In law enforcement, a sting operation is a deceptive operation designed to catch a person committing a crime. A typical sting will have a law-enforcement officer or cooperative member of the public play a role as criminal partner or potential victim and go along with a suspect's actions to gather evidence of the suspect's wrongdoing. Even mass media journalists resort to sting operations to record video and broadcast to expose criminal activity.
Sting operations are common in many countries including the United States, but not allowed in other countries such as Sweden.
- Deploying a bait car (also called a honey trap) to catch a car thief
- Setting up a seemingly vulnerable honeypot computer to lure and gain information about hackers
- Arranging someone under the legal drinking age to ask an adult to buy an alcoholic beverage or tobacco products for them
- Posing as someone who is seeking illegal drugs, contraband or child pornography to catch a supplier; or as a supplier to catch a customer
- Passing off explosives, fake or real, to a would-be terror bomber
- Posing as a child in a chat room to identify a potential child molester
- Posing as a potential customer of illegal prostitution; or as a prostitute to catch a customer
- Posing as a hitman to catch customers and solicitors of murder-for-hire; or as a customer to catch a hitman
- Posing as a spectator of an illegal dog fighting ring
Ethical and legal concerns
Sting operations are fraught with ethical concerns over whether they constitute entrapment. Law-enforcement may have to be careful not to provoke the commission of a crime by someone who would not otherwise have done so. Additionally, in the process of such operations, the police often engage in the same crimes, such as buying or selling contraband, soliciting prostitutes, etc. In common law jurisdictions, the defendant may invoke the defense of entrapment.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, however, entrapment does not prohibit undercover police officers from posing as criminals or denying that they are police. Entrapment is typically a defense only when suspects are pressured into committing a crime they would probably not have committed otherwise, but the legal definition of this pressure varies greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
For example, if undercover officers coerced a potential suspect into manufacturing illegal drugs to sell them, the accused could use entrapment as a defense. However, if a suspect is already manufacturing drugs and police pose as buyers to catch them, entrapment usually has not occurred.
Sting operations in popular culture
The term "sting" was popularized by the 1973 Robert Redford and Paul Newman movie The Sting, but the film is not about a police operation: it features two grifters and their attempts to con a mob boss out of a large sum of money.
- In 1998, three agencies joined forces to conduct a sting operation where they successfully recovered the Honduras Goodwill Moon Rock from a vault in Miami. The sting operation was known as "Operation Lunar Eclipse" and the participating agencies were NASA Office of Inspector General, the United States Postal Inspection Service and U.S. Customs. The moon rock was offered to the undercover agents for $5 million. Operation Lunar Eclipse and the Moon Rock Project were the subject of the book The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks by Joe Kloc.
- In To Catch a Predator, an NBC reality TV show hosted by Chris Hansen, decoys posing as minors have online conversations with potential sexual predators in an attempt to lure them to a meeting, where they are confronted by Hansen and the police.
- In White Collar, a fictional renowned thief, known as Neal Caffrey, is caught and serves as a criminal consultant for the FBI. Neal during these cases resumes a false identity to lure forgers and other thieves out of hiding so that the FBI can arrest and charge them.
- In the 2008 video game Grand Theft Auto IV, the in-game police LCPD took over an in-game website "Little Lacy Surprise Pageant", referencing police attempts to catch child molesters. Visiting the site results in the player attracting police attention.
- In "Contemporary American Poultry," a 2010 episode of the U.S. sitcom Community, the main characters set up a sting operation to catch their classmate "Star-Burns" stealing chicken fingers from their community college's cafeteria.
- A US Customs undercover operation led by Special Agent Robert Mazur that discovered the money-laundering organization of drug lord Pablo Escobar, and took down the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, was dramatized in the 2016 film The Infiltrator.
- 2013 New York divorce torture plot
- Advance-fee scam
- The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks
- Fence (criminal)
- Rachel Hoffman
- Honey trapping
- Honeypot (computing)
- Mr. Big (police procedure)
- Stephen Joseph Ratkai, arrested and convicted of espionage in Canada after a successful sting operation.
- "Watch: FBI Targets American Muslims in Abusive Counterterrorism "Sting Operations"". The Huffington Post.
- NJA 2007 s. 1037.
- "Palm Springs, Coachella Valley - Weather, News, Sports: Special Report: Local police crack down on adults buying booze for minors". kesq.com. Archived from the original on January 15, 2009.
- "What Is Entrapment?". Slate.
- Joseph Richard Gutheinz (November 2004). "In Search of the Goodwill Moon Rocks: A Personal Account". Geotimes. American Geological Institute.
- Christina Reed (September 2002). "Moon rocks for sale!". Geotimes. American Geological Institute.
- Spencer Ackerman: Government agents 'directly involved' in most high-profile US terror plots. Human Rights Watch documents 'sting' operations. Report raises questions about post-9/11 civil rights, The Guardian, 21 July 2014.