. And what we see a lot of times with our criminal offenders is that they’re incredibly charismatic and they can engage people very well in person and online and a lot of times can get them to do, get folks on the outside to do their bidding, legal or illegal activities.

Len Sipes: Isn’t that amazing?

Shannon Blalock: It really is.

Len Sipes: And the charismatic, many of the offenders that we supervise, they’ve lost their calling. I mean, assume many of these individuals should have gone into sales.

Shannon Blalock: Yes. [Laughs] I couldn’t agree more.

Len Sipes: A long time ago. It’s, like, this individual, I mean, if you’re going to hustle that hard in terms of selling drugs. If you’re going to hustle that hard in terms of conducting business over the Internet, why didn’t you just go into sales?

Shannon Blalock: Absolutely. I actually told one of my offenders that one time. If he was that successful in recruiting and developing new business, then perhaps he should go into sales.

Len Sipes: I mean, they missed their calling quite some time ago, but every time we discuss this we open the door to other areas. So, we have offenders in the prison systems having access to hand-held computers, what I call cell phones. We’re talking about the average offender out there floating through life and they’re interacting on MySpace and they’re interacting on Facebook and there are hundreds of additional social media sites that they’re interacting on. Gangs constantly have their own web sites. We’re not talking about social media sites. We’re talking about web sites that they have created or had others create with them where they display acts, illegal acts.

Shannon Blalock: Absolutely. Well, I mean, gangs, criminal activity, other people involved in the criminal enterprise, aside from it being illegal, it’s just like a legitimate business. I would look for them to recruit business using Twitter or having a Facebook page or having their own presence on the Web. They really market themselves the way that traditional businesses are doing it.

Len Sipes: I market this entity, D.C. Public Safety, on Twitter all the time and I found that Twitter is probably one of the most powerful modalities of getting the word out. Well, you go through Twitter and you search on specific key words, such as law enforcement, corrections, parole and probation, but you also search for the term, crime, and there’s been more than a couple, what I consider to be fairly nefarious web sites, and Twitter sites. So, obviously these guys are on there. The final thing I wanted to get into as an illustration as to how difficult this issue is. I saw a report on CNN yesterday as I was sitting at my desk, yes, CNN runs all day in my office. This is according to CNN. 20 million computers have been compromised by child sex offenders. Now, where they get this figure, I have no idea, how valid it is, how real it is. I wouldn’t have any idea. But what they’re saying is sex offenders are taking over your computers and using your computer to receive information, to receive obviously horrendously illegal, not just illegal, horrendously illegal photographs of children engaging in sex acts, but they’re using your computer as the interface. So, when the police knock on your door and tell you that they have a warrant for your arrest to search your computer in terms of child porn and you’re there struggling with what to say because you know it’s absurd, it may be that it’s this interface. So, sex offenders, they’re sophisticated enough to take over somebody else’s computer and to use that computer as an interface to get what it is that they need. So, the point is that they’re out there.

Shannon Blalock: Absolutely. And what I have found is that you don’t really have to have all that significant a technical knowledge. To be able to do anything like that, all you have to do is be motivated to seek out the information, usually available on the Web, that will tell you exactly step by step how to get these things done.

Len Sipes: Well, I just copied down something called, search engine optimization, which is basically web site marketing and sent it out to a bunch of my folks, which gives a step by step breakdown as to how to increase your presence on the Internet. So, if I can have instant access to that information and it was clear enough to me, then it would be clear enough to the outside. I do. I mean, I’m an ex-cop with a couple college degrees. I’m not a technical person as problems with the radio program prove and so if I can do this stuff, anybody can do this stuff.

Shannon Blalock: That’s exactly true. I mean, I have no formal education or training in computers or anything specific like this, but you become motivated to search for offenders or to do a certain activity online and the more you search out information, the more information you gain which leads you to more information and somehow you get it done.

Len Sipes: We’re going to give Shannon’s email address and I’ll talk about a manual that Shannon did, but I’m warning users right now that Shannon and I talked about this before we went on the program. We’re going to give her email address, but she developed a manual which is sitting in front of me and Shannon is also coming to my agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, here in downtown Washington, D.C. We are a federal parole and probation entity. Shannon’s going to come up and do some training for us and she wrote this manual. Not everybody’s going to be able to get hold of this manual. You’re going to have to send a letter on letterhead and we’re going to have to be sure you’re who you say you are before the manual goes out, but what Shannon did was to create a manual developing an investigative presence on the Internet and talking about Internet strategies and we’re not going to give out any secrets in terms of this conversation. But the point is that my guess is that folks in law enforcement, folks in parole and probations, corrections are going to need to learn how to do this, how to develop investigative identities on the Internet, how to pass yourself off as somebody else, and how to, the fact that there are different web sites that you can use to search for information on just anybody.

