Facebook Sleuthing 2.0: Recover Lost Items Online

Crime victims, police and good samaritans play digital detective.

April 13, 2009, 7:46 PM

April 14, 2009— -- When Mary Chapman learned that two of her husband's work trucks had been burgled, her first reaction wasn't to call the police. It was to sign on to Facebook.

She cracked open her laptop, logged on to the popular social networking site and sent off a quick message to a friend down the street.

"All I said was: 'You would not believe what just happened to my husband,'" the 36-year-old from Brunsick, Ga., told ABCNews.com. "Two of my husband's trucks were broken into."

A few minutes later, her friend forwarded that message to another friend in the neighborhood who, surprisingly, had noticed something strange in the middle of the day.

The women put two and two together and, within a matter of hours, they'd singled out the suspect, confronted him and amicably settled the entire affair. The police had yet to come up with a name.

"I really don't think at this point they would have figured out who committed this crime," Chapman said. "If it was not for Facebook we would not have our items or our vehicles repaired."

The suspect was an 18-year-old from the neighborhood who, she said, impulsively looted her husband's trucks after a disagreement with his mother. The Chapmans ultimately downgraded the charge after the teen apologized and agreed to make amends.

Chapman said the police were a great help, but she still credits Facebook for recovering about $1,000 worth of equipment (a radar detector, GPS device and XM radio) and other damages.

And she's not alone in her social networking sleuthing.

Recognizing Facebook's potential to quickly sift through and reach out to others, crime victims and good Samaritans from all over the world have started to use the site to play digital detective, often with great success.

Carla Pillo Mote a resourceful advertising executive in Philadelphia recently put her social networks to work to track down a man who drunkenly pilfered her laptop, taxes and wallet.

According to the media blog MediaBistro.com, Mote was having drinks with a friend in March, when a visibly intoxicated man sat down beside her. After the bartender refused to serve him any more drinks, he took off.

Friending the Enemy?

The man's behavior seemed a little bizarre to her all night, so when Mote got ready to leave and realized her laptop bag was missing, it didn't take her long to identify a main suspect.

She asked the bartender for the man's name (he'd paid with a credit card) and then headed for Facebook.

Explaining that she'd been robbed, she put out a "Facebook APB," asking for information on the mystery man who she thought stole her laptop.

She filed a report with the police as well. But to make a long story short, Mote's Facebook sleuthing (bolstered by some digging by her friends) led her to the front door of the drunken thief and, eventually, her computer.

Laptop in hand, Mote called off the police and, according to MediaBistro, updated her profile with: "the perp and i are now friends on facebook."

For victims of crime, Facebook provides a way to supplement a police department's investigation. But that's not to say that police officers themselves aren't also using the tool.

In Auburn, Maine, police set up a Facebook page in January, after a group of vandals broke into a local hotel and caused about a thousand dollars worth of damage.

On camera, the mischief-makers were caught ripping tiles off the walls of the hotel spa and throwing them in the water and down the hall.

Soon after the police launched the Facebook page featuring photos of the criminals, they started receiving anonymous tips.

"Within 48 hours, we had them ID'd and charged with criminal mischief," said Deputy Chief Jason Moen, adding that the vandals were three boys, ages 15 and 16.

In their town of about 23,000 people, he said the Facebook page is "more than catching criminals. It's another way to communicate with our folks."

Campaign on Facebook to Catch Rapist

Some Facebook users hope the site could help solve even some of the most serious crimes.

In early March, a 27-year-old man from the United Kingdom started a Facebook group to find the man who nine months ago raped his girlfriend.

According to the BBC News, the victim was assaulted last August in Manchester, England. Although she has been able to identify her attacker from security video outside the bar, police have not yet been able to track down her assailant.

Started by Glyn McCutcheon of Manchester, the group "Find the Sale RAPIST," includes images from the security video and has attracted 7,277 members.

Soon after the group hit 7,000, McCutcheon decided to strip the group but left the photos and police phone number on the page.

McCutcheon said he decided to strip the group because even though it had attracted 7,000 members, only one person came forward with a possible lead.

"Myself and my fiancee, to be honest, need to start rebuilding our lives," McCutcheon told ABCNews.com in an e-mail. "But I am now debating whether or not to restore the group as I have literally hundreds of messages since I did the strip down asking for it to be restored to what it was."

Still, for others, Facebook is a way to connect people with their lost belongings when other options fall through.

Phillip Briscoe, a San Francisco Web designer, found a woman's wallet on a bus seat back in January. He thought about giving it to the bus driver, but wasn't sure he could be trusted.

He tried her credit card company, but they refused to give him a phone number or address.

"I looked at the age on her license and realized she wasn't that old," the 27-year-old said. Thinking she might be as Facebook-friendly as he is, he looked her up online. Before she even had time to realize the wallet was missing, he'd sent a message letting her know that it was safe.

"It's amazing how fast you can find someone," he said, adding that he's told others his success story. "Now that they know the story, it might help them."

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