As featured on CNBC.com
Is It Time To Re-Think Your Cyber Connections? By, Jim Diamond, Criminal Defense Lawyer
Here we go again.
Just a day after the so-called Craiglist Killer was arraigned in Boston on new murder and robbery charges, yet another catalog of sick charges is being thrown at an outwardly benign-appearing person (Philip Markoff was a pre-med student; this time the accused is an Oscar-winning song composer). Joseph Brooks, the “You Light Up My Life” writer, has allegedly used disturbingly creative Craigslist ads to lure victims and then sexually assault them. Markoff and Brooks both maintain their innocence, but investigators have heaps of evidence and statements to the contrary. Yesterday Brooks was indicted and taken into custody on 82 counts of sex related charges including rape, where the victims were 11 young women who came to his home on the premise that the once-famed songwriter would turn them into stars.
Brooks has been released on bond and now faces prosecution by the New York District Attorney’s Office. On Monday, Markoff pled not guilty in the murder of Julissa Brisman, the pretty New York masseuse who advertised her services on the popular free online classifieds site, though he was indicted for her death and another attack just days before at Boston’s Westin hotel against a 29-year-old woman who advertised as an exotic dancer.
And the blond, boyish pre-med student has been charged with yet another crime in which a prostitute who advertised on Craigslist was tied up and robbed at gunpoint. According to the Boston Globe: “The break cam e hours after police released new security camera photos showing the clean-cut, 6-foot-tall suspect strolling casually to and from the … crime scenes peering into his BlackBerry.”
When queried about the enormous amount of attention paid to these crimes versus other murders, pop culture headline maker and Emmy-winning TV writer and creator Bill Persky notes, “Cable news needs to talk about something, and who can resist? The technology is the only thing that changes; people stay the same.”
But still, whether Brooks and Markoff are convicted or not, the link that ties these crimes together is one that resonates—Craigslist. Despite its explosive popularity over the several years it has existed, the site has until recently somehow managed to feel as local, safe and useful as a bulletin board on the wall of a local market.
We’ve all been on Craigslist. Maybe not for erotic services or massages or escorts—but those listings are just a column away from the used cars, the apartment sublets, the job postings. Yet suddenly people are looking upon the service—where moms list the cribs and bouncy seats their toddlers have outgrown and college students look for roommates—as a cross between a virtual brothel and a slaughterhouse. They are still mindful of the apparent S&M frenzy murder of New York WABC radio anchor George Weber by a “Craigslist teen” in March.
But the fever pitch of pressure from the media and several state attorneys general surrounding the Markoff case appears to have been the last straw for Craigslist, which announced in May the shuttering of the Erotic Services category and the launch of a new, revamped, more heavily scrutinized Adult Services category.
Regardless, the sexual listings—paid services and “casual encounters” alike—are still there. This type of information sharing is part of the fabric of social media. And, honestly, any familiar social networking site would be a similarly fascinating story should problems arise there—try substituting “Twitter” or “Facebook” or “MySpace” for Craigslist. Take the well-known case of Andrew Lubrano, who had a history of sex offenses against young boys for years and eventually began to employ MySpace in his lure. He was caught when Wired magazine journalist and former hacker Kevin Poulsen developed a code to ferret out registered sex offenders who were using MySpace to find victims. Since then, many police departments now have full-time cyber detectives who troll the Web, logging onto social media sites, taking on completely fake personas—pictures and all—with the purpose of identifying criminals.
Social networking sites are designed to help people connect with one another more easily and more widely. That’s the point.
Inevitably that makes it easier not just for socially minded innocents to find each other and interact, but also for people of bad morals and ill intent to find victims. In April another “Craigslist Killer,” 20-year-old Michael John Anderson, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing Minnesota college student Katherine Ann Olson. Anderson had lured Olson, a former nanny, to his home in 2007 via a false-premise Craigslist ad, purporting to offer a babysitting gig for a local family. Instead, he shot her in the back and dumped her body in the trunk of her own car.
These criminals are the living embodiment of malware—some invisible virus hiding on a Web page or in an e-mail that could wipe you out, steal your identity, rob you of everything. They’re just one wrong click away; one e-mail answered that shouldn’t have been. Of course, the likelihood of having serious damage done by identity theft or malware is far more likely than running into a serial killer or rapist online. Internet criminality is, in fact, an exception to the high percentage of crimes committed by people who know their victims—this is the equivalent of high-tech stranger abductions, with shades of computer introductions to facilitate false familiarity.
And who hasn’t exaggerated who they are online? Who hasn’t blasted through pages of Facebook to see if there is anyone we recognize, anyone we know, anyone we want to know? Who hasn’t dispatched with old friends, exes and strangers with a quick delete, a cold “ignore,” a scrapped e-mail? By allowing us to interact with others while sitting alone at home—viewing them as mere Web pages or jpegs that can be easily disposed—there are traces of the sociopathic to social media.
Perhaps there’s something inherently troubling about the way online social networks keep us connected and separate at the same time, the way they allow us to judge and objectify one another anonymously, to see people not really as people, while we sit alone in the darkness, watching without them knowing it. Does that make us all little criminals? Absolutely not. But maybe it is something to think about the next time we “friend” a stranger on Facebook.
Maybe the one-two punch of the Brooks and Markoff cases are the warning sign we needed—a reminder that it’s time to rethink how we relate to one another and reconsider the wisdom of cyber connections morphing into face-to-face liaisons.
Byline as featured on CNBC: Jim Diamond is a Connecticut-based criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor.