What Is a Sting Operation?

Prostitution is nearly impossible to prove without direct evidence of money being exchanged for sexual services.
Undercover law enforcement officers typically take part in a sting operation.
A police officer posing as a prostitute must be careful to avoid entrapping a potential suspect who would otherwise would never seek a sex worker.
Stings often focus on people suspected of taking bribes.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2014
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A sting operation uses deception to catch a criminal in the act. Usually relying on undercover law enforcement officers to act as accomplices or victims, a sting operates with the goal of gathering enough evidence to bring about criminal charges. Though often glorified in movies and television, there is often great controversy over whether a sting operation constitutes entrapment, which is illegal in many regions. More controversial still is a journalistic sting operation, in which reporters attempt to gather and expose criminal information by going undercover.

Not all crimes leave easy trails of evidence behind. Prostitution, for instance, is nearly impossible to prove without direct evidence of money being exchanged for sexual services. A sting operation works by sending credible observers, such as police officers, into a situation where crime is thought to occur. The sting officer must walk a fine line between legitimately setting up a sting and entrapment, which involves coercing or pressuring people who would not ordinarily commit a crime into doing so.


The line between a sting and entrapment is very fuzzy; some countries do not even permit sting operations because of this ethical battlefield. According to the United States Department of Justice, a sting may naturally include situations where undercover agents offer enticements to potential criminals, in effect creating the opportunity for a crime to occur. Whether offering a bribe to a politician constitute a legitimate sting or entrapment may depend entirely on the judge or jury's opinion in any given case. For this reason, stings can sometimes be prohibitively expensive if there is a strong possibility of an entrapment defense.

There are a few basic elements to any sting operation, though a sting may last for minutes or years depending on the situation. Usually, a deception is set up by using undercover agents or other deceptive items, such as a rigged computer sold to a person suspected of illegal hacking. Often, stings focus on a targeted individual or group, such as a mayor suspected of taking bribes or men visiting a particular brothel. Successful stings also tend to end with an arrest or crackdown, where evidence recorded by the operation is enough to warrant an arrest, or the target actually engages in a crime.

Journalistic sting operations may involve all of the elements of a traditional police sting, but are conducted by reporters and are sometimes even more controversial. In the first decade of the 21st century, the United States, United Kingdom, and India were all immersed in serious debate over the implications of journalistic stings on the role of journalism. Critics suggest that journalistic stings are motivated by the desire to increase ratings and gain attention through exclusive stories on exposure. Proponents argue that journalists can sometimes overturn criminal enterprises that police are unable or unwilling to manage, thereby helping to reduce crime.


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