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How to submit a truly anonymous crime tip?
April 22, 2006 8:08 AM   Subscribe

A friend confided in me that he has learned that a business acquaintance is doing some very illegal things (namely, soliciting children via the Internet for sex, and exchanging nude pictures with said minors). He wants to report what he's found out, but the problem is, the way he acquired the information is also highly illegal -- namely, email hacking.

He's asked me for advice and I don't know what to tell him. Knowing this person is harming children is a tremendous weight on his shoulders (and now on mine too, after he told me). Also, this is not a new offense for the acquaintance in question -- he previously served time in federal prison for traveling interstate to meet a child for sex, though no one in his and my friend's industry knows this.

How can my friend go about anonymously reporting this information without repercussions? He knows that accessing this person's email was unethical and wrong. I don't think he wants to do it again. But right now his priority is to safely and anonymously notify the authorities of this person's activities. The main source he's found online, the NCMEC Cyber Tipline, is far from anonymous. Any other suggestions?
posted by justonegirl to Law & Government (50 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Annoynmous letter to the FBI including screen id. They will set up a trap.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:12 AM on April 22, 2006


Can't he just make an anonymous call to the FBI with the details? Certainly they can take it from there or tell him how to proceed.
posted by dobbs at 8:16 AM on April 22, 2006


Forgive my ignorance but by screen id I'm assuming you mean the acquaintance's screen name he uses in chats? I don't think my friend was able to ascertain that -- what he observed in the email account were just messages and photos back and forth.
posted by justonegirl at 8:17 AM on April 22, 2006


Very little on this form is required information. Fill it out or have your friend fill it out. Your friend can also email abuse@ the ISP of the person in question because using email like this is likely a violation of the terms of service agreement.
posted by jessamyn at 8:23 AM on April 22, 2006


Print out everything you know, stick it in an envelope, post it to the FBI? It's still probably traceable if they really really want to, I doubt they'd waste that much time forensics on tracking down an informer who got their info by possibly dubious means though.

Or call the FBI, ask them how to give an anonymous tip off, and then do that?
posted by public at 8:24 AM on April 22, 2006


jessamyn, do you think a form like that one would reveal my friend's IP address, thereby subjecting him to legal trouble for accessing another person's email?
posted by justonegirl at 8:25 AM on April 22, 2006


justonegirl: it would reveal your friend's IP address... unless they go down to a kinko's or something, and pay cash for twenty minutes on a computer.
posted by I Love Tacos at 8:27 AM on April 22, 2006


If he's worried about the IP address, have him fill out the form from a public library or internet cafe.
posted by borkingchikapa at 8:28 AM on April 22, 2006


do you think a form like that one would reveal my friend's IP address, thereby subjecting him to legal trouble for accessing another person's email?

No, I don't think it would lead to legal trouble for your friend, but IANAFBI so I'd suggest going to a public library and using their computers. Today if possible.
posted by jessamyn at 8:28 AM on April 22, 2006


I'm not entirely sure why your friend is worried about anonymity -- from what I know about law enforcement, they'll be more than happy to make sure that however they were tipped off to the bad guy never is discovered. It's not part of public record. So there's that. As for the e-mail snooping thing? Yes, it's certainly a crappy thing to do, and probably illegal (which will be confirmed or denied in the next post by one of the half-million people on mefi who know better than I), but I don't think there's a chance the authorities would care. And too -- while the FBI need to gain their information properly in order for it to be admissable in court, your friend is under no such restrictions. And besides, does he really need to mention the e-mail hacking thing? I think it'll be far more likely that something will happen if he talks directly and frequently to the FBI.
posted by incessant at 8:40 AM on April 22, 2006


I for one am confused how "email hacking" can be considered a crime. Email is a plain-text format, end to end. It is like a postcard --- sooo easy to accidentally see both on the wire and once it is delivered. I ran an email server once, and let me tell you, the system is not designed to be secure. I've accidentally seen thousands of emails in the course of that job.

