Facebook: a place to meet, gossip, share photos of stolen goods . . .

This photo, posted on the Facebook page of the columnist's 15-year-old son from his stolen computer, shows a man with stolen items.
This photo, posted on the Facebook page of the columnist's 15-year-old son from his stolen computer, shows a man with stolen items. (Downloaded From Facebook)
By Marc Fisher
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The e-mail from my son was urgent; the subject line read simply "help."

My wife and I ran to the car, dialed 911 and headed home, where D.C. police officers were just arriving as we pulled in.

Sometime between 10 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. Friday, a burglar busted through our basement door - simply kicked through the 80-year-old wood panels - and took a bunch of stuff. My son, 15, got hit hardest; his laptop, iPod, savings bonds and cash were gone.

Just one more example of life in the big city. Except that the apparent thief didn't stop with taking our belongings.

He felt compelled to showboat about his big achievement: He opened my son's computer, took a photo of himself sneering as he pointed to the cash lifted from my son's desk, and then went on my son's Facebook account and posted the picture for 400 teenagers to see. In the picture, the man is wearing my new winter coat, the one that was stolen right out of the Macy's box it had just arrived in.

"I've seen a lot, but this is the most stupid criminal I've ever seen," marveled D.C. police Officer Kyle Roe, who stayed with us for hours as we waited for the crime scene technician, who painstakingly lifted dozens of fingerprints from nearly every room in the house.

My son was coping brilliantly with the trauma of losing his belongings - until he saw the invasion of his Facebook page. That's when the pathetic indignity of the burglary hit. Here was a space that my son had carefully walled off from public view, limiting access to his page to his friends and schoolmates. And now a lowlife stranger was taunting him in that presumably private zone.

Facebook has become an irresistible platform for a certain kind of bad guy to flaunt his misdeeds to police and victims. And savvy prosecutors have figured out that a thorough search of social media can sometimes produce evidence that undercuts a defendant's fanciful version of his own innocence.

Tuesday, the FBI arrested an Arlington man who had posted on Facebook that he could put pipe bombs on Metro cars or in Georgetown at rush hour.

In a California case, a prosecutor was about to recommend probation for a drunk driver who caused a crash that killed her passenger, but then the prosecutor happened to check the driver's MySpace page. Bingo: photos and comments showing the defendant joking about drinking. The photos, demonstrating how lightly the driver took the issue, helped win a two-year prison sentence.

In Ottawa this fall, the staff at a sporting goods store took just 15 minutes to identify a shoplifter by matching an image on their security video with one of the 324 people who had clicked "Like" on the store's Facebook page. Police found the culprit and got the stolen merchandise back in less than 48 hours.

And in New York last month, a thief was sentenced to five years in prison after he posted on his own MySpace page a photo of himself with his victim's watch and ring, just a day after he mugged a man at a Manhattan bus stop.

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