Ventura police alerted to "suspicious" geocaching activity

By Alex Wilson 12/11/2008

The worldwide Global Positioning System treasure hunt called geocaching drew attention from Ventura police after someone became confused and alarmed while observing people playing.

Ventura Police Services Officer Laura Robinson took a report involving people who arrived in a van outside a school, and huddled around some landscaping.

They stared at strange devices in their hands, and pulled a box from a bush. They opened it up, took something out, and put something else back in before returning the box to the bush. That had the caller worried about what kind of contraband could be lurking inside the box.

Robinson had a hunch geocaching was involved because her family enjoys the pastime, but still decided it was worth investigating. “I sent an officer out to locate the box, and they were unable to locate the box. So I went to the Web site for geocaching, and was able to find that they had indeed planted a cache there, and that’s what was taking place,” says Robinson. “So it occurred to me that probably there were a lot of folks who were not familiar with geocaching, and in particular our police officers.”

Robinson developed a seminar on geocaching so officers would understand what’s happening if they see people playing, or bump into a cache. “I know of the propensity for folks who geocache to use either old armory boxes or other types of materials that can be camouflaged, and they might very well look suspicious or cause alarm,” says Robinson.

Some caches are hidden around sensitive areas like the Ventura County Government Center or popular landmarks. During Robinson’s seminar, the officers even walked outside their own station to see a nearby cache with the police-themed name of “One Adam 12. See the Man.”

Geocaching has only been around since 2000, when the U.S.Government made it easy for anyone to get precise longitude and latitude coordinates from GPS satellites. Now, nearly 700,000 caches around the world are registered on the Web site

Caches vary greatly in size and shape. Some are tiny film canisters, but others might be big plastic storage containers. They typically contain a logbook and some inexpensive trinkets for exchanging. There are also virtual caches where the idea is to find a viewpoint or interesting landmark information. Some people also track the journeys of “Travel Bugs” and “Geocoins” as they’re carried on various missions between caches.

A code exists among participants, and the slogan “Cache in, trash out” is a pledge to clean up areas they visit. They also avoid placing caches on private property unless they have the owner’s permission.

The sport has caused some controversy with public land managers concerned about people trampling sensitive areas, but most seem to agree it’s a positive way to get people outside exploring new places.

The GPS units needed to play are becoming less expensive and more sophisticated all the time, and are bound to pop up under many Christmas trees this year.

Robinson says some officers thought it was a strange seminar topic, but one of them who teased her about it ended up loving the sport. “Publicly he scoffed, and then privately he came back to borrow my GPS,” says Robinson. “He took his two young sons out to geocache that weekend, and they had a blast. He went on to get his own GPS, and they’ve been doing it ever since.”                                    

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