Shannon Blalock: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, the amount of information that folks are willing to share on the Internet are absolutely staggering and is beneficial, not only for those of us in probation and parole, but also the law enforcement community using it as an investigative tool. It’s absolutely incredible what you can find online that people willingly put there for themselves.

Len Sipes: Including the offender population.

Shannon Blalock: Absolutely.

Len Sipes: Now, again, I don’t want to take this too far. Look, there are people out there who are under supervision or using the Internet every day and they’re using it properly. It’s not nefarious. I do not want to suggest that every person who has a criminal background and every person on parole and probation supervision is doing the wrong thing in terms of computers, but there are plenty who are.

Shannon Blalock: Of course. Sure there are. I had an offender one time who was placed on probation and the first thing I did was to go look at his MySpace page and he’d written a blog about how badly he’d messed up and was asking his friends on his MySpace page to please assist him in doing the right thing. And so that kind of gave me an additional insight into the mind of the offender that I’m meant to supervise and then, of course, you have other offenders that you go and check their Facebook page and they’ve posted pictures of themselves doing kickstands and other things that are clearly against the rules of probation and parole.

Len Sipes: One of the things that I’ve tried to get across to my daughters is that whatever you put on, I mean, sooner or later you’re going to apply for jobs with the government or with fairly responsible entities. You sitting there smoking, I’m not suggesting they do this, I’m using this for illustrative purposes. You sitting there smoking a joint with a bottle of Jack Daniels with your friends all there is not going to be looked upon very kindly five years from now when you go for that government job or when you go for any job for that matter. So, what you post on the Internet stays there forever; it does not disappear.

Shannon Blalock: That’s right. And you would not believe the amount of folks who have even applied for internships with our offices that have been turned down simply because they show themselves engaging in illegal activities on their Facebook page.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh. And so people have this natural inclination to brag about who they are and what they are and, if your bragging rights includes criminal activity; I mean, gangs will create web sites or have web sites created for them, I mean, I’ve even created a web site, it’s not that difficult. Gangs will post pictures of them with loot taken from a robbery. And now if that’s not incredibly stupid, I don’t know what is, but they don’t seem to understand what a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that whatever you put on the Internet stays there forever.

Shannon Blalock: Well, I think people operate under the assumption a lot of times that the information they put on there, it’s only going to be seen by folks who know them, but in reality, it’s out there and it’s available for public consumption by anyone.

Len Sipes: Which is one of the reasons why children, and when I say children, it could be anybody under the age of 18, that’s one of the reasons why they believe that that communication with this anonymous person through a chat room becomes a private matter.

Shannon Blalock: Yes, they do and they develop this false sense of security that they may know who this person is even though they’ve never met them, they have no idea who this person might be in real life, they develop this intimacy with somebody they’re chatting with and operate under the false assumption that they can trust them.

Len Sipes: I’m going to reintroduce Shannon. Shannon Blalock; she is a parole and probation officer with the Kentucky Department of Corrections, Division of Parole and Probation. She is a parole and probation officer. She works in parole and probation intelligence and she works in fugitive apprehension. Now, I’m going to give Shannon’s email address in terms of the manual that Shannon developed but, once again, you’re going to have to, once that contact has been established, you’re going to have to get something to her on letterhead and a superior where Shannon and staff can get back in touch with that individual before Shannon will be sending out a copy of the manual. It’s shannon.blalock@ky.gov. Let me see if I can stumble through this once again. It’s shannon.blalock@ky.gov. Did I get it correct?

Shannon Blalock: That’s correct. Yes, that’s it.

Len Sipes: Okay. Cool. And so the manual that you put together in essence reminds all of us to create investigative identities; in other words, so we can operate on the Internet and we can cloak ourselves so it doesn’t say Kentucky Department of Corrections.

Shannon Blalock: Right. There are instances where you can get some very useful information by going onto the Web as your agency. For instance, Kentucky, our Division of Parole and Probation, we have a page on MySpace that’s dedicated to our probation and parole fugitives and we received an incredible amount of tips and helpful information from folks, members of the community, who go onto our MySpace site, see the folks on there, and then give us usable information because they don’t want absconded or fugitives in their community anymore than we do.

Len Sipes: Of course. And parents want their kids captured without violence and without them, the police would come to their house at 2:00 in the morning.

