04.15.12

Fugitives Who Love Facebook: The Next Big Crime Wave

Accused felons on the lam are bragging about their exploits online—and police are using the evidence against them. Winston Ross on cops-and-robbers 2.0.

Travis A. Nicolaysen’s Facebook page lists his occupation as “boss” at “da game.” Which is his way of admitting he has no job. What does he do otherwise? Lately, he runs from the police.

“Cops all over you,” wrote one of Nicolaysen’s buddies on a post earlier this month. “Ya got away thanks bro,” he shot back the next day. “Lol u better be careful man,” came another friend’s advice, 20 minutes later.

Nicolaysen did get away, according to a Port Angeles, Wash. police bulletin, but his Facebook page may help land him back in jail. That “got away thanks bro,” if prosecutors can prove he’s the one who posted it, could amount to evidence that he’s deliberately trying to elude police and obstruct justice.

Welcome to cops-and-robbers 2.0. By the time “Barefoot Bandit” Colton Harris-Moore got nabbed for stealing boats and planes, he had become a Facebook folk hero, with more than 85,000 online fans cheering him on and offering advice about how to escape arrest. Jake England and Alvin Watts, the pair accused of a racially motivated shooting spree in Tulsa on Good Friday, have also delivered prosecutors a tidy batch of Facebook postings that will almost certainly be used to convince a jury that the two were motivated by hate, targeting their victims because they were black.

By comparison, Nicolaysen is small potatoes. The five-time convicted felon has been on the lam since failing to check in with his probation officer in January. That prompted a warrant for his arrest, along with charges that he seriously injured his girlfriend in a March 28 assault.

Facebook users who amass inordinate amounts of friends and post ad nauseam updates about themselves tend to show streaks of (surprise!) narcissism.

“Hey cousin,” Tanya Newell wrote on Nicolaysen’s still-active Facebook page. “Just saw ur crazy ass on kiro 7. The kids said ‘o no look its uncle travis.’ Haha wtf right. They r making u out to be some super criminal. Sad u wuldnt hurt a damn fly. And they chose to use ur mohawk pic. Anyways stay safe trav. we miss you. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Give em hell kid.”

Nicolaysen is indeed giving the cops hell—he’s slipped through their fingers several times—though if history’s any guide, he’ll get caught eventually. In the meantime, an increasingly cyber-wise police force will be watching his every online move.

“This guy hasn’t talked openly in over a week,” Port Angeles Police Deputy Chief Brian Smith told The Daily Beast. “That doesn’t mean he’s not talking to his friends in a way he thinks we can’t see. What people don’t realize is every form of communication—email, Facebook—they all leave something behind.”

Most people know this, on some level. And yet some people continue to either boast about their criminal exploits or bitch about whatever’s motivating them to commit a crime. Why? A self-destructive combition of ignorance, narcissism, and generation-specific disregard for their own privacy, say experts.

Researchers at Western Illinois University and the University of Kentucky, among others, have concluded in several different studies published over the past year or so that Facebook users who amass inordinate amounts of friends and post ad nauseam updates about themselves tend to show streaks of (surprise!) narcissism. Kentucky psychology professor Nathan DeWall found, for example, that some users were willing to do just about anything for attention. If status updates didn’t get a rise out of followers, they’d post pictures.

“Perhaps it’s more important to get the attention and respect they crave than the risk of being captured,” said Christopher Carpenter at Western Illinois University. “And what better outlet than Facebook?”

That seems like an obvious explanation for why criminals post on Facebook. But there’s another explanation as well: they’re dumb.

The savvy social networker realizes that there are ways to keep Facebook postings private, said Jeff Ingalsbe, who runs the Center for Cyber Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy. But even those who are well-versed in the company’s byzantine privacy policies have a hard time staying ahead of the game.

“Even if you make your Facebook page private—and virtually nobody does that, completely—you also must make sure your friends are not posting links back to you. You’ve got to be hip enough to the tech to be able to lock yourself down. It’s not easy,” said Ingalsbe. “And we’re talking about people here that are stupid enough to post that they committed a crime on Facebook.”

That’s good news for police, who are increasingly availing themselves of social media to help solve crimes, but who also know that it’s not as easy to get a conviction with that information as it may seem. Facebook is great for investigative purposes—for keeping tabs on where someone’s heading, who they’re talking to, and what they’re saying. But only if the cops can get to the page in the first place.

“Google, these big outfits, they get subpoenas by the boatload every day,” Deputy Chief Smith said. Provided they can make an arrest, then comes the hard part: using those breadcrumbs as evidence in court. The accused Tulsa shooters threw out enough racial epithets on their Facebook pages to give the state a slam-dunk case, but only if forensics investigators can actually prove that they were the ones who typed that hateful speech into their computers.

“Especially in the mobile world, it becomes more difficult,” Ingalsbe said. “The Samsung Galaxy, the iPhone, you set up Facebook on these devices and you’re automatically logged in, all the time. It adds another dimension of confusion. You can say, ‘That wasn’t me, somebody must have picked up my phone and messed with it.’ ”

It’s also difficult to find the data in the first place, at least in a way that can be hauled into court.

“Facebook, Twitter, they put their stuff on servers all over the place,” Ingalsbe said. “Those servers are dynamically moving, based on the volume of traffic. Cloud computing makes it more difficult for a forensic investigation. It’s much more useful as an investigative tool.”

It’s also more useful as social networkers trend younger. They tend not to worry about hiding personal information from the world, Ingalsbe said. “They’re much more willing to share information, and to assume the risks are low. They’ve grown up with this; they don’t think it’s a big deal.”

As time marches on, said Tyler Willis, vice president at the social-media company Unified, so will continue the “arms race” between cybercops and social network–using thugs. And to some extent, it will all be out in the open.

“We’re getting access to people on a scale we’ve never had before,” said Willis. “With social media, we get to see parts of society we’ve never seen before. We don’t have a lot of chances to interact with folks committing street crimes and running away from the cops.”

There’s one more way Facebook could help put a stop to crime: it provides a way for the levelheaded to reach out to the fugitives.

“I’ve been down this road bro,” wrote Tristian Twitchell on Nicolaysen’s page. “It’s no good. Maybe it’s time to turna new leaf and get your shit going right. Do what you gotta do though Bud.”