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Security and Protection: Understand the Social in a Crime Network and How to Protect Yourself

While the following is a bit off-topic, my head is spinning with all the layers and networks I’ve uncovered within this recent experience. A friend of mine called this a combination assembly line meets Wikipedia of crime social networks.

It begins with my car being broken into and my purse stolen a few months ago, explores the social web of a crime network, and ends with some helpful tips and techniques for protecting yourself online and off.

The Personal Experience

On my way with one of my cats to the vet in Beaverton, Oregon, I stopped for a fast errand. The sun had unexpectedly come out of the foggy, rainy morning, so I cracked my car windows open a fraction to let in some air flow, worried about leaving the cat inside the vehicle. Less than ten minutes later I returned to find my car door unlocked, and purse, cell phone, and other valuables missing. The cat was hiding, terrified, under the driver’s seat, no harm done. My wallet was with me, which was a huge relief.

I put the cat back in his carrier and dashed with the cat into the store to call the police, then my husband so he could begin to take action on the stolen items. The police officer arrived and within a few minutes he had six perfect fingerprints from my window to help identify the criminal.

I questioned him about the window being only barely enough for a finger to get through. He explained that the longer modern car windows bow outwards if the villain can get any leverage with even a finger or two. Within seconds, a strong person could have slid his fingers in, pulled outwards on the window and slid an arm down to unlock the door. Who knew?

I gave him as much information as I knew about the stolen items and headed to my husband’s office to continue reporting the stolen items and to call the vet to let them know I’d be a little late. Calls completed, I raced to the vet’s office.

Our cat Holiday with his fur mowed belly, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenMy cat, Holiday, had been “fur-mowing,” excessive licking to certain areas of the animal’s body which results in hair loss. Holiday had been chewing away at his belly for a few months and had literally mowed his belly hair from chest to stern. There are a lot of reasons for this, physical and psychological (it turned out to be psychological and is resolved).

While the vet was examining my huge tabby cat, the receptionist came in to tell me that a “very nice” police officer was on the phone for me. Surprised that he’d managed to track me down at the vet (husband gave him the number), I was more startled at the receptionist’s smothered giggles as she followed me to the front desk.

The police officer explained that the fingerprints had led to the capture of the thief, a known criminal. He said they’d found some stolen items in custody and he needed more specific details. I gave them with hope in my heart and hung up.

Most of the staff around the desk were giggling. Clearly, I was missing something entertaining.

It seems that when the receptionist had taken the call, the police officer identified himself and asked to speak to one of their patients. She calmly advised him that while they talk to their patients all the time, they have yet to have one respond back. I gather he gave a huge sigh and corrected himself, asking to speak to the owner of one of their patients.

They loved that just a little too much. While it has little to do with my story, I am still laughing about it myself.

With the cat, antibiotics, and black fingerprint dust over the driver’s door, I returned home to find that someone had found my purse in the parking lot of the medical center next door to where my purse had been stolen. My business cards led them to me. The fact that someone had seen the purse and turned it in was amazing!

Now, let’s speed up the story and get past all the fuss and bother of dealing with such an event to the grand jury at the court house and the social experience.

The Social Experience

Sitting in the courthouse basement waiting room outside the grand jury room with four other subpoenaed witnesses, the story of what really happened became clear – and fascinating as we pieced the story together to understand the full scope of the crime and how the criminal was caught.

Early in the morning, a teacher was walking through her elementary school parking lot, moving through the maze of school buses and parents dropping their children off, and spotted a big burly stranger pulling a duffel bag out of her friend’s car. He tossed it to someone in another car, which raced off, as did he. She jumped on her cell phone and called the police, then raced into the school to let her fellow teacher know what happened.