Shannon Blalock: Sure. Absolutely. And I’ve always told folks that it definitely behooves them to turn themselves in so that they don’t put themselves or their family in danger and, of course, they don’t pick up additional charges. But in terms of looking around for violators of conditions of supervision, violators of the law and fugitives, chances are you really are not going to have very much luck going on as Len Sipes, former cop. I mean, so you might want to on there under an assumed identity.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh. And basically the manual provides suggestions in terms of how to go about that and there are various sites on the Web; now, I didn’t know this. And, again, I’m not a technical person, Lord knows, I’m not a technical person. Ask my wife; I’m not a technical person. If you search Google, it is referred to as the surface Web, but there are web sites there that search the deep Web and the surface Web is 20 percent of what’s there on the Internet. So, when you search Google, you’re only searching for 20 percent of what’s on the Internet. There are ways of searching the deep Web and there are web sites out there that are construed to find individuals that are available to the public and cost no money.

Shannon Blalock: That’s correct. I’ve had the pleasure of going to speak to several agencies and one of them was with the HIDTA, the high intensity drug trafficking areas, and they had not every heard of social network search engines where you can search for people specifically on a number of social networks instead of going to each individual site and typing in a search and so it’s very time efficient to be able to use a social networking site, social networking social engine, to look for the target of your investigation.

Len Sipes: So, a search is basically across the Web.

Shannon Blalock: Absolutely. Yeah. And not only will it search, I’ve got a variety of different search engines in the manual and not only does it search social networking sites, but like you said, it will search into the deep Web to see if maybe your offender has left footprints somewhere that you didn’t know about and then can follow up from there.

Len Sipes: There comes a point where it is, one time as a police officer, as a parole and probation agent, as a correctional officer, you developed your reputation in terms of your shoe leather; how much time you spent in the community with your ear to the ground talking to a wide variety of people. Now, I’m not going to suggest that sitting there and searching social media sites is more important than getting out into the community and talking to employers, talking to the girlfriend, talking to the mother, talking to the brother, talking to the person who lives with that individual because they are an incredible source of information regarding that offender. A lot of times you can take action to circumvent something happening. But it seems to me that equally important now is this presence on the Internet and the ability and the knowledge of searching Internet sites, Web sites, social media sites to figure out what your person is doing.

Shannon Blalock: Absolutely. Whenever I do this discussion with groups I talk about the concept of virtual home visit and what I talk about in there is, of course, it will never take the place of in-person home visits, but what you’re doing is looking at the person’s virtual home. Folks who create social network accounts decorate it any way they want to with music and pictures. They invite the friends that they want in there. They display the art and other things that are of interest to them in there. And so whenever you go to do a physical home visit for an offender, you’re getting the very best version of that offender, how they think you want them to act. But a lot of times when you visit their virtual home, you see the offender in the light that they really are or the way that they want to be seen by friends, so it just gives you an additional insight to your offender so that you can effectively supervise the ones that are on supervision and, of course, a way to apprehend the folks who’ve absconded.

Len Sipes: Now, there are people out there who are simply saying, okay, fine, Leonard, Shannon, this is all well and interesting, but if I’m not incredibly or completely stupid, I’m simply going to use another name.

Shannon Blalock: Right. Yeah, a lot of times they will do that, but we can gain information from previous investigations, look on friends of friends lists, and just look for photographs that look familiar. I know a lot of folks who don’t sign up for social network sites under their actual name. They sign up under their same name, like Happy, or Bull, or

Len Sipes: Cool Breeze. How many guys that I know back in the ’70s, it was all Cool Breeze, the ’70s and ’80s. Yeah.

Shannon Blalock: Cool Breeze? Yeah, the interesting thing about all these social networking sites is that you can search not only by first and last name, but you can search by screen name or email address. You can even browse by location and so, if you know that your offender is 32 years old, 6’1″, and is a white guy who smokes, then you can narrow down the search pretty close on places like MySpace.

Len Sipes: And my guess is that within the alias file that we all keep within various parole and probation law enforcement agencies, my guess is that people are creatures of habit; they’re going to go back and use one of the previous aliases that they’ve given themselves throughout the years.

Shannon Blalock: Absolutely. Yeah.

Len Sipes: So, if somebody, if Cool Breeze is out there and I know there are 10,000 Cool Breezes, but at least were back in the ’70s and ’80s, I mean, ordinarily you can take a look at a person’s rap sheet, you can take a look at a person’s parole and probation record and there are maybe five, six, or seven different aliases in their and those aliases can lead you to that individual.

Shannon Blalock: Yeah. And not only that, but I’ve found that a lot of times our offenders will tattoo their various aliases or nicknames onto their body somewhere, so just take a look at prison records or previous investigation reports and see what names they’ve got tattooed on their body.

