'Netbangers,' Beware

With a seasoned cop's knowing eye, Lake Worth, Fla., police agent Brian Hermanson cruised recently through some known gang hangouts. He was soon onto potential trouble: someone rolling through the neighborhood in a blue Lincoln and flashing gang signs. There was no crime--yet--but Hermanson knew to keep an eye out for the car. Not a bad bit of police work, especially for a guy who hadn't even left his desk. Hermanson gleaned the tip from a few minutes spent browsing a local gang member's personal Web page. The 15-year veteran cop used to spend most of his days on the streets, drawing a bead on gang activity by reading graffiti and chatting up members. But that changed in 2004, when his investigation into a deadly drive-by shooting stalled. Some teenagers asked if he'd checked the Internet for clues. Hermanson took their advice, and found himself transported into the little-known realm of "Netbanging." Across the nation, street gangs have taken their neighborhood feuds, colors and rituals online. Hermanson eventually found chat-room conversations that helped secure two convictions in the drive-by case. Ever since, he's spent 15 to 20 hours a week scanning Web sites for clues about local gang activity. "For a guy that's working gang shootings, this is great stuff," Hermanson tells NEWSWEEK.

Like everyone else, street gangs are staking out a place on the Web. Det. Juan Colon, who trains gang investigators for the New Jersey State Police, began researching online gang activity in 2000. "But in the last three years," he says, "there's just been an explosion of this stuff." Some of the more established cliques, like L.A.'s Mid City and Clanton gangs, have professional-quality sites. Click onto Clanton's Web site and you'll find a detailed gang history, complete with photographs dating to the 1970s. "It's basically a way for everybody in the neighborhood to keep in contact," says the gang's Webmaster, who agreed to be identified only by his street name, Stalker. "We talk about old-school traditions." Mid City's Web site is run by a 30-year-old retired member who goes by Cricket. The site, he says, is nothing more than a place to showcase the "Mid City Kingdom Lifestyle"--which, if the photos there are any indication, includes a lot of macho posing, boozy hugging and throwing of the gang's hand signs. (After being contacted by news-week, Cricket, who spent some time in California's juvenile-justice system and has since earned a bachelor's degree in Web design, scrubbed the site and added legal disclaimers.) Stalker says his Web site is "not for recruiting." But intended or not, the sites have expanded gangs' reach far beyond poor, urban street corners. Now anyone with a computer can live--or pretend to live--the thug life.

Some of the gang sites are just simple, free MySpace or GeoCities blogs where people talk tough and live out their fantasies behind the safety of a screen name. Gang Web sites receive e-mails from would-be gangsters overseas who are looking to open chapters abroad. "I am ready to honour all the traditions of CLANTON gang," reads one gang chat-room post from France. "You're seeing the Internet turned into an electronic alley," says George W. Knox, who runs the National Gang Crime Research Center in Peotone, Ill.

But it's not just kids searching for vicarious thrills. Active gang members use the Web sites to communicate with each other and sometimes to pick online fights with rival gangs. What starts on the Internet can quickly spill onto the streets. Cops in Boston and Texas who broke up gang brawls in the past few years found that the altercations had been scheduled on gang Web sites.

The sites help the police in other ways. Some of them depict gang life down to the smallest details--the members' preferred tattoos, say, or how they tie their ban-dannas. "It's where I learned everything I know about gangs," says Det. Kevin Kuschel, who works on a gang unit for the Palm Beach County School District in Florida. Clicking through gang sites, he recently found an online photo of a 14-year-old gang member he had seen on the streets. In the picture, the boy was wielding an AK-47. When police searched his home, they found the assault rifle--and 14 other guns.

But the Web has also given rival gangs a new, less violent way to settle scores--flooding each other's sites with junk e-mail. Stalker says he spends hours every week deleting threatening or insulting messages from other gangs from his Web site. Not even a gangster is safe from spam.