Not long after, the same man broke into another car and stole computer equipment and valuables. Next, his trail led to my car in a parking lot a mile or so away, leaving behind fingerprints. The next car he broke into was across the street from mine. Among the valuables was a sophisticated cell phone with a web app for tracking the GPS signal used on employee phones to keep track of their locations in the field. With this, the police were able to track the phone to a house known to be a haven for illegal activity in stolen goods, part of a huge crime ring in the area. At the police officer’s request, the victim called his phone. When the thief answered, the police could tell from the GPS app that the man was in the house, connecting him with the crime and the stolen items which were also in the house. The police barged into the house for the arrest, finding a lot of stolen items as well, though not all of mine.

What was so fascinating to me was that I just thought, “Oh, my purse was stolen. Shit. Just another victim. Next?” I felt like I was the only one, that this was an isolated incident, that I’d never see my stuff again, and really, who cares anyway or any more. This kind of crap happens all the time.

Little was I to realize that I was a part of not just something bigger, but a part of the puzzle pieces that brought this whole case together.

Nor were the others. It wasn’t until we were sitting in that waiting room together, not sure what we were going to be asked before the informal grand jury, that the pieces started coming together.

Without the witness, the fingerprints, the laptops found in the house, and the GPS cell phone, it is likely that they would have gotten away with this. It was the combination of all of our separate pieces that made the arrest possible. This is the Wikipedia of Crime aspect of our involvement.

We were all feeling alone, but through this series of unfortunate incidents, our contributions might make a difference in the world by at least stopping one criminal and possibly breaking up a theft ring.

The Assembly Line and Social Network of Crime

assembly line crime network infographic by Lorelle VanFossenThe bigger part of the story is the assembly line aspect of the crime network we brushed up against.

I’m not sure how much I am willing to share of this story without risking the case or victims in the future, though through our efforts, the man finally pleaded guilty and is serving time for the next few years, so I’m going to keep the following description vague for everyone’s protection. Still, I think it’s important to share this part of the story because we all need to be aware of this kind of illegal activity and learn how to protect ourselves and our property. And maybe you’ll find the “social” and technology in this story.

The recently cancelled, highly successful show, Numb3rs, dealt with the math of crime. It was fascinating to tune in weekly to see how the brilliant math whiz would solve the crime and save the victims through the use of advanced math skills, especially statistics and analytics. While crime rates in the United States are definitely on the decline (to 2009), my research and the police tell me that this specialized crime network practice is not just on the rise but spreading across the states, improving in their precision as well.

Some very smart people are now leading crime syndicates, networks – whatever you want to call them. They’ve learned how to incorporate technology, especially mobile technology, into their criminal activities, but they’ve also come to better understand the power of networking, building connections that solve problems, and even prevent and protect them.

In this scenario, you have multiple players. There is the key thief who breaks into the vehicles. He is often on foot, followed by one or more people in vehicles. He breaks in, grabs the stuff, then passes it to the person in the car that appears by his side immediately, then races off. leaving him empty handed. He moves to the next vehicle, and the next “get away” car awaits his actions.

Immediately, you have deniablity, and a lesser sentence if caught. Without the stolen items in his possession, they can’t charge him much. If the driver is caught, they are only in possession of stolen items, and no reason or motivation to turn on the real thief.

The myth of crime is that it takes place in specific areas at specific times of days. These groups work isolated and mostly empty parking areas, neighborhoods, as well as busy school and shopping mall parking lots. They keep changing the locations and mixing things up, making it harder for the police to watch “known” criminal areas as anywhere is an opportunity. They are flexible, agile, and fast moving, scanning for opportunity everywhere. Mobile phones help keep all of their communication on track through the entire work flow.

The driver takes the stolen items either to another spot where they are handed over to another person, or directly to the staging area, a nearby house or apartment. They leave immediately and return to the assembly line in support of the break-in expert, and the cycle continues, passing stolen items along the line making each person just a link in the chain, not the cog.

In the staging area, items are inspected for value and sorted. From here, the items are dispersed in a variety of ways for many reasons, by request, need, or resale opportunity. They are packed up and shipped by mail, cargo or vehicle to distant pawn shops fast, before the items can be reported as stolen, or to known dealers and “re-sellers” offering the items on Craigslist, ebay, or other online sources. Local pawn shops rarely deal in locally stolen items because there is no national stolen item list, only local if they even pay attention to them. We learned that some of the items end up in California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, far from where they were stolen as they are passed along the supply chain.

