How to Use Social Media to Investigate Missing Child Cases
By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
In May, American Military University (AMU) hosted a webinar in partnership with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). This webinar focused on advanced social media investigation techniques to help law enforcement officers and agencies locate and rescue lost or missing children.
The Power of Social Media
Social media is a powerful tool for investigations, especially when it comes to locating missing persons, said instructor James Deater, who is a law enforcement education coordinator with AMU and a 25-year officer with the Maryland State Police Department. While many applications have legitimate safe uses, criminals have found ways to exploit vulnerabilities, which police need to be aware of during investigations. For example, police must be aware that many social media platforms and apps can be used to mask a person’s real identity.
When officers are investigating a suspicious person, the first task is to make sure that person is real. Deater pointed to apps such as Invisible Boyfriend and Invisible Girlfriend that allow a person to create a fake boyfriend or girlfriend, complete with social media accounts, text messages, voicemails, handwritten notes, photos, and more. Before officers start pursuing leads, they need to be sure a person has more than just social media accounts to prove they exist.
Self-Destructing and Secret Apps
When investigating a missing person’s case, look for self-destructing apps. For example, Burn Note is a message app that erases messages after a set period of time. A similar app is SnapChat, which allows users to send photo and videos to each other and then deletes items after a set time. These types of apps allow people to communicate covertly and they encourage risky sharing such as sexting.
Poof is an app that allows users to make other apps “disappear” from their phone. Users can hide apps that they do not want people to see. While this app is no longer available, users who purchased this app before it was discontinued could still have it on their phones.
Officers should also look for “secret” apps such as Whisper. This confessional app allows users to post messages anonymously. While such apps start as anonymous, users are encouraged to exchange personal information.
Dangers of GPS and Location Apps
Other apps are designed for chatting, meeting, and dating. For example, Yik Yak is a free app that lets users post brief comments to other geographically close users. This app is dangerous because it reveals the location of users. It has been banned by many schools because it has been used for bullying.
Omegle is a chat site that puts strangers together and tends to be very sexual in nature. Similarly, Tinder is an app that is used for dating and hooking up. Users can rate profiles of others and find potential hook-ups via GPS. Blendr is a flirting app used to meet new people in the same geographic area through GPS. This app is very dangerous because there are no authentication requirements, so sexual predators can contact minors.
To help law enforcement officers stay up-to-date with new apps and how they can be used for investigations, AMU has dedicated part of its online library to provide social media resources for police. This resource guide is updated regularly and includes a law enforcement only tab (to access this tab, please send an email from your agency account to JDeater(at)apus.edu).
AMU also offers additional webinars about social media investigation techniques through its Law Enforcement Webinar Series. These webinars include demonstrations of tools such as SnapTrends and LexisNexis Social Media Monitor that can help police comprehensively search social media platforms based on region, keyword, and other specification. Visit the AMU webinar series page to learn about upcoming webinars or sign-up to receive email notifications when new webinars are announced.