Len Sipes: Now, all of that bring ups this question, I suppose: At what point do we simply say, well, wait a minute, we can’t do both. The average parole and probation agent in this country carries very large caseloads. Now, here it’s because we’re a federal agency, we’re, thank the Lord, that we have the money to keep caseloads, all of our caseloads are 15 to 1 less. They are specialize caseloads, can go as low as 20 to 1. Now, but still, even if you’ve got a great caseload or even if you have 150 offenders, taking on the Internet presence, doing that is complicated enough and time-consuming enough to the point where one almost has got to take prominence over the other.

Shannon Blalock: Yeah. And in Kentucky, what we have done, is I supervised a caseload for about three years and then after a meeting of statewide probation and parole supervisors and wardens, whenever I demonstrated what all could be accomplished on the Web, they created a specialized position for me to be able to do this for probation and parole under the Department of Corrections. And so this is what I do full-time, but other than that while I was supervising a caseload, I would pick it up here and there whenever I had a little bit of slack. But, of course, I was already pretty computer literate and savvy with social networking sites. What I would encourage folks to do is just sit down and play with it. It’s going to come quicker to you than you think if you’re not familiar with it already.

Len Sipes: Well, if it’s government, and again I feel bad in saying this because we provide a ton of training here, almost too much training it seems, but a lot of government agencies simply are not as fortunate as we are and they don’t have the money and I would imagine the overwhelming amount of people who are going to be learning this, it’s going to be through their own volition, through their own efforts.

Shannon Blalock: Yeah, that’s true. And then, of course, you also run into the roadblock of several government agencies.

Len Sipes: They won’t let you have access to social media sites. That’s right.

Shannon Blalock: Yeah, they’re not recognizing the value in that and particularly for folks who are supervising a specialized caseload of sex offenders. It’s absolutely amazing the amount of information that even our sex offenders will put on adult-type dating sites. I was looking at one one day and one of them used a booking photo from jail as his profile photo on an adult dating site.

Len Sipes: Okay. Well, that’s incredibly stupid, but

Shannon Blalock: Yes. [Laughs] But they will do that.

Len Sipes: Well, and the other part of it and the larger discussion of what I call hand-held computers, what other people call their iPhones or their BlackBerry’s or the Droid. It’s just a little too much to comprehend when it’s not your mom’s computer, it’s not the computer in your house, it’s not the computer in the library, it’s the fact that everybody out there is walking around with a computer strapped to themselves and so the sex offender says, well, George, let me borrow your hand-held computer so I can go onto one of the social media sites and see if I can track myself down a vulnerable young person. But how do you handle? That’s impossible. For most of us it’s just an explosion of opportunities which means an explosion of responsibilities that my guess is, my guess, the guess of most criminologists’ collective guess, is that we’re not prepared for that.

Shannon Blalock: No, we really are not. In terms of the training that often agencies receive is outdated or maybe just they’re just a step behind what offenders are able to accomplish, especially with gaining access to the Internet on their cell phones. I know in Kentucky we don’t allow our offenders to have cell phone plans that do put them on the Internet. Of course, there’s no way of guaranteeing that they’re not going over to a neighbor’s computer or anywhere else or borrowing a phone from somebody on the street and trying to acquire new victims that way.

Len Sipes: Yeah. Because I can see them doing that with sex offenders, but if you did that with regular people on supervision, they’re going to complain immediately is what you’re doing is blocking them from legitimate job opportunities.

Shannon Blalock: That’s true. Yeah.

Len Sipes: And so it becomes a very sticky, wicked that we all collectively in parole and probation throughout the country and, for that matter, throughout the world, are going to have to examining and stumbling with, but Shannon Blalock is coming to our agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, and you’re going to provide our folks with all of the training that you have so we can pretty much take it from there and to guide us and I’m really looking forward to you coming up, Shannon.

Shannon Blalock: I am as well. Thank you.

Len Sipes: Our guest today has been Shannon Blalock. She is a parole and probation officer with the Kentucky Department of Corrections, Division of Parole and Probation, parole and probation officer, parole and probation intelligence and fugitive apprehension and now a self-taught Internet expert. Her email address is shannon.blalock@ky.gov. But after that initial introduction by email, you’re going to have to send a letter, a regular snail mail letter, on letterhead with the contact of your supervisor so we can do the proper checks and, if so, if you can prove who you are, Shannon will include a copy of her manual. Ladies and gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety. Once again, we are extremely of all of your letters, comments, phone calls, email comments, and we’re up to, thanks to you, 230,000 requests on a monthly basis for the television, radio, blog and transcript portion at media.csosa.gov. We really appreciate you being with us today and please have yourself a pleasant day.

– Audio ends –

Meta terms: victims, crime victims, victim’s rights, violence, violence reduction, violence prevention, crime, criminals, criminal justice, prison, incarceration, parole, probation, corrections

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