I would say it is a fact that email is not something that is "hackable", since there is no pretense to privacy and security in the first place.

Is it only intention that makes the crime in the US now? scary.
posted by clord at 8:40 AM on April 22, 2006


I'm not a lawyer, not an FBI agent...

Your friend has already committed a crime; committing it twice isn't going to be that big a deal. Tell him to hack back into the account and copy everything. Slip it onto a CD and mail it to the FBI with some basic guidance of what they should be looking for, and where (saves them time, and will pique their interest).

If I recall my college law courses correctly, they are only banned from using stolen materials in evidence if they get someone to steal them; if someone steals them first and then takes them to the FBI or a prosecutor, it can use them to build a case. Sending them a copy also prevents the person from deleting the only copy of the information if he gets the feeling that he is a suspect or about to be arrested.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 8:44 AM on April 22, 2006


(clord, the fact that you can open up a letter and read it doesn't mean it isn't private. and a person running an email server is no more supposed to read the mail than a post office worker)
posted by mirileh at 9:15 AM on April 22, 2006


IANAL, etc. Your friend can report this without having to mention the email evidence. He certainly shouldn't have to break into the account again and get the evidence. (I believe that in the UK at least burning a pornographic image of a child onto a CD is counted as the creation and distribution of child pornography and is a crime.)

Call up the FBI from a call box and tip them off that the guy is doing this. Don't mention the email hacking or how you know, but tell them he is doing this via email. They should take it from there.
posted by fire&wings at 9:19 AM on April 22, 2006


Your friend has already committed a crime; committing it twice isn't going to be that big a deal. Tell him to hack back into the account and copy everything. Slip it onto a CD and mail it to the FBI with some basic guidance of what they should be looking for, and where (saves them time, and will pique their interest).

Or, hack into the account, and forward the photos to the local FBI office.
posted by Jairus at 9:31 AM on April 22, 2006


not so sound snarky, but if your friend has already admitted to breaking it to the suspected pedophile's email account (yes this is a crime despite what some other people seem to think) what proof do you have that your friend did not send the emails? are you assuming your friend would never do something like that? im not even suggesting that your friend is a pedophile him/her self, their are a myriad of possibilities why someone would do something like this, vigilantiism is the first that popped into my head. after all you said this person was already a convicted sex offender but no one knew (don't they need to register?) perhaps your friend wants the world to know. you said this person was a business associate, does your friend stand to benefit if they are suddenly out of business etc?

im not making a comment about either parties inocents or guilt, i just wanted to get a second perspective out there. and yes i know this is a slight derail from the original question, what can i say something about the question of how do i report someone to the fbi without concreate proof rubs me the wrong way
posted by phil at 9:42 AM on April 22, 2006


folks, if someone's been hacking into his email account and he can manage to prove that, he's got a ready defence - "someone hacked into my account and used it to get those pictures there"

in short, this has some potential to backfire on your friend

is he doing this from work or at home? ... if at work, perhaps the systems admin should be involved

another idea - why not contact the parents of the children in question?
posted by pyramid termite at 9:48 AM on April 22, 2006


No, no, no! Do not try to contact the child's parents. Your friend does not want to put himself in the middle of this - that's a terrible idea. Also, don't get the sys admin involved; let the police do that. He should be telling the police, not playing their role.

Nor will this backfire on your friend - the FBI won't give a damn about the hacking, and they will set up surveillance and get a warrant so the acquaintance will not be able to have this invalidated in court. As has been pointed out, the government has to get its evidence legally; anonymous informants do not.

He should hack back in and get the necessary information: acquaintance's email address, email addresses and names to which the messages are being sent, dates and times of the emails, and certainly any upcoming encounters that have been arranged between the acquaintance and any children. He should phone the FBI from a payphone with all this information, or send it from an anonymous account from a library if he's really worried. I would avoid copying any illegal images, because he doesn't want to be caught in posession of child pornography. I think he should be forthright about how he came across the information; there's no need to lie to the FBI, they won't care about him.

