Stupid Criminal Tricks on Facebook

A rogues' gallery of Facebook-themed crime stories: some announced via Facebook, some cheered on -- and some solved!

Facebook's Most Wanted

If there's one defining feature of social life on the Internet, it's this: people think it's not quite reality. This has been true for as long as people have been interacting socially on the Internet, behavior that predates "social networking" by a least a solid decade. In some ways, this can be good -- people can live out fantasies safely, or overcome crippling shyness. But there will always be people who think "Internet" and immediately assume "lack of consequences," and think "lack of consequences" and immediately leap to "crime." And then there's the fact that people will say things on social networking sites that they'd never say in person.

Here, then, is a rogues gallery of Facebook-themed crime stories: some announced via Facebook, some cheered on -- and some even solved!

Photo courtesy of abardwell

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What a Turkey

Craig Lynch was almost done with a seven-year stint for burglary in a British jail when he decided to release himself on his own recognizance (i.e., escape) in September of 2009. Apparently enamored with the new social networking technology unleashed upon the Internet while he was in the stir, he set up a Facebook account and began posting the sorts of things that people who aren't on the run from law say on the site -- that he was going to parties, taking his daughter to see Santa at the mall, eating steaks, and so forth -- always holding back just enough information to keep the police one step behind him. And then there were the pictures (like the Christmas turkey number above), many of them taunting the law with his favorite digit.

At one point, Lynch almost seemed like a parody of the compulsive Facebooker: when he heard sirens and worried that the gig was up, he posted a status update about it rather than, say, fleeing. It turned out to just be an ambulance, but his reign of Facebooking terror did in fact come to an end this January as he was brought back into prison.

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You Gotta Have Friends

In Maxi Sopo's trajectory, everything was going pretty much his way: get started selling flowers in Seattle nightclubs; move on to a little bank fraud; then, when you find out the feds are on your tail, jump into the car and head down to sunny Cancun. Life is good! But then he made a few key mistakes. The first was setting up a Facebook account, from which he could chronicle his Mexican adventure. But, showing at least a modicum of self-awareness, he made its contents private, although his friends list was still visible.

The real disaster began, as it does with so many of us, when it came to choosing his friends. One person he added as a friend was a man he had met a few times at Seattle nightclubs. Apparently Sopo didn't notice that the gentleman listed his employer as the US Justice Department -- but the assistant US Attorney working on the case sure did. With the informant's help, Soto was sitting in a Mexican prison in short order.

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Teen Sensation

Colton Harris-Moore, a teenager in Washington State, is in the midst of a firmly old-school crime spree: burglaries, stolen cars, stolen planes, etc. If there's anything notable about it, it's both the quantity of his crimes (he's been linked to more than 50) and the devil-may-care attitude (at least one of those planes he flew, he crashed and then walked away from).

So where's the social networking angle? Like the gangster-idols of the '30s, Harris-Moore has a fan club -- but this one is forming for the most part online. He's got a Facebook fan group with hundreds of members, thrilling to his exploits. Would an earlier era have seen Facebook groups with names like "1 MILLION STRONG TO KEEP BABY FACE NELSON FREE"?

Harris-Moore's verve is probably best enjoyed from a distance: he's known to have shot and wounded at least one sheriff's deputy.

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Digital Fingerprints

I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a little addicted to Facebook. I have it on my phone, so I check it when I have a few spare moments during the day; and when I'm pounding away on my laptop keyboard, well, just knowing it's a mouse-click away is quite a temptation. In fact, even though I'm on a bit of a deadline to write this article, I've checked for Facebook updates multiple times while writing. (It's hard to not think about Facebook when you're writing about Facebook, you know?)

But I do have my limits! If I were a guest in someone else's house, for instance, I'd be reluctant to log on from their computer, mostly because I wouldn't want to be rude to my hosts. Even if I were in their house alone, I might hesitate, and would be sure to log off from my account and maybe clear Facebook's cookies for good measure.

Jonathan G. Parker did none of those things. He did a little Facebooking in a bedroom that wasn't his, then left with his profile still on the screen. That screen was in a house that he had broken into and was in the process of stealing jewelry from. With his name and photo there for the victims to see when they returned home, it wasn't hard for them to track down the friend he was crashing with. Parker was in jail in short order.

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It Fell Off a Truck

Most ordinary people, law-abiding as they might be, get a little thrill with even the perception of a brush with criminality. If, say, you've bought new tires for your Smart Car at a deep discount from someone who seems "dodgy," you might well be tempted to post a Facebook status update to the effect that you were riding around on stolen wheels.

That's what Brit Lee Nicholls did! Unfortunately for Mr. Nicholls, this message attracted the attention of the police, who, as the police generally are, did not think particularly much of his claims that he was "just joking." Though Nicholls avoided jail time, he was fined for quite a bit more than the money he saved on the tires.

Picture courtesy Ed Yourdon

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Neighborhood Watch

If you've gotten this far into the article, you might be under the impression that Facebook is a morass of law-breakers, and no place for an honest citizen. Not so! It can be used not just to boast of crimes, but to solve them as well!

Beth Harpaz's young son suffered the sort of crime common in their Brooklyn neighborhood -- a bigger, meaner kid made off with his sweet BMX bike. But not content to just write it off as the law of the streets, she tracked the perpetrator down -- via his middle school yearbook, and, ultimately, via Facebook. An email was sent to the kid's mother (who was also a Facebook user), and the green-and-white bicycle was back where it belonged.

Meanwhile, a group of women in, Brunswick, Georgia, who call themselves the Real Housewives of Lexington Place decided not to stand for it when several moving trucks in their neighborhood were broken into. They put the "networking" part of social networking to use; before long, one of the women in their social network had identified the criminal, a local 18-year-old, who was taken into custody.

Picture courtesy plugimi

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The Perfect Alibi

Several of the incidents described in this slideshow boil down to this: Someone said something stupid on Facebook, and it got them in trouble. But let's end on a high note. Sometimes people say stupid things on Facebook and it keeps them out of trouble.

Last October 17 was just another Saturday for Rodney Bradford: he was hanging out in his father's apartment in Harlem, putting out a plea for pancakes on his Facebook profile. (The New York Times says this was "written in indecipherable street slang, but somehow I have difficulty imagining how "street" a sentence involving pancakes could be.) At that exact moment in Brooklyn, a man who would later be identified as Bradford was holding up two men. Bradford's pancake-themed posting, which, once some Facebook records had been subpoenaed, was confirmed as coming from an IP address in Harlem, was an element in the alibi that set him free.

Of course true geeks reading this will scoff that such an excuse could be deemed airtight; after all, he could have just had someone in Harlem log in to Facebook under his username and post. But, as Bradford's defense attorney noted, "This implies a level of criminal genius that you would not expect from a young boy like this; he is not Dr. Evil."

Picture courtesy free range jace

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