With this method, the police are challenged again, as the items aren’t caught “in the act” with the thief, so only possession can be charged. Even then there is deniablity as they can claim they didn’t know the items were stolen, nor do they claim ownership or association with them. A harder case to prove, leading them to often plea bargain their way out, though most continue to protect the network.

These assembly line criminal networks work best in bedroom communities with a variety of access points. From what I overheard, the activities in our area have been growing for some time and now they are spreading, following the increase in construction, strip malls, and companies building out further from the downtown corridors.

Prevention is the Best Protection

In my mind’s eye, I see all the networking connections in this puzzle of crime, constructed by people who knew how to make this work while protecting their criminals. This isn’t completely new, but the techniques are evolving with the help of technology.

With cell phones, text messaging, GPS, the web, and the push towards geo-location and geo-tracking technology, criminals have long been using the same tools as we do, but for nefarious purposes. Social media tools like FourSquare, Gowalla, Facebook, Twitter, and others helping people share their location, exposing their home to potential break-ins. Recently, researchers found they could break into a keyless car with common items costing less than $50. It’s frightening to think that the technology I’ve worked so hard to develop and embrace can be used against me.

Please Rob Me was created as a publicity stunt in early 2010, and it worked. It helped call attention to our willingness to be too open with our private information on the web.

When the UK Telegraph and others spread warnings that Facebook and Twitter had been used to help burglars break into a house after the owner publicized his location away from home, warnings went out around the world. The media predicted insurers were going to raise rates for those members of Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, and other social media sites as such activities “raise the home owner’s risks.” So far, there is no official reports of insurance companies taking those steps, but it makes many take a step back and think.

A report on cybercrime in Australia found that it takes seven pieces of personal information to create a complete profile for identity theft, estimating that one in five online shoppers could fall victim. Based upon findings in several international fraud cases, they reported on the following:

…65 per cent of the world’s two billion internet users estimated to have fallen victim to cyber crime, a trade so lucrative it is thought to be worth several times more than the illegal drugs racket.

…The facts, set out in Australia’s new “BLK MKT” cyber-safety campaign, are startling: an identity is stolen every three seconds, with 43 million fake antivirus programmes downloaded every year.

…the trade in personal details can be a lucrative enterprise. The cyber criminal can use complete identities to make fake passports, drivers’ licenses and other documents.

A digital thief can make more than $20,000 a month.

Reports from the FBI in 2009 found Internet-based crimes had doubled during the year and were expected to increase even more. With all the hacking and security vulnerabilities reported lately, there is no doubt that cyber crime is here to stay, and crimes using the Internet and technology are on the rise.

Flowing Data infographic on the largest security breaches in historyThink this doesn’t apply to you? Check out Flowing Data’s infographic chart of the largest security data breaches of all time. Each block represents 1 million record lost – and your personal record could be one of those million. It covers security breaches, hacks, fraud, and stolen data across several decades, not just recently, putting my fears about cyber crime into a whole new perspective.

How do you protect yourself? Especially online in this social world.

Use Common Sense

First, use common sense. It’s simple and cheap. Don’t publicize personal information. Don’t hit submit or publish anything you don’t want repeated, copied, or known.

If you make online purchases, make them from known and trusted sources. With the full range of products from now available, many are shopping through them instead of individual sites to keep their risks low, a sensible decision.

Don’t follow people you don’t know on social networks and services, even if you have friends in common. Follow them for a good reason, because you know and trust them, and respect them, not just to increase your numbers.

Those “friends” could have scammed these people as well. Have confidence in those you connect with before connecting. In today’s social web world, getting a high volume of followers or friends isn’t as influential or important as the quality of those relationships. Some social networks are considering “trusted” friend options so your social network is more reflective of who you know, not just the number of people wanting your connection. The more selective you are, the more others will trust you, is the thought many pros have today.