He needs to do this right away. Before his acquaintance has the opportunity to ruin the lives of any more kids.
posted by Dasein at 10:35 AM on April 22, 2006


Ethics: IMHO your friend should report the pedo, take their lumps about the email snoop (which will be quickly eclipsed by the pedo's spotlight) and get back to being able to sleep at night. Even if they pay a fine.
posted by disclaimer at 11:04 AM on April 22, 2006


i'd agree with dasein, hack in and then anonymously give the FBI good specific information so they can get a warrant. i wouldnt worry about an IP address from a form being the thing to give away identity, like mentioned before, there are very easy ways to get around this, especially with all the wireless access points all over the place.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 11:07 AM on April 22, 2006


Let's talk about the email hacking (IANAL, YMMV, etc)

Why was your friend hacking this pevert's email?

If he was just a maladjusted geek who does this for fun, I imagine he might only get his wrist slapped. Plead guilty to some misdemeanour, pay a fine, etc.

If however he was conducting industrial espionage, then he might have to contend with a civil suit from the pervert's employer. The latter could drag on for years and bankrupt your friend.

Unquestionably, however, the pervert's crime MUST be reported -- your friend should pursue some sort of immunity in exchange for reporting said crime. The anonymous route is one way, being completely up front with the authorities is another. Like others have mentioned, they would likely turn a blind eye to your friend's little sin in order to prosecute the big sin. And they might be able to shield your friend from being sued for industrial espionage.
posted by randomstriker at 11:12 AM on April 22, 2006


Ethics: IMHO your friend should report the pedo, take their lumps about the email snoop (which will be quickly eclipsed by the pedo's spotlight) and get back to being able to sleep at night. Even if they pay a fine.

If he was just a maladjusted geek who does this for fun, I imagine he might only get his wrist slapped. Plead guilty to some misdemeanour, pay a fine, etc.

If at any point he did what could be construed as "hacking" a computer system, then he could be charged with a felony for the email snooping. (If he managed to sniff the email without hacking a system, then that might be less of a liability. IANAL.) Still, what he did has the potential for a lot more than a fine or a slap on the wrist, and while it's possible the feds would work with him, it's also possible they'd be happy to bust a pedophile and a hacker. I can see no justification for not reporting this anonymously.

From lawforkids.org:
Question: What is the punishment for going into someone else's email?

Answer: Whether you would be punished for breaking into another person's e-mail is a difficult question to answer without looking at how the person accessed the e-mail system.

There are at least three possible ways that you could access e-mail.

First, would be if a person 'hacks' into a computer system, meaning they break through a computer security system without authorization in order to get access to data. In the computer hacking situation, there are a variety of very serious criminal laws with which the person could be charged. These laws are all federal laws and would include computer fraud, computer and information theft laws and even cyber-terrorism laws. In a case where someone is caught 'hacking', they will likely face felony charges which carry prison sentences. With the rashes of computer viruses that have been introduced to computers over the last few years, federal prosecutors take computer hacking very seriously.

A second way to access e-mail would be to somehow gain access to the e-mail while it is being routed across the public Internet. E-mail is typically not secured at all and is transmitted in plain computer text over the Internet. In this case, it is most likely that someone would still need to 'hack' a computer system to gain this access, but it would be harder to charge the offender with something like theft, because the e-mail isn't secure when it is being sent through the public network. I mention this mostly so that we all remember that e-mail is totally unsecured and confidential information should never be sent through e-mail.

A last way to gain access to e-mail would be to simply walk up to an unsecured computer and start up the mail program on it. In this case, although it certainly isn't appropriate to read someone else's mail, this probably would not be criminal behavior. If the operator of a computer hasn't taken care to password protect their computer systems and software, then they would have very little expectation of privacy in their information. And in this case there likely would be no punishment.

