Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Deception Techniques and Tools

A variety of props, techniques, and facilitators may be used in sting operations.

Disguise

If a regular police officer is deployed to deal with possible suspects, he or she may wear disguises, dress down or up to suit the scene, learn the suspects’ habits and practices and their special skills, and even work and live with the suspects. The simplest form of this technique is the officer who poses as a drug dealer on the street and actually makes drug sales, or an officer who poses as a prostitute to arrest a client.

Storefronts

False storefronts are a very popular technique of deception in stings directed at penetrating fencing operations. Officers in these storefronts may pose as pawnbrokers, or may openly conduct an illegal fencing operation out of a rented space such as a warehouse or office building.

Professional Informers

A known offender (or former offender) becomes a police informer in return for the police’s putting aside arrest or prosecution of the offender, or the police may even pay the informer. Where highly complex crimes are concerned, such as an organized drug-dealing network, well-organized fencing operations, or entrenched systems of bribery of public officials, police often use offenders who are expert in conducting these crimes and who are well connected with other members of the offending group to establish and maintain the degree of deception necessary.

Advertising, Sometimes False

Some stings advertise stolen goods for sale, or offer employment opportunities to bust various consumer and home employment scams. In a popular variation of a regular sting, police have place advertisements to entice offenders with outstanding warrants to collect lucky lottery winnings; the police arrest them when they appear to collect their prize.

The Internet

The Internet has made fraud much easier by providing offenders with an easy way to create false storefronts and even perfectly mimic the web pages of major businesses such as eBay. Sex offenders have also found in the Internet a convenient way to pretend that they are someone else and approach unsuspecting or vulnerable juveniles. However, the possibilities for masquerading as others are also available to police officers, so they may conduct sting operations that also use these methods of deception to trap suspects: they may put up their own false online storefronts and hang out in juvenile chat rooms.

Bait Cars

Police may use bait cars (“decoy cars” or “gotcha cars”) when they know of a hot spot of car theft and the type of car that is most often stolen. Types of bait-car operations range from the simple, when a car is left parked and staked out by police, to the elaborate, when the car is fitted out with tracking devices, or it automatically locks when the thief is inside.

Surrogates

Police commonly employ professional thieves and current or former offenders in elaborate sting operations, especially those targeting fencing and corruption. In simpler operations, juveniles are often used as surrogates or “minor decoys” for police by entering stores to buy cigarettes or alcohol. They differ from police informers, who are used because of their skill and knowledge of complex crimes. Juveniles are used because of their special status as juveniles.

Surveillance

When police use much deception, they are more likely to accompany it with surveillance. This is because, when it comes to prosecution, it will be necessary to demonstrate that the offender was not entrapped into committing the crime (see below on entrapment). In the early days of stings, surveillance was composed of an informer or undercover officer “wearing a wire” to record conversations, to bug a meeting place, or to conduct phone taps. However, the conditions and procedures for making legal phone taps and recording phone conversations are complex, and vary from state to state. Modern sting operations, especially of complex bribery and fraud cases, are commonly accompanied by voluminous videotaped records of transactions and conversations, increasingly made by miniature cameras the informer or undercover officer wears. These videos of offenders actually “caught in the act” have been very effective in the courtroom in gaining convictions, especially if they have been obtained by officers well versed in the legal and operational procedures for obtaining video evidence.

The Two Goals of Sting Operations

Sting operations generally serve two purposes: (1) investigation, and (2) reduction/prevention of specific crimes.

Using Stings for Investigation

The majority of sting operations fall under the investigative category. The aims may be to penetrate a criminal gang, collect evidence, and identify and arrest offenders. Police will conduct a sting essentially to uncover a suspected extensive or complex fraud involving many people, usually those who hold offices of trust in a community or government organization. An example of this is the ABSCAM sting (see box).

ABSCAM

In 1978, the FBI used known con artist, Melvin Weinberg, to direct a sting operation offering bribes to U.S. congressmen and other officials in return for favors to a mysterious sheik named Abdul. By 1980, they had targeted specific members of the House of Representatives and one senator. A number of politicians resigned, several were arrested, and a number of convictions followed. The local and national media publicized the sting extensively, and it is now part of U.S. political history.7

The sting will gather copious evidence that includes wiretaps, transaction records, video footage, and careful accounting of the network or organized system of bribery or corruption. While the uncovering of an extensive bribery scandal and its sensational publicity may serve to warn others of the consequences of committing these crimes, the main goal of such sting operations is to gain the necessary evidence to help effective arrest, prosecution, and conviction of all offenders involved in a complex crime or fraud that involves many offenders. Other characteristics of investigative sting operations include the following.

