The Dumb Criminal’s Guide to Committing Malfeasance in the Social Media Age

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Dec. 4 2013 3:30 PM

The Dumb Criminal’s Guide to Committing Malfeasance in the Social Media Age

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On the Internet, it's actually pretty easy to know you're a dog.

Photo by Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images

Two Maryland men have pleaded guilty to threatening a pair of Anne Arundel County judges, in a sort of modern, sub-moronic Strangers on a Train scenario. As Pamela Wood at the Baltimore Sun reports, Zachary Mitchell and Justin Ferrell were tripped up by Facebook postings in which they discussed how great it would be if each man killed the other man’s judge. “I’ll hit ur judge and u hit mine lol,” Mitchell wrote to Ferrell; “real tlk I was tthinkin we should do that,” Ferrell replied. The cops discovered the incriminating postings, as they tend to do, and now Mitchell and Ferrell will spend the next three years in prison. ROFLMAO.

These sorts of social media indiscretions seem to happen all the time lately, and they’re so, so dumb. Mitchell, Ferrell, and plenty of other people might still be free if they had only followed some basic, common-sense rules about how to comport themselves online. Here’s what you need to know if you’re going to commit crimes in the social media age.

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Realize that everything is public. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus: If you ever post anything on a popular social media service—I know, I know, Google Plus isn’t popular—you have to assume that investigators will be able to find it. Law enforcement officers regularly monitor social media, and they are getting very good at discovering things that you might not want them to see or hear, and at inducing social media providers to cooperate with them. Don’t trust any social media service’s privacy settings; don’t think that you’ve successfully limited a posting to just your friends; don’t expect that you’re ever truly anonymous online. Because you shouldn’t, you haven’t, and you’re not.

Just because you say “LOL” doesn’t mean the cops will think you’re making a joke. Mitchell and Ferrell claimed they were just joking, a claim undermined by the fact that Mitchell allegedly went ahead and tried to buy a gun to proceed with the hit. But even if he hadn’t done so, his postings would probably still have drawn police attention. It’s hard to convey humor online, and it’s easy to take everything someone says literally. On account of that, it’s probably best to avoid joking about criminal activity entirely, even if your joke is both preceded and followed by a line reading “DISCLAIMER: THIS IS JUST A JOKE.”

Resist the urge to unburden your soul on your Facebook wall. It might feel good to expiate your sins by letting your Facebook friends know that you have committed a horrible crime, but all you’re really doing is sabotaging the defense lawyer you will inevitably need when cops discover your confession and arrest you. After a Florida man named Derek Medina allegedly killed his wife earlier this year, he posted a photo of her corpse on Facebook, along with a message reading “Im going to prison or death sentence for killing my wife love you guys, miss you guys takecare Facebook people you will see me in the news.” He has been charged with first-degree murder, and has pleaded not guilty. To his lawyer, I say: Good luck with that.

Assume that everyone is a narc. You might think that your friends are cool, and that they won’t rat you out if, for example, you post a Facebook status update boasting about your drunken-driving exploits. But how many of your social media contacts are actual real-world friends? Maybe 20 of them, I’d bet; the rest are casual acquaintances, distant relatives, or people you met once at a party. If you think all of these people are sufficiently loyal to you that they’ll keep your wanton illegality a secret, you’re absolutely wrong. There will always be someone who sees your incriminating message, thinks “I don’t really know this guy,” and forwards it on to police. So just assume that all of your friends are going to do that, and keep your stupid braggy mouth shut.

You cannot hire a good hit man online. This would seem so obvious as to not be worth mentioning, except that people keep making this mistake, under the misapprehension that professional contract killers build their businesses by responding to random Facebook postings and Craigslist ads. You can’t hire an assassin the same way you’d hire someone for a short-term catering job. Any hoodlum dumb enough to accept your proposition will be a reckless amateur who will likely bungle the job. But 99 times out of 100, the respondent will be a cop who wants to arrest you. Pay attention, people! I really don’t want to say this again.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.