Craigslist Killer Case Proves The Internet Isn't Really Anonymous

In the new Vanity Fair Maureen Orth reports on the role the internet played in the crimes committed by alleged "Craigslist Killer" Philip Markoff, and his capture. Like most of us, he didn't realize how little privacy people have online.

In the article "Killer@Craigslist," which appears in the magazine's October issue, Orth explains that while Markoff and murdered masseuse Julissa Brisman both arranged their meeting through a series of temporary email addresses and texts in an attempt to remain anonymous, their electronic trail wound up helping police expose their identities. Orth writes:

Few Americans, even those from the younger, Internet generation, seem to understand how easily their clicks and text messages can be detected, and how little privacy any of us have anymore. Every search, every posting, every text message or Twitter, leaves a cyber footprint. The content of every e-mail sent by any one of us is kept by the Internet service provider and stored for a period of time, usually six to nine months. Google and Gmail used to store e-mails indefinitely; now they claim they're within the same range, but all the e-mail we choose to keep until we delete it can also be accessed by the provider.

Markoff responded to Brisman's Craigslist ad by sending emails from AMDPM@Live.com, an address he'd set up a few days earlier, using the name "Andy." Brisman advertised under the name "Morgan" and had messages sent to massagesbymorganboston@yahoo.com, an account that was being monitored by Mary Beth Simons, who owns the tanning salon where she worked. Simons screened offers for Brisman and even pretended to be her during a call with Markoff, who used a disposable Trac phone. Hours after her murder, when Simons hadn't received a text from Brisman to say how the meeting went, she contacted the police, who were gathering forensic evidence from the crime scene. Simons gave police the emails she had exchanged with AMDPM@Live.com and called Mark Rasch, the former head of the computer-crime unit of the U.S. Department of Justice, who she knew was an expert in computer forensics and could help the police.

After obtaining a search warrant, Microsoft, which owns Live.com, gave police the I.P. address used to access the account. Police found the I.P. address was linked to two similar robberies that had occurred recently in Boston and Rhode Island.

Craigslist was able to see what time and date the user of the Live.com address responded to each of its postings-when he clicked Morgan's or the other two women's ads, for instance. "People who use Craigslist leave more of a trail than people who just use the phone," says Rasch. [Suffolk County district attorney Daniel] Conley goes further: "People feel online communication is pretty discreet. That's entirely false." (Hotel security services routinely monitor Craigslist to see how much of the erotic trade they are attracting.)

Though the I.P. address gave police Markoff's name, it led to a wireless router in his apartment building, meaning anyone there could have been using the address. Police matched records of Simons' and Markoff's phone calls and texts to hotel surveillance footage, but also turned to more common methods to get an idea of who Markoff was.

Rasch says, the first thing police did, once they had a name, was exactly what many of us would do-they went to Facebook and Google to find out who their suspect was and what he looked like. Then they fell back on tried-and-true detective work and began an old-fashioned stakeout.

Police arrested Markoff on April 20 as he was driving with his fiancée, Megan McAllister to Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, which was about a half an hour from the Rhode Island hotel where Cynthia Melton was robbed and assaulted.

...this would have been his 19th visit to Foxwoods in four and a half months. His first visit had been noted on December 8, 2008, when he signed up for the "Wampum" points awarded as perks for frequent gamblers. His presence had also been documented in the early evening of April 16, the night Melton was attacked. (Police were able to trace his Foxwoods visits by the computer records kept of his "burning Wampum.")

Though McAllister revealed to Orth in a phone call that Markoff was her first love, and she believes she was his too, internet evidence suggests he had a darker sexual life online she was not aware of. Orth writes:

A police source told me that Markoff's tastes were "wide and varied." That may be an understatement. A crime blogger recently uncovered evidence suggesting that Markoff once applied as a newcomer for sadomasochistic experiences.

Orth interviewed a transvestite who had communicated with Markoff on two separate occasions and exchanged explicit pictures with him. The transvestite showed her about 1,500 responses he'd received to ads on Craigslist.

"It's not blackmail per se," he explained, patting the laptop, "but in case I get murdered I have the information to share." One of the icons on the screen was for his complete Markoff file. "Hey sexy" was the first subject line. On May 2, 2008, at 12:29 a.m., the name "Phil Markoff" came up with the e-mail address Sexaddict5385@yahoo.com. He was replying to Craigslist personal No. 664395223... "I am 6'3" a 22y/o grad student." Along with the message, he sent his picture, which the tranny verified by going to Markoff's Facebook page and seeing the identical photo of him there, smiling, in a blue-and-white striped shirt, with a small drapery swag in the background.

In May, after pressure from the attorneys general of 43 states, Craigslist eliminated its Erotic Services category in the United States and changed it to Adult Services, which Craigslist C.E.O. Jim Buckmaster says is "manually reviewed to make sure a human reviewer looks at each ad and picture, reads each word, and compares the ad with our posting guidelines." Some still criticize Craigslist for only providing the police with information after a crime is committed rather than doing more to prevent crimes; however, Buckmaster says the site has many filters in place and it's not smart for people to arrange illegal activities via the site because, "It virtually guarantees they'll be caught."

Killer@Craigslist [Vanity Fair]