08/09/2013 01:28 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

The Tweet That Helped a Criminal Break into Jail

Invariably, criminals make mistakes that result in arrests. Law enforcement agencies even rely on such errors in judgment to complete the puzzle of ongoing criminal investigations. In the era of real-time digital communication, however, criminals have even more opportunities to blunder and direct police attention to their crimes. Take for example, 60-year-old alleged insurance fraud mastermind, Wanda Lee Ann Podgurski, who led law enforcement to her front door this summer by posting a taunting tweet to police on her Twitter account. With just a few simple words spread into the abyss of the Internet, investigators may easily track down fugitives and criminal suspects thus making the digital realm a vital part of many police investigations.

Podgurski, who skipped out on her trial on 29 felony counts, including charges of insurance fraud, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in June. Podgurski allegedly received funds from insurance policies used for elaborate vacations and later tweeted "catch me if you can," allowing authorities to locate her whereabouts through her IP address and arrest the fugitive in Rosarita, Mexico.

Social media and digital communications have long supported criminal investigations. According to law enforcement agencies, posts on social media websites can help identify the specific locations of suspects and fugitives. In addition, social media posts also help strengthen cases by providing criminal evidence such as photographs of suspects posing with stolen money or guns. Authorities even rely on social media to help identify and locate missing persons.

Although websites and digital communications have become increasingly significant for police investigations, criminals have not missed the opportunities offered by the Internet to retrieve personal information on almost any individual online. Criminals rely on social media posts to identify when individuals are out of town or away from their homes, and hackers retrieve passwords and login information from social media databases in order to apply personal data to websites containing financial data or other pertinent private information. Phishing scams, falsified websites and malware represent other common ways criminals use the Internet to their advantage.

The Internet represents a double-edged sword for police, providing endless clues to criminal activities while offering criminals countless opportunities to prey upon victims. Thankfully, individual users possess many of the capabilities to protect themselves from becoming the latest Internet crime victims and allow law enforcement to gain control of the Internet as the key witness in criminal investigations. With the most basic of security efforts, outlined below, individual users may help turn the tide of Internet crime in favor of the police.

  • Think before posting information on social media websites that discloses physical locations (post vacation photos after arriving home, disable location services on cellphones and avoid pesky check-in posts that show locations far from home)
  • Avoid sharing recent purchases and valuables on social media (new cars, fancy handbags and jewelry posted online may easily attract unwanted attention)
  • Maintain stringent privacy settings on social media profiles and accept friend requests only from trusted and known users
  • Ignore spam emails and delete any requests to download content from questionable sources through email or social media posts
  • Update passwords frequently with strong letter-number pairings
  • Never access online accounts using unsecured WiFi networks

See also my article on how well-intentioned online users can impact law enforcement investigation.