Social media has quickly become the foremost activity on the Internet. The explosive growth in user-generated content has been a boon for insurance claims adjusters and fraud investigators. Navigating the social media landscape, however, can be tricky.
When the World Wide Web was established, early websites were mostly electronic versions of documents. They did a good job at broadcasting information to a wide audience but were not effective at brokering communication. With the advent of Web 2.0 and social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, bidirectional communication became one of the key reasons to use the Web.
Given the swell in user-generated content housed on social media sites, it is no surprise that investigators turn to them when conducting background investigations.
Doing the Digging
With all of this potentially useful information hiding in social media sites, many investigators are adding online social media research to their investigative strategies. The SIU director of a major insurer says, “depending on the type of case, it could be a routine investigative action.”
While social media sites can provide great information for investigators, this capability comes with great responsibility. Even though there is a growing collection of case law on the subject, the rules and regulations are not clear. Investigators must be careful when conducting social media research since its mostly uncharted legal waters.
In November 2008, Lori Drew was convicted of computer fraud when she created a fictitious Myspace profile in order to taunt one of her daughter’s classmates, who committed suicide after being subjected to Drew’s cyberbullying. Though the conviction was ultimately overturned, the case serves as a warning to investigators. Regarding the Drew case, investigative researcher Tamara Thompson writes in her blog, “Let this be a warning to information researchers and investigators who are collecting data on subjects through their social networking sites … keep in mind: Is this legal and ethical?” For this reason, it is important for a company to establish strict rules about the proper use of social media sites for investigative purposes. One SIU director indicated, “The potential for someone to be overzealous in their attempts to investigate a case using social networking sites is significant … so getting permission to access them comes with a pretty high responsibility.” While it is acceptable to passively gather publicly available information from these sites, investigators must comply with the user agreements for each social media service and avoid the use of pretext.
The court ruled that precluding Steelcase from accessing Romano’s profiles “would condone [her] attempt to hide relevant information behind self-regulated privacy settings.” It was reasonable to conclude that the profiles “may contain further evidence such as information with regard to her activities and enjoyment of life, all of which are material and relevant to the defense of this action.”
The New Frontier
While many SIUs have added social media research to their investigative toolbox, it is often overwhelming to deal with the massive amount of social media content. Many insurers are struggling to adequately train analysts and investigators in the latest search techniques, trying to find the balance between using a tremendous (free) information source with conducting efficient research. Today’s research is largely a manual exercise, scouring the social media landscape looking for useful information about a claimant and a given loss event. It will not be that way for long.