A TOP cop has revealed that social networking sites are their first port of call for officers trying to snare criminals.
Detective Chief Inspector Jon Green, from Hartlepool Police, says officers in the town are now frequently trawling facebook and Twitter for clues.
Thousands of people across Hartlepool are signed up to social websites– sharing information, photos and thoughts on the web.
The popularity of the social media means that detectives now often start investigations by trawling through people’s online profiles to gather evidence and seek leads.
Information posted on the sites is also said to be used by crooks to target people and their homes, while crimes such as racism and harassment are taking place more frequently on online messageboards.
Det Chf Insp Green said: “Things are moving so quickly at the moment, and it is hard to keep up with the changes.
“People are subscribing to social network sites in the hundreds of thousands every day. The volume of people using these sites is staggering. That is very hard to police, and we can not check everything. But it’s become something that we must be aware of and use.”
The force has officers with expertise in computing and social networking. They can use the websites to gather evidence and monitor suspects.
High-profile appeals have also been made on Facebook in a bid to find missing people and witnesses to crimes.
Police have made several appeals online about Hartlepool dad Scott Fletcher in a bid to cover areas of Teesside, County Durham, Cumbria and Liverpool, where it is believed he had connections.
But while such appeals can create important leads, the police are aware that such sites often contain rumour, false allegations and lies.
Det Chf Insp Green added: “A lot of what is posted is not based on fact. With every high-profile case people feel they can just guess what has happened and tell people online, but that is not helpful to anyone. I think people must be more sensible when they are on such sites.”
Yesterday was national Safer Internet Day, with police and agencies joining together to help parents and children surf online securely.
Cleveland Police are backing the newly-launched www.ceop.police.uk website that has information about how to report suspicious behaviour and to make computers safer.
Det Chf Insp Green said: “Police forces, not just in the UK but internationally, need to move with the times and embrace social networking.
“We have local advisors and experts who deal with such matters, and it is becoming an important part of what we do.
“It’s something we always think of now and is the start of many if not most investigations.
“We have to consider if there’s any evidence contained on the sites and quite often people use sites such as Twitter to communicate, so we have to look at the consequences of that as well. It’s also a means of appealing for information as well and contacting potential witnesses in cases.
“Just five years ago it was mobile phones, text messages and emails, but a whole new arena has opened up now and we are moving with the times.”