For protection in the physical world, also use common sense. Now that you know that slightly open car windows can be pulled open, don’t open them. Don’t leave your animals inside a car, with or without the windows cracked open. Take your valuables with you and don’t leave them in the vehicle or out in the open, not even for a fast errand.

Lock down your WIFI modems and firewall your computers. Most operating systems and computers come with security systems turned on by default, but it doesn’t hurt to check, test, and update.

While these things seem like common sense, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been with a group of people and found them leaving their phones, purses, laptop bags, mp3 players, iPads, and other valuables on benches, tables, on the floor, and just walking away and turning their backs. Don’t trust others to know to protect your things. And don’t trust the world to protect you when you lack common sense to protect yourself and your valuables.

Don’t Be Pressured

Many online criminals are smart, trying to befriend you or push you into friending, following, or sharing more than is smart. While many assume pedophiles are the experts in this kind of seduction and misrepresentation, these types of personal phishing scams are getting more and more creative, encouraging people to drop their guard.

Unless you absolutely need to be known for where you are, consider turning off or unsubscribing from geo-location services. Is it important to you and your business for people to know where you are at all times, to be the competitive one vying to be mayor of a particular grocery store, restaurant, or gas station?

If it is, then continue using these types of services, but be careful with what other information passes through with them. Or consider blogging, tweeting, or reporting on Facebook a review of your favorite places to give them the attention they deserve without reporting in real-time where you are at the moment.

When it comes to calendars, schedules, and regular meetings, online apps and services are excellent in helping you set up meetings and appointments, but take care in publicizing these in a way that lets people know where you are on a predictable basis.

Put It On Paper

I had to laugh recently when someone was describing their “awesome” mobile app that preserves all their passwords, usernames, as well as helps them keep an inventory with serial numbers of all their most valuable property, especially their mobile and computer hardware. What happens if the phone gets stolen? Or the laptop? Or iPad? Then what?

I had a crappy cell phone but one that I’d kept many years of phone numbers on for people all over the country. I had no backup record of most of those connections, so now I’m struggling to restore all those numbers I wish I’d just written down somewhere.

Put it all on paper. Paper is still one of the most secure forms of security devices we have. When it comes to your personal property, keep lists of the brand, model, and serial number of all your valuable property, especially phones, MP3 players, video players, and other portable devices. Keep a copy in a protected space in your home or office and off-site as a backup. Consider updating this regularly and storing it in a safe deposit box.

Create a list of all credit cards, shopping cards, membership cards, library cards, driver’s licenses, passports, and all personal documentation. At the least, photocopy the back and front of all your cards and either scan them into an encrypted and protected file stored off your computer or print it to files kept onsite and off in protected locations. Do the same with your checking, savings, and investment accounts. Add contact information to speed up reporting in case something happens.

Check Your Records Regularly

Whether online or off, check bank card, credit card, PayPal, and other financial accounts must be carefully inspected monthly. If you have a very active account, consider checking more frequently online, especially if you make a lot of online purchases.

Keep notes on purchases you made, printed out or in a specific email box or label. Compare the company names with your credit card purchase records to make sure you know who is charging your card.

Find anything suspicious, act upon it immediately. While you are protected up to a specific amount and for a short time, the longer it takes to detect and act upon malicious or criminal behavior, the less likely you are to get recovery or restitution.

Check your credit score and records at least once a year of not more often for misinformation or wrong reports. We live in a world that judges us by our credit score, so monitor it closely whether you need to or not. It can take a long time and a lot of money and effort to correct fraudulent information.

Check Your Online Reputation

I know it’s a joke to Google yourself, but when was the last time you did? What did you find? Did you drill through to page six or nine to see what might be deeper in the stack? Did you log out of Google and then Google yourself to get different search results?

It isn’t so much a test of what people are saying about you but a test of what information is know about you. Google your name, birth date, location, school, and other personal keywords associated with you. What can people find out about you with just a simple search? Does this information offer a little too much exposure and violation of your privacy?

