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June 12, 2012
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

Stay on top of 'flash robs'

Mobile social media monitoring provide valuable — and free — intel

Most articles focusing on the merged topics of social media and law enforcement are concerned with managing your personal presence on the web, and that of your agency. This is certainly a worthy discussion, given the ability of vehicles like Facebook and Twitter to disseminate information, and to destroy one’s career with a single ill-considered tweet or status update.

A topic less explored is how Twitter is being used to facilitate crime.

If you’re not sure what Twitter is, here’s a capsule description: Anyone can establish a free Twitter account, which enables the account holder to “tweet” (this is both a noun and a verb) messages or “tweets” of 140 characters or less to their “followers.” When you elect to see tweets from someone, you are “following” them; people who want to see your tweets are your followers.

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Big names have lots of followers. Justin Bieber has over 21.5 million followers; Kim Kardashian has almost 15 million. A Twitter “handle” (the account name) is prefaced by an “@” as in @KimKardashian (if you’re interested, I’m @copwriter).

Followers subscribe to as many Twitter accounts as they like, and see tweets from those accounts appear in their Twitter feed on a web browser or their Smartphone. Tweets are usually just text, but can link to photos or URLs to web pages. Topics can be identified by prefacing them with a “hashtag” character, “#” and including it in a Tweet. You can search Twitter any time for hashtags of interest and see all the tweets that include those hashtags, whether you are following the originators’ account or not.

When there are lots of Tweets containing a certain hashtag or word, that topic is “trending.” Really big trends appear on the Twitter home page, and change constantly. As I write this, “Knicks” is a trending topic, as they have a game in progress that is on national TV.

Over the past year or so, we’ve seen the rise of “flash robs” organized via Twitter. The term is a variation of “flash mob,” where people would gather at a set time and place to do something that was usually innocuous, like burst into applause for 20 seconds in the courtyard of a mall, or put on a performance of the dance from the “Thriller” music video. 

A flash rob is a different animal. Here, people converge at a victim location to storm the place and assault people or steal, anonymity all but guaranteed by the size of the crowd.

Recently, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department was called to the scene of a huge Twitter-organized party at a vacant home in Rancho Santa Fe (Calif.). When deputies arrived on scene, kids scattered quickly and made it all but impossible to identify or apprehend anyone. There was thousands of dollars of damage to the house, which had been identified through real estate ads.

Staying on top of activities like this is, at best, difficult. Someone has to be monitoring the social media sites almost constantly, and be reasonably knowledgeable in what terms to search for. This is a task that can be performed by a volunteer or someone either on light duty or with other duties that keep them in front of a computer most of the time.

You can always use the Twitter site itself for monitoring, but there are other tools available that may be better suited for this kind of work. One is Monitter (note the distinctive spelling), which is for Twitter exclusively. Put one or more search topics into Moniter, and you’ll get a list of tweets containing that term, each topic in a different column. By using a browser like Firefox with the free Tab Mix Plus add-in, you can have the page automatically refresh at whatever interval you choose, which will update the tweet lists. Moniter offers a “widget” for $20 that allows the user to filter tweets by geographic location, which could help filter out some of the noise that’s unrelated to you.

Spy, another site that monitors several social media channels (Twitter, FriendFeed, Flickr, Blog Comments, Yahoo News, Blogger and Google Reader) permits scanning for one topic at a time, although you could open multiple windows or tabs of Spy and track several topics at a time.

Staying on top of this information is just good intelligence gathering. A flash rob or vacant home party could be thwarted by the presence of a single patrol car at the target site, where not knowing about it could put your outfit in the position of playing catch-up. The tools are free, and you can probably identify someone who can help you with this at no cost.

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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