Police struggle with Internet pranks

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Police struggle with Internet pranks

It was a ruse. The once-peaceful harbor city of Incheon was on edge last spring soon after an unverified story was posted on an Internet cafe message board. The writer claimed that seven prisoners at the Incheon correctional facility had escaped and that they were prowling at night to rape and murder Incheon high school girls.

The story went viral within a week. And the tale became even more sinister: some postings said two girls had been killed and their bodies had been dismembered. High school girls and parents were shaken. “My daughter was scared whenever she left for class,” a homemaker surnamed Yim said. “I called other moms to see whether the story was true.”

The police were forced to investigate the story. And, last week, police arrested a high school girl surnamed Lee, 17, on charges of fabricating and spreading false rumors on the Web.

Lee told investigators without remorse that she “just created the story simply for fun.”

Despite the fact that Internet crimes are getting increasingly more complex and diverse, police are failing to keep up with fast-changing false reports on the Internet. “There must be systematic measures to quickly respond to false rumors,” said Lim Jong-in, an information engineering professor at Korea University.

The arrest in the fabrication case came four months after the initial postings, showing a weakness in the police investigation. Police had narrowed the number of potential suspects to 36 by searching stories posted on the Web, but they had a difficult time nabbing the most likely suspect because the postings were written using stolen IDs and fake user names.

The police officers blame local regulations for the slow pace of the investigation. To search a person’s e-mail messages and online instant messages, police need to obtain an arrest warrant.

“It took us 10 days to seek a warrant for each suspect,” said Kim Yang-ho, a police officer with the Incheon cybercrime investigation bureau.

Cybercrime investigators said Korea should adopt the U.S. National Security Letter, which enables investigators to get permission to examine documents, files and other information on suspects embroiled in cybercrimes. “Internet users are now spreading false rumors like hoax messages to the police and emergency squads on April Fool’s Day,” said Lim.


By Chung Ki-hwan, Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]

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