You should remember, you are still held to the rules and policies that your workplace or school have about email. Even though it might be technically 'legal,' if you break school or job policies regarding email, you could face consequences such as suspension or loss of your job.
posted by musicinmybrain at 11:25 AM on April 22, 2006


No, no, no! Do not try to contact the child's parents. Your friend does not want to put himself in the middle of this - that's a terrible idea.

not if he does it anonymously ... which is a lot easier with someone's parents than it is the fbi
posted by pyramid termite at 11:37 AM on April 22, 2006


Can we also consider that the alleged perv is already in the process of being 'stung'? We seem to hear quite a bit about undercover operations with agents posing as children; perhaps the pictures were sent to lure this person into an actual face-to-face meeting. In this case, barging in with illegally-obtained evidence might be enough to derail a case that may have taken months to set up.

Please have your friend proceed with a light hand (anonymously, with no reference to the e-mail break-in). Not only do they not want to let any blundering interference let a perp go free, but there's the off chance that the 'perv' might not be. See this recent thread (and the subject's version of the story) for a real-life case.
posted by hangashore at 11:41 AM on April 22, 2006


I must be missing something. Couldn't the friend approach the FBI and ask for immunity and anonymity in exchange for information leading to a pedophile?

It seems to me that the FBI would be more than happy to make a deal in this case. They make similar deals, granting immunity for minor crimes in order to get information on major crimes, all the time don't they?

To be extra safe the friend could get a lawyer and have him contact the FBI to initiate the bargaining.
posted by oddman at 12:22 PM on April 22, 2006


I'll probably get piked-on for this.. but one thing that seems somewhat important:

Define 'kids'. Are we talking web-savvy 12 year olds, or bored 17 year olds? If the latter, this isn't really an issue. And before any one starts wittering about The! Law! Says! So!, how many of you have jaywalked, run a red light, driven a car over the legal BAC, sparked a joint, downloaded cracked software, downloaded illegal music or movies, drank liquor underage...

Point is, depending on the age of the people in question, this could be a very grey area, morally speaking. Needless to say, however, the younger the people are, the less grey it becomes.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:24 PM on April 22, 2006


Is there any way YOU can turn him in? Then it really would be anonymous - you wouldn't face any penalties, since you haven't done anything wrong.
posted by clarkstonian at 12:25 PM on April 22, 2006


Here's what I would do - report your friend to the police for email hacking. That much you can be fairly sure about. Do you trust anything a guy who, for no apparent reason, hacks into the email accounts of business associates tells you?
posted by zaebiz at 1:24 PM on April 22, 2006


Dirtynumb, I'm kinda with you, but then the question must be asked -- how old is old enough? How young is too young? 17 seems pretty old. But 16? Or 15? Where to stop? And 16 isn't so bad if the other person is 18, but is 17 OK if the adult is 34? Or 28? Or 23? It's hard to make those judgment calls. Some DAs have a better sense of these things than others, too, and while there are plenty of cases prosecuted that're ridiculous, (16 year-old girl, 18 year-old guy, that kind of thing, cites not at my fingertips) it's hard for us to judge ourselves. I'm not sayin' that means I'd report EVERY case where an adult and a minor were having sexual contact, but if I were iffy, I'd err on the side of caution and report.

However, this doesn't really sound like that kind of situation, what with the whole former sex offender thing and all that.
posted by incessant at 1:28 PM on April 22, 2006


Thanks for the responses so far...it's given me a lot to think about and I will pass these along.

FWIW, the email was accessed when my friend correctly guessed the person's password on a very common email site. The email was accessed (quite unethically. I know) because my friend suspected this person of doing some things to damage his business and was driven to find out if it was true.

I have no idea why the person doesn't appear on the sex offender registry. From what I understand, some offenders just aren't subjected to that, while others (who may have done something way less serious, like getting caught having sex in a car) are. It makes no sense to me. Regardless, my friend obtained the person's documents from federal court, and has his Bureau of Prisons number.

