QUESTION: Is Crime Stoppers really anonymous?
Just about every time a law enforcement agency sends a news release about an unsolved crime, they include a number to call, text or a website to visit to send an anonymous tip using Crime Stoppers. The program, started in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1976, is separate from standard methods of contacting police. This allows a person to provide crime solving assistance to the authorities without being directly involved in the investigation process.
For years, we’ve told you Crime Stoppers is anonymous and we’ve urged you to provide tips to help solve crimes. In March of 2017, grandmother Josie Lindsay was shot and killed in High Point. High Point Police urged anyone to call Crime Stoppers with tips. At News 2, we wanted to help, by setting up a phone bank at our station to help receive tips. However, the High Point Crime Stoppers told us no. Not because they didn’t want to, but because they couldn’t. Our phones lines simply are not secure enough.
So, that got us wondering how Crime Stoppers keeps information secure.
We interviewed Greensboro/Guilford County Crime Stoppers Coordinator Stacey Finch. We also conducted a phone interview with Steven Sebestyen, Community Engagement Portfolio Manager with Motorola Solutions, INC., the umbrella company for Tip Soft.
There are three ways to submit a tip via Crime Stoppers; a phone call, a text/SMS message, or an online tip.
For Greensboro/Guilford County Crime Stoppers, phone calls are answered by two employees. These employees work for the city and are not employed by a sheriff or police department. When a phone call come in, the caller’s number is blocked. The number shows are ‘private’ on Crime Stopper’s end.
For texts, Crime Stoppers uses a third-party software company called Tip Soft. Tip Soft also uses a third-party contractor for another layer of security. Tip Soft also partners with 600 Crime Stoppers agencies across the country, 30 of which are in North Carolina.
“It passes through their carrier, so Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and the third party providers sanitizes the data as we call it or de-dentify the data,” explained Sebestyen. “They strip what’s called metadata from the transaction. So, every cellular phone has a unique identifier, you know phone number as well as what’s call a ESN, electronic serial provider. All that information is stripped by the third-party provider before it’s sent to us.”
At this point, Tip Soft creates a unique user code. Then and only then, is the tip sent to Crime Stoppers. We tested the process with Finch and can verify, the only information sent to the Crime Stoppers agency, was the unique code given to us via the Tip Soft message.
For an online tip, Crime Stoppers also uses Tip Soft. The tip is sent to one of Tip Soft's servers in Canada, where it's stripped of identifying information. It's then sent to a server in Utah, where a unique user code is generated. And, just like the text message, it is sent back to Crime Stoppers. We also tested this process and can confirm, the only identifiable information sent to the agency was our unique user code. The online application for filling out the tip didn’t ask us for an email.
Hiding a tipster's identity doesn't stop at the technical side. Crime Stopper's employees strip additional information that could identify you before police ever see it.
"We make sure not to identify someone as a he, she, her, him. We try to keep it very vague and say the caller said, the tipster reported so that way they are truly anonymous,” said Finch.
People shouldn’t be worried about officers finding out who gave the tip, as the Crime Stoppers employees control what information law enforcement see.
“If someone says my neighbor or my daughter or the person I knew, we leave out that information just in case someone were to read this, They can't identify the person as someone they live by or knew."
Finch added it would be nearly impossible for someone to call and try to access a tipster’s information or the original tip.
"When they call us, they have to provide us their tip number that was assigned to them and that is the only way we can communicate with them. Their name is never listed. They'll never have to stand trial or talk to an officer. If they don't want to talk to an officer, they don't have to."
A law enforcement officer, the chief, the sheriff or a lawyer could not ask for the information.
“Because we wouldn't know how to contact them,” said Finch.
Sebestyen added Tip Soft also cannot give information to anyone outside of their company.
"We can't retroactively go back and re-identify that data. Once it's submitted and it's anonymous, it's anonymous forever."
Sebesyten, a former hacker, said it would be exceedingly difficult to access this information.
So, if Crime Stoppers anonymous. We would certainly say yes.
Note: Once tips are deemed valid, and an arrest is made, Crime Stoppers meet with their board of directors and vote on an amount to reward the person who called in the tip. That person is paid one time a month at a local bank. The tipster takes the unique code to the third-party bank and collect the reward.
Stacey Finch, Greensboro/Guilford County Crime Stoppers Coordinator
Steven Sebestyen, Community Engagement Portfolio Manager with Motorola Solutions, INC.
Susan Danielson, Greensboro Police Department, Public Information Officer
Shammai Terry, SaaS Sales Manager, Intelligence Led Policing, Motorola Solutions, INC.