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Police Officers Set Up Facebook Account to Catch Underage Drinkers

This fall, 20-year-old Tyrell Luebker made two mistakes on Facebook. He posted pictures of himself drinking beer with his friends in an album titled “Not Sober Fest.” And he confirmed a friend request from an attractive young lady named Jenny Anderson. He assumed he had met her at a party.

In November, Mr. Luebker, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, found himself in an interview room in the city’s police department, staring at printouts of the pictures he had posted and answering a police officer’s questions about his underage drinking.

According to students ticketed for violating underage-drinking laws in this college town, local police officers posed as a young woman and friended students they suspected were not old enough to celebrate Oktoberfest, a popular event here. At least seven other students were also shown pictures that had been posted on Facebook and questioned about their behavior.

Many Facebook users make their personal information, including photos of them, available only to people on the site who are classified as friends. But the police officers foiled Mr. Luebker’s privacy attempts, as well as those of other students who were not even friends with Ms. Anderson on Facebook.

Nineteen-year-old Cassie Stenholt was tagged, or identified, in two pictures in which she held a can of Bud Light. The friend who posted the pictures was friends with Jenny Anderson, though Ms. Stenholt says she wasn’t.

Ms. Stenholt received a cryptic e-mail message on a Sunday afternoon in mid-October from Alan Iverson, a police officer. The message simply asked her to call him. When she called, Mr. Iverson told Ms. Stenholt that she should come down to the police station, and that she wasn’t in any trouble.

When she came to the office, Mr. Iverson showed Ms. Stenholt two pictures of herself with a beer can to the side of her mouth and asked her if she was in the pictures. Ms. Stenholt said she was and asked how he knew she was going to drink from the can. “You can just tell you’re drinking,” she said he responded.

When Ms. Stenholt asked how he got the pictures, she said the officer told her someone had sent them to him and asked if she had made any enemies during Oktoberfest.

Mr. Luebker faced similar questioning, and both said they now regretted even responding to the officer’s request to meet. Both had friends who were also drinking in Facebook pictures, but who didn’t talk to the officer and were never ticketed.

When Mr. Luebker and two of his friends were contacted, they said, they were worried what would happen if they didn’t talk to the officer. “We were scared, like, Oh crap,” he said. “I wish I would have said, No, it’s a stupid idea. That’s what you’ve been taught, since ever. Do what the authority tells you to do.”

Mr. Luebker, who has 859 friends on the site, said he didn’t think twice before accepting the request from Jenny Anderson (whom he called “definitely not ugly”). His suspicions were raised only after a friend mentioned that her profile looked odd. There were no tagged pictures of her, and students who accepted her friend request would write on her wall, asking her how they knew her. Most of her friends were freshmen and sophomores, who wouldn’t be old enough to legally drink, and she had no friends at any other colleges. Later that month, her account disappeared.

Mr. Iverson declined to comment. In an interview with the La Crosse Tribune, he said, “Law enforcement has to evolve with technology. … It is a necessity.”

Ms. Stenholt said she was lying low since going to court and paying the fine, saying she stays home in the evenings and does coursework. An e-mailed reprimand from university administrators about the incident has put her on edge. Mr. Luebker says that the episode hasn’t changed his drinking habits and that he sees its bright side.

“It’s definitely improved our rep on campus. So many more people know us. They’re like, aren’t you the guys who. … And we’re like, yeah, we got underaged on Facebook.”

 

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