CALGARY — Police posing as aspiring gangsters can use social networking sites such as Facebook to gain an insider’s peek at organized crime in their area, gleaning information such as licence plate numbers and even the group’s plans for the night, says a U.S. gang expert.
Profiles are private and people have to be invited as friends to be allowed onto many of these sites, so gang members feel secure in putting up information, said Det. George Chavez of the Madison Police Department in Wisconsin on Thursday.
But with the right knowledge, police can use gang signs and insider language to create their own profiles and be added as friends.
“There are times where you can find them talking about altercations they’ve had, issues they’ve had with rival gang members. Sometimes it will give you a heads-up as to what may be coming, or it may actually help you in solving what’s happened,” said Chavez, who will talk about the topic at a Calgary gang summit Friday.
“They do exchange information and sometimes, I think, they think that nobody’s watching.”
It’s all about the details in getting a gang member to accept you into their world, said Chavez. For example, a gang that operates near Madison uses the number 13, and so replacing the letter E with a 3 can signal an affiliation with them.
“If you show their page some respect, they’re usually pretty good about inviting you in to their web page, as long as your page is set up so it doesn’t look like a page by somebody who’s 45, 50 years old,” he said.
“You wouldn’t put ’Kenny Rogers, Best of’ on there, you know what I’m saying?”
It’s also important to know what gang you’re targeting — some gangs will use Facebook and MySpace, while ethic gangs may flock more to sites such as Asiantown.net.
Such sites are a good way to reach more inexperienced, street-level gangs, says gang expert and author Michael Chettleburgh. Members of these groups are often hungry for approval and connections.
“Kind of the currency on the street right now is how many Facebook friends that you have, so if you are an egotistical emerging gang member and you have all these people wanting to be part of your site, there’s a currency on the street, that means something,” he said.
These online meeting places have become so popular in part because they help build instant networks — by adding one person as a friend you’re immediately introduced to an entire array of contacts.
This feature makes these sites valuable for officers trying to pin down who may have gang connections or who may be taking part in a certain event.
Police forces across Canada have been slowly turning to the Internet over the last few years as it’s been identified as an ideal recruiting ground for gangs looking to pick up impressionable youth. They troll sites such as YouTube for pro-gang videos and even post their own counter-messages aimed at kids.
“More and more police agencies are going to the ’Net, are getting more Internet savvy, and trying to build their intelligence files on individuals and groups via following them on social networking sites,” said Chettleburgh.
So far the tactic is working well because young gangsters don’t think police are technically savvy and expect anything they post on the Internet to stay private, said Chavez.