Cell phones lead to criminals, lost persons
EAGLE COUNTY – Cell phones are everywhere these days – including in the hands of those committing crimes.Increasingly, valley police are using cell phones in their pursuit of criminals and the rescue of lost, kidnapped or abducted people. Records can be subpoenaed from cell phone companies to aid in police investigations. A list of incoming and outgoing phone numbers might prove a person is harassing someone, violating a restraining order, or provide police with additional leads in white-collar crimes, drug dealing and other illegal activities.”Narcotics guys use them extensively,” Avon police Sgt. Mike Leake said. “If you get 37 calls from one number to a drug dealer, you pretty much know what this person is calling about.”Subpoenaing the cell phone records of a man involved in a recent $1.2 million construction scam led Avon investigators to additional victims unaware they had been scammed, Avon Detective Paul Arnold said.”(The records) helped us dig into things,” Arnold said. “We could tell who he was calling. We found several other victims he was defrauding.”
The records might also help to arrest accomplices, Arnold said.Police must have probable cause and a court order to retrieve the records from companies, which are careful about releasing private information.”There’s some emergency shortcuts if there’s a life in jeopardy,” Verizon Wireless spokesman Bob Kelley said. “Our protection of our customer information is paramount.”Criminal elementThe same cell phone records helping police could also aid criminals in identifying secret informants. A Chicago Sun-Times article earlier this month reported Chicago Police Department cell phone records could be vulnerable.An Internet-based company, Locatecell.com, sells phone records to anyone willing to pay. The Sun-Times article said criminals can use those records to identify an informant who regularly calls police.
“We do our own private protection for our own cell phones,” Eagle County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Kim Andree said. “The reality is everything is available to you if you connive enough. It doesn’t surprise me you can get other people’s cell phone bills for a fee.”Like Andree, other law enforcement officials in the valley said they were unaware of such vulnerabilities.”In Vail I haven’t come across that issue,” Vail Police Sgt. Craig Bettis said. “The level of investigations that go on in Vail are different than what goes on in a metro area. I don’t see that as an issue.”Still, Bettis said he recognizes the possibility for future breaches.Locating deviceOn the plus side, cell phones can be a help in finding people. Since 2003, Verizon Wireless phones have been equipped with a chip that enables 911 dispatch centers to locate phones to within 50 meters using global positioning, Kelley said. A phone call must be placed from a phone with the chip to a 911 center with the appropriate technology to track the phone, he added.
“The only way it can identify where you are is if it dials a 911 center with the location-based identifier,” Kelley said.Vail dispatch, which handles 911 calls in the county, uses this technology. In the past, the dispatch center used the tracking system to locate a lost hiker for rescue, dispatch supervisor Michele Grey said.”It’s very good,” Grey said. “The only issue is we’re not capable of getting it on everyone, which people don’t necessarily understand.”Verizon phones and others use the 911 locating system, while some companies’ handsets are located by determining which cell towers the phone is transmitting to, officials said. The cell phone must be in mid-call for authorities to locate it.Staff Writer J.K. Perry can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14622, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado