Reporting a Digital Crime: Here’s What to Expect from The Police

September 17, 2016

I have received many phone calls, texts, and DMs from people wanting to know what to expect from the police when they phone to report a crime that happened online. Given that I just retired from a modern mid-sized law enforcement agency here in Canada, I think I can provide some quality, knowledge-based insight.

When you first call the police to report an incident, in most cases you will be speaking to a civilian complaint taker, their job is to filter the call and ascertain if it meets the requirements of a uniform officer being dispatched and assigned your call. Again, remember, this call taker will, in most cases, be a civilian complaint taker (CT). Although well trained, most CT’s do not have the same legal training as a police officer and as such, may not be up to speed on current legal case law surrounding a digital crime complaint. If the CT advises you that your complaint does not meet the requirements to send a police officer, calmly disagree and ask to speak to the supervisor. In most cases the supervisor will also be a civilian, but in some cases it could be a police officer, so it is important to ask when they take your call. If after speaking to a civilian supervisor they still advise that they will not be dispatching a police officer to your complaint say thank you, hang up the phone, once again dial the non-emergency number and then ask for the “Watch Commander.” The Watch Commander is usually a police officer of rank that is overseeing the first responder operations of the department. Explain to the watch commander why you have now connected with them. In some cases, the watch commander may override the CT and have a car dispatched to your call, or they may confirm that the complaint does not meet call approval.

Now that a police officer has been assigned and dispatched to your call, its important to know that how busy the department is with emergency calls will dictate how long it will take for a uniform member to knock on your door. Like it or not, although a significant issue to you, a digital crime that has occurred will be a lower priority call in most cases.

As you are waiting for the police to attend, there are several things that you can do to speed things along:

#1: Do not tell the suspect that you are calling the police

#2: Do not delete anything

#3: If you know how, screen capture/cap everything. This is especially important if the suspect has the ability to delete from their end.

#4: If you don’t know how to screen capture, touch nothing and leave your computer alone and let the police handle it.

Before the police officer arrives, I want to be absolutely honest with you; depending upon the age of the officer will dictate, in most cases, how familiar they are with the internet and social media. The younger the officer, the more involved they will be in the investigation.

The reality is that many police departments are playing a game of catch-up specific to training all officers on internet and social media crime. Having said this, some of the larger departments have their own Cybercrime Units. All provinces are now also participating in integrated units that specialize in online child exploitation such as I.C.E. (Integrated Child Exploitation Units). Some junior officers do not know about these integrated units, so there may be times where you can interject their existence just as a reminder to them.

Once the officer arrives at your door, they will begin the who, what, where, how, and why of your complaint and look at any evidence you have to help clarify in their mind if there is a Criminal Code offence. If the answer is yes, then the officer will need to prove one more element: was there the intent to commit the criminal act? If the answer is yes, then the officer will proceed with an in-depth investigation. This may also include a written, video, or audio recording of your statement as to how things came about.

Often when investigating a cybercrime, the hardest thing to prove to a judge or jury is that the person accused was in fact the person who pushed the “send” button. Unlike the T.V. show “Cyber CSI” where they can solve an online crime in an hour, in the real world; it could take weeks, months, or even years to collect all the digital evidence needed to prove a crime. Knowing it and proving it in a court of law are two different things that many people don’t understand legally, and therefore get very frustrated over. Remember the police are answerable to the courts.

Depending upon the cybercrime and evidence required, the police may also have to seize your computer or digital device (cellphone) to obtain what is known as a forensic digital dump. This data dump will provide an officer a court defensible document of what was sent to you on your device and from where. I must also caution readers that this could take days, weeks, or even months that you may be without your digital devices.

As you can imagine, investigating a cybercrime can be very labour-intensive, and the reality in today’s policing world is that depending upon the severity of the crime it can dictate how much time can be dedicated to your complaint, rather than other more serious incidents. Having said this, don’t be afraid to push your cause because often the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Again, depending upon the age of the officer attending, they may initially say there is nothing that the police can do given that the crime committed was from an anonymous source. Although initially it may appear to be from an anonymous source, an in-depth investigation may be able to identify a suspect. What can make this even more challenging is if the suspect resides outside of Canada especially from a country that may not be an Interpol member. Again if you think the officer is just trying to blow your complaint off, don’t be afraid to politely push back a little. If they still ignore your complaint, or say there is nothing they can do, say thank you and connect with their Watch Commander once they have left.

Once an investigation has been completed and proven, there are several courses of actions that can take place depending upon the severity of the incident:

#1: Verbal warning

#2: Restorative Justice

#3: Court

Verbal warnings and court are self-explanatory. Restorative Justice (RJ) has become more popular in lower level cyber crimes. RJ has no criminal record attached, but I have seen some amazing outcomes from RJ processes.

So there you have it, a brief outline as to what you can expect from the police when you report a cybercrime. Although this article was not meant to be exhaustive in outlining how a cyber investigation will take place, it does provide you with basic information to help you when reporting such a crime. Remember you have to be your own best advocate, especially when dealing with an officer who may have less knowledge about social media than a preteen does.

Digital Food For Thought

Darren Laur

AKA #thewhitehatter

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