Also, for those who inquired, according to the public profile of the kid this person was most recently corresponding with (and who sent the adult some nude pictures of himself, surrounded by his anime posters and school medals) is 14. There have been others in that same age range.
posted by justonegirl at 3:04 PM on April 22, 2006


Oh, and the person in question is in his mid-40's.
posted by justonegirl at 3:05 PM on April 22, 2006


Email snooping, as described herein, may be both a crime and a tort. That is, even if the police think your friend is a hero and don't prosecute, the snoopee could still sue. The Stored Communications Act provides for a civil action -- regardless of whether the snooping was industrial espionage or not -- with a minimum damage award of $1000. If there really is pedophilia going on, the snoopee might be reluctant to sue, but if your friend is mistaken, and the snoopee finds out how the police were mistakenly put on his case, he could be very angry. Lawsuit angry.

So yes, anonymity in telling the FBI is something to consider very seriously.

Disclaimer: IAAL, but especially on secondhand summary of facts, I wouldn't and couldn't give legal advice. So I'm not.
posted by grimmelm at 3:10 PM on April 22, 2006


I might be missing something but when you file an anonymous tip, I don't think you're required to divulge how you came by the information.

In fact, you, yourself are now under some ethical obligation to report this guy, and you did nothing wrong in acquiring the info. So file it yourself!
posted by scarabic at 3:59 PM on April 22, 2006


If I was in his position I'd hire a defense lawyer and get the lawyer to work out a deal with the local D.A. Chances are, they'll be willing to work out a plea deal and let your friend off the hook. "internet perv busted" makes better headlines and gets more votes then "hacker busted".

But don't have your friend talk to a D.A. on his own, do everything through a lawyer.

I really don't think the cops and D.A. are going to be intrested in busting your friend.
posted by delmoi at 4:31 PM on April 22, 2006


I for one am confused how "email hacking" can be considered a crime. Email is a plain-text format, end to end. It is like a postcard --- sooo easy to accidentally see both on the wire and once it is delivered.

It doesn't have to be hard to be illegal. Almost all hacking is 'easy' if you have the right tools.
I also disagree with the anonymous tip thing The friend should do it non anonymously, but get a lawyer to lead your friend through the entire process. The lawyer can work out specifics with law enforcement and protect your friends rights during the process.
posted by delmoi at 4:35 PM on April 22, 2006


incessant writes "It's hard to make those judgment calls. Some DAs have a better sense of these things than others, too, and while there are plenty of cases prosecuted that're ridiculous, (16 year-old girl, 18 year-old guy, that kind of thing, cites not at my fingertips) it's hard for us to judge ourselves."


Of course. And some DA's just froth at the mouth--even if the minor in question is just days from their birthday. I'd say a 17 year old.. probably not police-worthy. A 15 year old, almost certainly so. Probably 16 as well, depending on the age of the older person.

In this case, the kid's 14, the guy's probably a predator. FBI it up.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 5:00 PM on April 22, 2006


"sooo easy to accidentally see both on the wire and once it is delivered"

No it's not. No really, it isn't.

To intercept it "on the wire" would take a deliberate effort of examining traffic as it came across, and picking out stuff on ports 25 and 110. It's impossible to do this accidentally.

Once it's delivered to the final mail server, there's two ways to get at it. If you own the server, you can just open up the file. But the file will be in a location specifically intended for delivery of email, set up for that specific user. Again, impossible to do "accidentally."

Or, you can remotely log into the POP/IMAP server, by supplying it with a username and password, and retrieve the email that way. Impossible to do "accidentally."

Once it's delivered to the recipient's PC, you can start the email client and read through their email, or if they've left it up, you can just click around in it. But once again, unless this person left an open email visible on their screen, it's impossible to "accidentally" come across the content of any of their emails.
posted by CrayDrygu at 6:04 PM on April 22, 2006


hope you're still reading down here...