Getting information and data removed from the web is complicated. You can pay for a company to clean it up or do it yourself. To do it yourself, it takes a lot time, often begging and nagging. For most, they can’t afford the effort or time, so they rely upon “drowning” the negative with more positive, or just accept it and move on.

For privacy issues, it’s important to get these removed if they risk the security and mental health of you or your family or business.

Live Safe

Many blame cop shows and CSI style shows as giving criminals insider information into how crime prevention and detection works. Many are starting to blame the web for connecting smart but evil people around the world so they can learn how others do it, and do it better.

I’m not into blame, but fascinated by my personal involvement in such a living network, where all the bits and pieces came together to bring a case against these criminals, and how the criminals are using my industry for their profit. I believe that by studying such networks, and understanding how our own social networks and relationships can be abused, we get a better overall perspective on the bigger picture.

We’ve all had evil perpetrated against us in some way. Let’s learn from the process to prevent future evil.

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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen.


  1. Derecho
    Posted June 16, 2011 at 2:18 am | Permalink

    A very long post but very helpful. In this digital age, what would always work is your common sense of safety and a lifestyle of privacy consciousness. Just like a re-captcha combination, we must also apply some sound safety “passwords” as we continue to live securely and safely. Thank you Lorelle for sharing these tips. Take care and be safe always.

  2. Posted June 16, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    With the iPhone (and similar), although it is good to individually disable apps’ geolocation as your excellent story mentions it can be useful to have enabled if the device is stolen.

  3. Posted June 16, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Wow. Glad the police were able to do as much as they were for you.

    I’ve long followed the rule of not posting things I don’t want people to know. I generally don’t mention going on a trip until after I’m home again, if it gets mentioned at all. I figure the people who need to know probably hear about it from other sources.

  4. Posted June 16, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    What a story and lots of wisdom shared by telling it too. I’ll be passing the link to your post along because privacy is an important issue and as you point out removing data from the internet is not easily done. Thanks for the insight and practical steps to take to prevent becoming victimized.

    • Posted June 16, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, timethief. I wanted to paint the whole picture as there are so many parts to it that I found so fascinating, the networking that happened with the victims not just to result in the capture of the thieves and break-up of the local ring, but how we came together as strangers to learn the importance of our part in the whole plot. Then the way the whole network works, using the technology we thrive on for evil as they move through communities, stealing at every opportunity and then passing it on in such an assembly line process. Not the stereotype of a car thief I’d ever heard of before. This is serious business.

      The privacy and security issues plague me. This is related and yet not to online privacy, so it felt right to bring that into the entire conversation since we never know what parts and pieces of our lives will be plucked and how they will come together with information from other sources to break through our personal security barriers, putting to risk our activities online, financial and personal, as well as our lives offline.

      Glad you appreciated it! Thanks.

  5. Posted June 19, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Lorelle, this is an excellent post. People do not realize the loop holes until they are exploited. I agree that common sense and prevention are the best bets.

  6. Phil
    Posted September 9, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    So many good points. Yet –

    “If you make online purchases, make them from known and trusted sources.” Yes, but pity the poor honest new online commercial entrant.

    If we buy more from Amazon, who is watching Amazon to ensure they are not compromised?

  7. Ian Worrall
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Glad you got most of your stuff back. Another problem might arise with if people store their vehicle registration and insurance information in their car’s glove compartment. Consider getting one with a lock on it.

    • Posted February 3, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

      I’ve yet to see a lock on a glove compartment that can keep out a determined criminal. You end up with some things stolen and a damaged car in addition. Determined criminals do amazing things and there is little you can do when someone is truly determined. Thanks.

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  1. […] Lorelle on WordPress, I just published Security and Protection: Understand the Social in a Crime Network and How to Protect Yourself, an article that shares the story of how my purse was stolen recently, and the fascinating story of […]

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  4. […] having my purse stolen, having one of my sites hacked and locked down for almost five years, and dealing with serious […]

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