Questionable Online Investigations: Missteps Outside the Classroom

Last week we discussed the problems that can occur when an uninformed college educator exposes criminal justice students to online undercover investigations without fully understanding the legal nuances of those operations. This generated a lot of feedback on links to the blog article. We did not mean to imply that these missteps only occur in the academic setting. Unfortunately, they happen whenever staff are not properly trained and are then directed to complete online investigations.

We are aware of law enforcement personal doing the same thing that criminal justice students were directed to do, ie, pulling images from the Internet for use in an online undercover profile. In some cases, law enforcement felt it was appropriate as long as they bought the “model’s” picture. This is an ill-advised practice because it exposes the real person to danger as well as the officer and their agency to civil liability if something goes wrong. Additionally, it can give away the profile as being a “fake,” defeating the purpose for its creation. Again, the real person might be identified. It may be true the model sold their picture but that does not mean they wanted it used for conducting undercover online investigations.

Missteps are not only being committed by law enforcement. We cite in our book several cases where attorneys either directly or through advice participated in legally questionable online undercover activities. In one case a prosecuting attorney impersonated a defendant’s friend online to obtain proof that a witness was lying during a criminal trial. In another an attorney gave the go ahead for an investigator to take over a minor friend’s social networking profile, to obtain access to the minor’s restricted pages in order to get evidence for a civil suit. None of these examples ended well for the attorneys involved.

We devoted Chapters 9, 10, and 11 to covering various aspects to initiating, conducting, maintaining, and managing undercover online investigations. But don’t take our word for how good our book is conducting Internet investigations. Take a look at the following comments from respected law enforcement professionals:

Larry D. Johnson, Current CEO at Castleworth Global LLC, Former Chief Security Officer at Genworth Financial and Special Agent in Charge, Criminal Investigative Division, USSS, Retired, noted:

“This book offers the most comprehensive, and understandable account of cybercrime currently available to all different skill levels of investigators. It is suitable for novices and instructors, across the full spectrum of digital investigations and will appeal to both advanced and new criminal investigators. It will no doubt become a must have text for any law enforcement or corporate investigator’s investigative library.”

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster (Ret.) Los Angeles Police Department, author, and host of American Heroes Radio, observed:

“Another strength to this book is that is very easy to read and in my opinion it needs read not only by the guys who are going to be doing these investigations but I think supervisors and managers out there need to take a look. … It is written for many levels within an organization.” (The entire show is here American Heroes Radio)

Neal Ysart, Director First August Ltd, Information and Corporate Risk Services writes:

“At last….. Informed, pragmatic guidance from two highly experienced professionals who have actually spent time on the front line, not just the classroom. This book is relevant for practitioners working in both law enforcement and within business – every aspiring cyber investigator should have a copy.”

Jim Deal, United States Secret Service (Ret.) and original Supervisor of the San Francisco USSS Electronic Crimes Task Force notes:

“Cyber-crime, internet fraud, online predators…we think they’re being addressed until we become the victims. Today’s law enforcement is ill-prepared to address against national security, let alone against our law-abiding citizens. Todd Shipley and Art Bowker are able to communicate what law enforcement responders need to know before they get the call – the information in this book must become a mandatory reference for law enforcement agencies everywhere.”


Criminal Justice Student gets A, Perverts Get Off, and Instructor Fails

Todd and I wrote our book for individuals conducting Internet investigations, be they criminal or civil in nature. We made a very conscious effort to include real life cautionary tales of what not to do when conducting online investigations.  One area we stressed concerned online undercover operations and that they were not the same as “role playing” for fun or fantasy. We just heard of a recent real life story involving a major college criminal justice studies (CJS) program. It really shocked us and demonstrates the need for our text in today’s law enforcement training and criminal justice degree programs.

The university mentioned has a respectable CJS undergraduate, which has areas of focus on law enforcement, cyber-defense, information security, terrorism and forensics.  Its graduates go on to obtain careers in law enforcement, intelligence and security officers.  The description could apply to any one of a number of colleges and universities if instructors are following the same kind of in class lab project.  This university’s program has a class focusing on technology and law enforcement, again not unlike numerous other classes in vogue in degree programs around the county.  Many such classes go by names such as cybercrime, Internet, or computer investigations. This particular CJS program class has a hands-on component, which allows undergraduate students to purportedly experience what it is like to actually conduct an undercover online investigation. Yep, we said “undercover online investigation”.   One of the students described the class as follows:

The course is taught by a 10 year plus instructor, experienced in computer security and CJS. The class size is about 30 students and uses a computer lab on the campus. The course is for sophomores and above and has been taught for two or three years.   It is a very popular course on campus, because of this “hands-on” component.  One required exercise in the course is for each student to create a fake e-mail account and Facebook profile of a 13-year old minor and to proceed online and to enter various chat rooms pretending to be a juvenile. The students are advised to pull a picture off the Internet of a minor to complete their profile for this exercise. The exercise occurs over three or four class sessions.  Software is used to record chats and take screen shots of the sessions. Students are then required to submit a “worksheet” of their experiences. The only cautionary directive the instructor gives is if they are sent child pornography they are to report it immediately, in which case the hard drive is “preserved.”

