Your cell phone may soon be the newest weapon in fighting crime. Your computer too.
Webster County Crime Stoppers, United Way and Community Foundation of Northwest Iowa and local law enforcement agencies have teamed up to be part of the TipSoft SMS program, designed by Anderson Software LLC, of Nacogdoches, Texas.
TipSoft SMS is an application that allows anyone with information about a crime or illegal activity to submit the information to law enforcement agencies using a cell phone or computer. This secure application allows the tipster and the investigator to have two-way dialogue while keeping the tipster's identity completely anonymous.
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Webster County Crime Stoppers can now accept tips via text messages or e-mail, in addition to phone-in tips. But if it’s an emergency, callers should dial 911 instead.
"I think the public probably doesn't ever get a complete comprehension of how important they are in this whole process," said Lt. Kelly Hindman, of the Iowa State Patrol. "We wouldn't do all this if information from the public wasn't vital to our success."
Crime Stoppers has had a phone line available for people to call in anonymous tips for years. But with advancing technology and the way in which people communicate these days, it only makes sense to give them more options for submitting information, Hindman said.
Absolute anonymity is what makes the system work, he said.
At a glance
There are three options to anonymously submit a tip or information about any crime or illegal activity to law enforcement.
Text your tip
1. Enter C-R-I-M-E-S (274637) as the number
2. Enter LEC at the start of the message in the body - LEC is the code that links the message to Webster County
3. Enter the rest of the tip you want to send
4. Send the message
5. Receive confirmation notice with unique identifier
E-mail tips at www.wccrimestoppers.com - fill out form with as much or as little information as tipster has or wants to give.
"People have a real fear of retribution that's not unfounded at all," he said. "It's completely understandable and is a very fair and legitimate concern. But whether they telephone, text or e-mail, they can retain complete anonymity throughout the process."
Anonymity is guaranteed since the texts and e-mails are routed through servers in Canada, Hindman said. Once a text or e-mail is submitted, the tipster is assigned a unique code that appears instead of any identifying measures.
"If this was an entire system based in the U.S., if push came to shove, an attorney could require you to divulge who the tipster is."
As an international system, it's out of the U.S. jurisdiction.
The phone-in tip option will still be available for people to leave information similar to leaving a message on an answering message.
With texting and e-mail options, law enforcement agents can communicate directly with the person. It's a free service, but it could be billed as a regular text message by the user's service provider.
The main computer will be located at the Law Enforcement Center and the information will be disseminated to multiple law enforcement agencies.
Hindman said every piece of information is important.
"Maybe (a caller) left out a color of the car, or any letters of the license plate. Every little thing that might not seem significant to the caller might help us with the case," he said.
The tipster controls when the conversation ends.
"All they have to do is text or e-mail a message that says stop and that ends that conversation," Hindman said.
Webster County Crime Stoppers, in its mission to unite law enforcement, businesses and volunteer citizens to combat crime in the county, initiated bringing TipSoft to Webster County and Fort Dodge.
"We're getting done what we want to do. It's what Crime Stoppers works for," said Crime Stoppers President Larry Leiting.
In addition to paying for TipSoft, Leiting said Crime Stoppers hopes to educate the community about how it works.
Leiting said the organization is always looking for people to join Crime Stoppers, particularly since it hopes to soon be paying more rewards for valuable tips and information.
The United Way and Community Foundation of Northwest Iowa helped fund TipSoft.
"United Way and Community Foundation is supporting it because the Envision 2030 study that was done a couple years ago indicated that public safety was the No. 1 priority in the community," said Chief Executive Officer Randy Kuhlman. "This was such an exciting new program, that we were pleased to be able to support the project. It makes every citizen the eyes and ears for law enforcement because it's so simple."
Organizers don't anticipate many problems with false information.
"That is always a concern," Hindman said. "To say nobody has ever called Crime Stoppers with a prank call would not be true because occasionally that does happen. And we suspect that would be the case here and you always run that risk. But with any kind of program like this, the benefits would far outweigh anything we might be misled on.
"There wouldn't be any fear of somebody just saying person X is dealing drugs and we're going to run out and charge that person," he said. "Or if somebody calls up and says, 'I know who did it,' we're going to focus some attention on the person and see if it has some merit."
"If we find something, great, it's anonymous - which is a huge motivator for people to share information and we want to make it convenient.
Hindman also emphasized that TipSoft should never replace calling 911 in an emergency where someone needs immediate help from law enforcement.
But he hopes it will help investigations because, he said, "with almost every crime - somebody knows what happened."
Contact Angela Burch at (515) 573-2141 or firstname.lastname@example.org