Sting Durations

Sting operations conducted for investigatory purposes generally do not have a specific time frame. Rather, police must determine at some point in the operation whether they have collected sufficient evidence or identified a sufficient number of serious offenders. In the case of ABSCAM, once the media brought the investigation to light, it had to be terminated. In general, the longer the sting, the more arrests that result. The duration of stings ranges from hours to several years, and many rely on local businesses or community organizations for support (see the Goldstein Award project reports reviewed in the appendix).

Other Agencies’ Involvement

Many stings, especially complex stings, require the involvement of government and non government agencies in addition to the police department. A dozen or more federal, state, and international organizations are typically involved, as well as community and business organizations.4

† The Lauderhill (Fla.) Police Department used a sting operation to obtain information to help analyze the problem of street drug dealing, rather than to arrest offenders. This enabled them to focus on area redevelopment and other responses that were successful in reducing drug sales—an innovative combination of the investigatory function of stings with the aim of crime reduction rather than the “gotcha” of mass arrests.

Success Rates

Almost all sting operations result in either arrests or convictions, many of them startling (one reported 700 arrests), with very high conviction rates ranging from 70 percent to 95 percent.5 The majority of those arrested in fencing and fraud stings also have prior criminal records. Viewed from their primary goal of investigation, therefore, it is apparent that stings are highly successful operations. However, there is generally no research that demonstrates that the successful revelation of an extensive fraud and successful conviction of offenders prevent future similar frauds from occurring; these types of stings are usually one-time operations. As far as reduction of the targeted crime is concerned, stings are generally ineffective (with some notable exceptions, as mentioned below), providing only temporary remission, though they do provide other benefits.

Cost

The longer the sting operations, obviously the greater the cost. Investigative storefront sting operations are usually the most elaborate and expensive, though they do often result in the recovery of stolen property, thus offsetting the cost (see below). Few studies other than those on storefront stings have computed the cost of stings, except to observe that they are very expensive in personnel time.

Publicity

Investigative stings usually require secrecy, so publicity is rarely used before or during the operation; instead, it always follows the sting with the announcement of many arrests. There have been some examples of negative publicity, including one in which a major drug sting was announced that included Mexican officials; the then president of Mexico criticized the operation in national and international media. 6 Another was in Operation Greylord (see box), where two offenders committed suicide when the sting identified them publicly as culprits. Police also typically use publicity as part of some consumer fraud stings that require local newspapers to be complicit in inserting false advertisements meant to snare offenders.

† In the Goldstein Award Reports (appendix), all sting operations, whether successful or not, involved the media, especially those concerned with illegal alcohol sales and with additional efforts to name clients (sometimes with photographs) and prostitutes in the local newspapers as an outcome of the sting.

Operation Greylord

In 1978 an FBI agent was investigating a case of corruption in the Chicago Police Department. During the investigation, he came across evidence of corruption in the judicial system. After 18 months, the Washington Bureau approved a sting operation to uncover what was suspected as being an extensive system of bribery and corruption in the Cook County judicial system. It ran for some three years, and its repercussion was felt for many years after. The sting is described as follows:8

The government fabricated cases, involved dummy defendants, tape-recorded conversations, tapped telephones and, for the first time ever, planted a listening device in a judge’s chambers. Undercover agents, or “moles,” infiltrated the system, and various deals were made with defendants in return for their cooperation.

This sting operation also spawned congressional testimony into the ethics and legality of sting operations, and a number of significant legal cases using the entrapment defense resulted. There were over 60 arrests and many convictions.

Using Stings to Reduce Crime

Sting operations that target specific crimes with the aim of reducing their incidence are usually conducted for a predetermined time, such as speed traps or random breathalyzer stops during a holiday period. Thus, they are cheaper to implement and are more common. The police may use them in conjunction with other responses aimed at reducing recurring or persistent crime problems such as prostitution, illegal gambling, drunken driving, speeding, sale of alcohol or cigarettes to minors, street drug dealing, and rashes of car theft.

In a review of the POP Center database of Goldstein Award Reports studies (appendix), of the 27 studies that used sting operations, half reported that the sting reduced the targeted crime, although even among those, the majority of reductions were short term. The remaining studies reported that the sting did not reduce the targeted crime. The most popular crime targeted by these studies was prostitution, where the majority of the seven studies reported no reduction in the targeted crime. Targeted crimes where stings appeared to be more effective were illegal sales of alcohol and traffic offenses. All those studies that reported successful reduction in the targeted crime also used the sting operation in conjunction with other responses; as many as five or more different responses were common, including use of publicity in the sting’s early stages. This applied especially in responding to prostitution.