The Lee County Sheriff's Office received a tip in early August: A couple with young child was selling drugs out of a North Fort Myers hotel room filled with stolen goods.
The tipster learned about the drug operation on Facebook, and passed the information to Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers via social media. Deputies swooped in the next day, arresting Andrew Edouard, 22, and Stephanie Lanham, 32, on trespassing and cocaine possession charges.
Before social media and smartphones, law enforcement relied on email blasts and the news media to pass on information, and if they were lucky, a photo. They relied on anonymous tip telephone lines to get information on possible suspects.
But with the power of the Internet, catching criminals is getting easier one touch screen at a time.
Authorities have made 22 arrests utilizing social media tips since Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers began employing the technology early this year, program coordinator Trish Routte said. "I fully expect that number to steadily increase," she said.
Crime Stoppers rolled out its TipSubmit mobile app for the iPhone in February. The free app is the first anonymous and fully featured iPhone application that allows the public to submit tips and help solve and prevent crime.
They also maintain Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages and accept anonymous tips via email and text message.
"It's easy and discreet for people to get on the phone and text information to us," Routte said. "We've been getting a few tips from people who are taking pictures of things going on."
While the 22 arrests may seem like a drop in the bucket — local authorities have made more than 500 arrests through Crime Stoppers' traditional tip-gathering means this year — Routte said they've only made a "concerted effort" to use social media within the last six months.
"It's been a learning process for us," Routte said. "And we wanted to make sure that all the security issues were lock tight before we proceeded forward."
Routte and her partner Laura Connell, collect the anonymous tips and disseminate them to the appropriate law enforcement agency in five counties — Lee, Collier, Hendry, Charlotte and Glades.
It's up to the agency to filter useful tips from fluff, Routte said. But tipsters who provide useful tips are eligible for a reward, up to $1,000. So far this year, Routte said, Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers has paid out more than $120,000 in rewards and seized about $920,000 in drugs and property.
"Criminals live in our community, shop where we shop, go to the same places we go," Routte said. "You never know when you're going to recognize somebody."
Lee County Sheriff's Office spokesman Tony Schall said social media has allowed for another way to solve crimes faster.
"Social media has increased our reach exponentially," he said. "Look, in most cases we're looking for the bad guy and the more avenues we can use to get the word out, the better off everybody is."
Gather and disseminating tips is an around the clock job, Routte said.
"I don't sleep, ask my kids. But there's a lot of people on the Internet and social media," Routte said. "So it was just about tailoring what we do to the needs of the community."
For more information or to report a crime, visit www.swflcrimestoppers.org or call 1-800-780-TIPS (8477).