Pokémon Go: A Law Enforcement Alert

by the National White Collar Crime Center

NW3C PokemonGo

Click here to read or download the full advisory.

What is Pokémon Go?

Pokémon Go is an Augmented Reality (AR) game that lets players attempt to capture small cartoon-style characters (“pocket monsters”, or Pokémon), using the real world as an interactive game board. The game is a result of a partnership between Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, Google, and Niantic Inc.

Pokémon Go is available as a free app on both iOS and Android devices, but offers in-app purchases of items to give players advantages during the game. In the United States, more than 15 million iOS and Android users have downloaded Pokémon Go in the first week of availability. Users must create a unique nickname which is linked to either a Google or Pokémon Trainer Club account.

Pokémon Go accesses the phone’s location services to tell where the player is in the real world, creating the playing field based on Google Maps data (Fig. 1). It also accesses the camera so it can superimpose game elements on to a real-world backdrop (Fig 2). A player must physically travel to find Pokémon, and once found the player can attempt to capture them. Different Pokémon appear in different environments and at different times of day. This encourages players to explore their local environments, often at unusual hours. Some locations (e.g. police stations, churches, museums, and parks) are coded into the software as PokéStops and Pokémon Gyms. These points of interest are drawn from underlying map data and are not user-editable.

What you CAN do with the information in the app:

• Tell where PokéStops and Pokémon Gyms are (their locations do not change)
• Buy in-game items with real money
• Use in-game items (a lure) to draw more Pokémon to a PokéStop (thereby attracting other players due to increased Pokémon activity)

What you CAN’T do:

• See where other players are
• Contact other players through the app (though a third-party chat app is available)
• Target specific players


Importance to Law Enforcement

The nature of the game encourages people to go places where they might not usually go (and where they may be unfamiliar with local hazards), while keeping their attention focused on their mobile device. There are reports of players injuring themselves through inattention, including a report of a girl who was hit by a car while catching Pokémon.

Likewise, the PokéStops and Pokémon Gyms being automatically generated from underlying data has created problems where that data doesn’t capture the full story – such as cases where the solemn nature of the landmark (e.g. The 9/11 Memorial, The Holocaust Museum), or the landmark’s current status as private property (e.g. repurposed churches), makes the influx of players a nuisance. Niantic Inc. has made a form available to get a location dropped as a PokéStop or Pokémon Gym.

There was an incident reported in Missouri of armed robbers who took advantage of the fixed nature of PokéStops to “stake out the watering hole”, since they knew that these sites would be attractive to players. In-game items, such as the Lure Module, can be used to draw additional Pokémon to a PokéStop, making it more appealing to other players. This would allow criminals to lure players in to a specific location where armed robbery, kidnapping, or even sexual assault could occur.

Click here to read or download the full advisory.

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