Well, we clearly have some areas of concern about this exercise.  First, none of these undergraduate students are sworn law enforcement officers.  Neither Todd nor myself have ever heard of undergraduate students being required to conduct actual  undercover investigations as part of a course requirement.  Clearly, if something bad happens, the students are woefully unprepared for what follows.  Additionally, because they are not sworn law enforcement officers, they could be criminally and civilly liable for problems that may occur. Then there are also chain of custody issues when something illegal is discovered. They are not trained in how to collect and preserve evidence, which of course our text covers in great detail and goes beyond merely recording chats and taking a few screen shots.  Even Dateline’s to “Catch a Predator”, which had law enforcement involvement and still ran into numerous legal problems. We spent a lot of time in our book discussing policy and the appropriate process for setting up a system and preparing law enforcement officers for online undercover work. There is much more to it than just Googling a name or a website.

One of the most disturbing things about this exercise was the use by the 30 CJS students of REAL minors’ pictures in their profiles, pulled from who knows where on the Internet.  What would the parents of these minors feel like if they knew that their child’s picture from a sporting event or school website was used in this manner? How would you feel if your child’s picture was used to demonstrate how undercover online investigations into sexual exploitation transpire?  Now, how would you feel if we told you there was a way for those perverts to identify and locate your child from those images that were pulled from the Internet? Yeah, we know.  Not good.

It is unclear what happen to these profiles after the exercise ended. It did not appear that these fictitious profiles were deleted. Additionally, the profiles were used for several different class sessions. This means that even if the profiles were deleted, they may still exist as they were probably crawled by a search engine while they were still active. It is tough to get that genie back into the bottle once it is online. So the effect of this exercise may go well extend beyond the timeframe of a single class semester. These profiles were no doubt created to facilitate interaction of a questionable nature with a pervert. The problem is the profiles likely still exist somewhere (anyone look at the Internet Archive lately), including a picture, used without the permission of the parents of minor, waiting for some sex offender to find them.

Again, we noted in our book, investigators have to be extremely careful with using images because there are sites, such as Google Image and Tineye, that can be used to show if that image has appeared elsewhere on the Internet. So taking the image from a profile and running it through one or both of these programs may show where on the Internet it also appeared.  If the image was pulled from say a school website, a person could possibly identify the name of the real minor, the school, and their general location, and not the identity of the CJS student who created the fictitious profile.  No one would want images of loved ones posted on a profile designed to entice pervert until  the Internet runs dry of electrons.

Additionally, the 30 CJS were instructed to collectively violate Facebook’s terms of service agreement for this class exercise.  There have been civil suits filed by several Internet Service Providers for individuals collectively creating fictitious profiles. LinkedIn and Yelp are two such companies that come to mind. Granted in these examples they were used for deceptive practices or to commit fraud, but is exposing an unsuspecting minor to real dangers any better?  It deserves repeating that we discuss these issues in great detail in our book and note that investigators and their agencies must have well thought out policies and procedures dealing with these legal concerns, before undertaking undercover online investigations.

In our example, one CJS student hit the “jackpot” so to speak. One Internet target thought the CJS student was really a 13 year old female and sent the CJS student links to child pornography.  The student, apparently at the professor’s instruction, sent the pervert a “link” so they could capture his IP address (Anonymizing techniques must be taught in another class). This student also received an online invite to meet up in the real world for sex from another individual responding to the CJS students fake profile.  What is incredulous is that the student got an “A” for the assignment.  We don’t even want to know how they identified that the “links” went to actual child pornography. 

Apparently, the rest of the class engaged in chat conversations with numerous individuals who thought they were minors. Frequently, these individuals masturbated on webcams to the students as well. So these perverts “got off” and the CJS students got disgusted. Law enforcement was notified about the child porn links being sent. But this is not going to be an easy case, particularly with the chain of custody concerns presented, not to mention testimony and evidence collection and documentation.

This should never have occurred. These concerns are not mitigated in a college classroom setting, students and teachers do not have an exemption from general legal principles, particularly when they are apparently ignored. Todd and I would both give this instructor an “F” for failing to provide the students with a useful learning environment.  We are confident that anyone reading our book would realize that without the proper structure and policy that this is a big no no. We wrote our current book intending to help prevent these kinds of situations so things like this don’t happen. This is particularly true for in programs that are training future law enforcement officers and investigators.  A copy of our book is on the way to this instructor. Hopefully we can correct his teaching approach to ensure that his students actually are prepared for their future in law enforcement. On that note I left a cigar lit somewhere.


Cutler, J. (2013, August 20). Yelp Sues Firm That Sued It for Coercion, Alleging Posting of Fake Favorable Reviews. Bloomberg Law. Retrieved from

Gold, M. (2008, June 24). NBC resolves lawsuit over ‘To Catch a Predator’ suicide. Retrieved from

Gullo, K. (2014, January 7). LinkedIn Sues Unknown Hackers Over Fake Profiles. Bloomberg Technology. Retrieved from