How cops and robbers are using Google Earth

Law enforcement and criminals have both used Google Earth and Google Maps to commit and solve real-world crimes

Google Earth and crime

When Google released its 3D-mapping service Google Earth, it gave the entire world a bird's-eye view of the entire world. Criminals and law enforcement soon began using the tool to their advantage, using digital tools to commit and solve real-world crimes. Here are some interesting cases in which Google Earth or Google Maps have been used in the world of crime.

U.K. tax fraud

The U.K. government's tax collectors have recently begun using Google Maps to zoom in on property looking for signs of unreported expenses, such as home improvements or expensive cars. In one case, they used Google Earth to count the number of active tenants in a trailer park and compare it to the property owner's tax records.

Greek tax fraud

The Brits weren't the first to take this approach. With rampant tax fraud making it more difficult for the Greek government to recover from its economic collapse a few years ago, tax collectors turned to Google Earth to find unreported properties, such as vacation villas and swimming pools. It was massively successful. Prior to the Google Earth land survey, the Greek government had listed just 324 swimming pools in its suburbs. Afterward, it listed almost 17,000.

Massive tax fraud case in Italy

Similarly, the Italian government turned to Google Earth to gather evidence on a suspicious land deal involving the sale of a villa for just $376,000. Italian investigators went looking, and were tipped off by one conspicuous clue in the property: "a swimming pool with a phallic shape." The investigation of the property blew the lid off a variety of tax violations exceeding $9 million in value.

Authorities didn't release the location of the property, but Italy Magazine speculated that this Google Earth view might be the one that tipped off the authorities.

Teens crashing pools in England

If law enforcement is successful using Google Earth to find interesting pools, so are tech-savvy teenagers. In 2008, a spokesman for the Devon and Cornwall police in the U.K. told the Daily Mail that teenagers were identifying large pools with easy access on Google Earth, then using social networks like Facebook to organize unwanted pool parties at unsuspecting pool owners' homes.

Illegal pools in Long Island

In Long Island, the local government assumed the role of Google Earth pool crasher, using the service to identify 250 pools that hadn't been inspected, collecting about $75,000 in fees as of August 2010, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Burglary in Chicago

In 2011, a Chicago man was arrested after stealing roughly $100,000 in jewelry and electronics from wealthy neighborhoods he had scouted on Google Earth, according to a Sun Times report. The burglar reportedly searched "expensive homes along highways" on Google and landed on the Chicago village of Indian Head Park, after which he used Google Earth and Google Maps to identify which houses would be easiest to break into.

Car thieves in Pennsylvania

Similarly, two thieves in Pennsylvania used Google Earth to find neighborhoods where they might find unlocked cars containing valuables, according to WPXI. Assuming that cars in upper-class neighborhoods would be locked away in garages and those in lower-class neighborhoods would be less likely to hold any valuables, the thieves spotted middle-class neighborhoods where people would feel safe parking their unlocked cars on streets and on roadsides. They made off with stolen credit cards, but were later caught on camera using them at gas stations and grocery stores.

Credit: Daily Mail
Man blames Google Earth after he's robbed

In 2010, a British man whose bike was stolen from his garage told The Telegraph that the photo taken of his house for Google Street View failed to censor the contents of his open garage. In the Street View image, Gordon Rayner can be seen outside his home where both his face and the windows to the house are censored, but not the inside of his garage, where his mountain bike can be seen. When it was stolen from his garage in April 2010, Rayner blamed Google for failing to censor the photo of his valuables.

Credit: NY Post
Heroin ring busted after Street View exposes dealers

When a Google Street View car happened to drive through a certain East Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, it snapped a photo of four men standing outside of a corner bodega, a scene that the New York Post reported was all too familiar to nearby residents. The photo of the men tipped law enforcement to their heroin dealing business, which turned out to have a much larger reach throughout Brooklyn than that one street corner.

Reddit's Google Earth murder mystery

In April, a Reddit user shared what appeared to be a grisly scene captured by Google Earth's satellites: a bloody murder scene on a boardwalk in the Netherlands. The post set off a media frenzy, but another Reddit user, employing a creative technique to zoom in closer, found that what appeared to be a dead body was just a wet dog, and what looked like a trail of blood was just the water the dog trailed after he walked out of the lake and toward his owners on the pier.

Stolen SUV found via Google Earth

In a similar case this September, a Mississippi man using Google Earth to look at his private property used for hunting spotted what he at first thought was “an illegal shooting house” in the woods. So he took it upon himself to investigate with a GPS device and the coordinates, finding an abandoned SUV that had been reported stolen in March.

Credit: REUTERS
Pot plants in Wisconsin

In 2006, police officers arrested a Wisconsin man for possession of 18 pounds of marijuana after a traffic stop, but found a GPS device worn around the man's neck with several coordinates plugged in. The officers later entered the coordinates into Google Earth and sent officers to the addresses, finding marijuana plants in each of the areas.

Credit: YouTube.com
Pot fields in California's National Forest

In late 2012, Anthony Silvaggio, a sociology lecturer at Humboldt State University, found evidence of large, industrial marijuana fields strewn throughout northern California’s National Forests. The location helped in the investigation of those responsible for environmental damage done as a result of cultivating marijuana in the forests, ranging from insecticides killing animals to the threat of natural streams used for irrigation drying up.

Pot field in Oregon

Police in Oregon were tipped to a particularly conspicuous pot grower last month after he had reportedly bragged about his high-production operation for growing medical marijuana. So the officers simply found the man's address, plugged it into Google Earth, and got to see it for themselves, according to the Grants Pass Daily Courier. The man may have thought it safe to brag about his pot growing because medical marijuana is legal in Oregon. Unfortunately, he had yet to get the proper licenses to grow high quantities of the drug.

Pot fields in Switzerland

Are you noticing a trend? In 2009, police in Switzerland uncovered 1.1 tons of marijuana after identifying a two-acre grow operation that was reportedly hidden within a corn field, according to the Telegraph.

Credit: YouTube.com
Illegal logging of redwoods in California

Rebecca Moore, head of Google Earth Outreach, explained in a blog post how she was able to use Google Earth to prevent logging of redwood trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In an interview with CNBC, Moore called it the first "grass roots" use of Google Earth and said it got the attention of environmental groups across the globe.

Indigenous Brazilian tribe battles rainforest logging

An indigenous Brazilian tribe turned to Google Earth to identify and put an end to logging in areas of the rainforest where it had been previously banned. The tribe embarked on the Google Earth plan before it even had Internet access, and it established a partnership with the company to use the technology to shine a light on illegal and destructive logging in the area.

Researching the impact of community gardens on crime

Researchers in Texas State University’s Horticulture Department incorporated Google Earth into a study on the impact of community gardens on crime rates in certain neighborhoods in Houston.

Crime in Bangalore

Earlier this year, law enforcement in Bangalore, India, launched an initiative to battle rising crime rates by using Google Earth to record crime trends in particular areas, One India reported. Every reported crime would be entered into the system and then mapped with Google Earth to show which crimes are most common in which areas of the city.

Abandoned boat in Florida

After a Florida police officer found an 18-foot boat that had been illegally dumped, he turned to Google Earth to look at images taken of nearby properties. Sure enough, he found an image of the same boat docked outside of the owner's home, CBS News reported. The owner later admitted to dumping the boat and faced a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison. The local landfill would have disposed of the boat for an $18 charge, according to the report.