E-mail outreach lets Va. sheriff's office walk the cyberbeat

PC watch. To monitor criminal activity in her neighborhood, Marilyn Seitz of Massanutten Resort, Va., simply logs on to her home computer and checks her e-mail.

Seitz and 100,000 other Rockingham County, Va., residents receive Sheriff's Office notifications via e-mail through the office's Electronic Neighborhood Watch program. The program lets people report criminal activity and ask questions of the Sheriff's Office, as well.

Office education and information services director Bob Alotta began the program two years ago after some cabin break-ins in the Fulks Run area.

'It's a rough area of the mountain, and you can't get around in a car very easily,' he said. 'We had reports of two break-ins, and I started thinking maybe there were more, and we didn't have enough deputies to go out in the field and check.'

Spreading the word. Alotta logged into his personal America Online 4.0 account, searched for AOL addresses of people in that area and sent out an alert and a request for information. The Electronic Neighborhood Watch was born, with about 250 addresses.

Alotta solicited more interested residents through e-mail, always giving them the option of refusing the service.

Others found out by word of mouth or by visiting the county's Web page, at

It's a simple setup. Alotta has created mailing lists of alert recipients in Corel WordPerfect 8.0 files categorized by town. He cuts and pastes address groups into an e-mail message relevant to those groups and sends out the alert. He has sent 27 alerts.

On the lookout. Alotta sent one alert with a picture of a missing 19-year-old attached. Thanks to an alert recipient who had seen the woman, she was found within eight hours.

Another alert warned rural residents that criminals seeking Christmas money were stealing outgoing mail from mailboxes in the evenings. It asked them to put mail out first thing in the morning, and the thefts dwindled.

AOL once shut down Alotta's account after a recipient accused him of sending spam, but it reinstated his rights upon review of the message and discussion of its purpose. The list continues to grow.

'I do not know how many of our messages are forwarded to other people, because we indicate that they should pass them on to friends. Oftentimes we hear from those friends and they say, 'Put me on the list,' ' Alotta said.

'Claire E. House


Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.