Send me the name and address (email is good, physical address and DOB is by far the best) of the person in question. I can make a call and have Canadian law enforcement authorities pass on the information to the FBI. I don't know you, nor will anyone ask where the information came from, I promise. Use an anonymous mailer and I won't even know for sure it came from you - but don't worry, the information the FBI receives will never be subject to court access, as it will fall under the 'information received in confidence from a foreign government' clause that both Canada and the USA share for these things. So even if by some reason you're wrong, no civil lawsuit will ever be able to get to you through Canada or me.
posted by tiamat at 6:18 PM on April 22, 2006


Sorry, that should read "Have your friend send . . . "
posted by tiamat at 6:18 PM on April 22, 2006


Slightly off-topic, but people are saying a good way to do it anonymously is via the free internet access in a library?

Does this assume libraries don't have security video? It seems outrageously insecure to me. Find the IP address, match it to a computer and see who was on that computer at the time.

On the moral/whatever issue -- I can't believe the guy is still wondering about how to do it. Call the FBI from a payphone and ask them "I know a guy doing something terrible, how can I get evidence to you without incriminating myself?"
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:09 AM on April 23, 2006


AmbroseChapel: even if they have security video, what are they going to match it to?

If you're ultra-paranoid, go to a library where nobody knows you, park a block away, make the tip-off, enjoy tacos and justice.
posted by I Love Tacos at 8:55 AM on April 23, 2006


The poor youth, who wants to expose himself to strange men on the internet, is going to get grounded for life. He'll likely be mistreated by his family, or worse.

Fourteen year olds are perfectly capable of knowing what they want and going after it. Most 40 year olds who would want the 14 year old aren't out to do real harm. Usually they want to suck a youthful cock. Sometimes they simply love to watch such a youth wank.

I know all this because I was the 14 year old, many years ago. I know few of you will pay this a particle of attention. After all, you all know that sex is too dirty and evil for adolescents to enjoy (except maybe with other adolescents).

I am fascinated that the discussion did not include any observation that the "age of consent" varies with location. Many European nations have it at 16. I believe some may be lower but don't recall, and don't feel like searching it. No one seems to suffer from this.
posted by Goofyy at 1:57 AM on April 24, 2006


14 in Canada.
posted by Jairus at 2:21 AM on April 24, 2006


One possible solution: log back into the guy's hotmail (or yahoo, or gmail, whatever it was) account, fwd the email to himself with a subject of "Hey [some other name], check this out"(so it looks like the offender "accidentally" forwarded it to him instead of somebody else), then call the FBI and say "A business contact appears to have accidentally forwarded me pornographic picture of what appears to be a child. Here is all the pertinent information". No hacking suspicion, and the FBI will then set up a sting to bust this perv.
posted by antifuse at 3:24 AM on April 24, 2006


justonegirl, my uncle is an attorney for the Department of Justice who works specifically on child pornography cases. If you would like me to ask him his advice on how to handle this, just shoot me an e-mail (listed in my profile).
posted by alyxstarr at 5:39 AM on April 24, 2006


14 in Canada.

There's a bill in parliament to change that at the moment, I believe. It was also 14 in Hawaii until recently.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:06 PM on April 24, 2006


AmbroseChapel: even if they have security video, what are they going to match it to?

They print it out and they put up a poster saying "do you know this guy, call the FBI if you do". Maybe you'll get lucky and nobody you know will see it.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:08 PM on April 24, 2006


Can we get some closure on this thread? Can justonegirl update us on the story?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:09 PM on April 24, 2006


I'm sorry, I took some time weighing the many good suggestions, thinking about some of the food for thought presented by others, and discussing it all with my friend. For the time being, we've taken tiamat's advice, and depending on how the story unfolds, we may take another tack as well. Thanks again to everyone for the great responses and I'll try to keep you posted.
posted by justonegirl at 8:51 PM on April 24, 2006


There's a bill in parliament to change that at the moment, I believe.

Yes. Stephen Harper is raising the age of consent, and lowering the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults.
posted by Jairus at 3:44 AM on April 25, 2006


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