Most of us usually start an investigation with an idea of who the focus of our work is and already have some basic background data before we really start to dig in. However, on a warm, sunny September day I was walking the campus of CalTech in Pasadena, Calif., with my good friend and cohort MJ, and discovered a college ID that had been presumably dropped by the owner. With campus security nowhere to be found and a tight schedule to get to LAX, spending more time to locate someone on campus was not a luxury I had. Besides, this was not a CalTech ID, but one from another local college and I could simply drop it into the mail to return it to the owner.
Now, those of us who are adept at research and have been around for a while know the benefits of the Internet and social media. In my classes I talk about the ease of tracking someone through various outlets using online data, so I figured maybe I could quickly get an email or telephone number for her and return the ID. But even I was unprepared for the amount of data on this student that I generated within an hour of searching on my phone! Yes, I never opened up my laptop to run a program, look up an IP address, or log onto a paid service – it was all done on my smart phone and through the Internet.
Now maybe it’s because I am a father of two girls and overly protective, or after 20+ years of seeing the good, the bad and the ugly I am untrusting of people, or maybe I’m just cynical, but even I was shocked with the amount of information this young girl put out there on herself. Mind you, this is a very bright and intelligent young woman, but like most her age she lacks a clear understanding of how the Internet can be used – and this is from someone who has been essentially raised during this technological age. Good for those of us fighting evil but bad, very bad, when evil is searching for a target.
So let’s talk about what I learned about this young woman by quickly searching on my phone. First, I knew that she attended a local college and I had her picture. A quick Google search of her name and some minor search term manipulation using some operators like ‘allintext’ and ‘allintitle’ gave me a link to an article about her studies. Based upon the date of the article and the ‘Class of’ year on the ID, I knew her approximate age, what she studied, who her professor was, where I could likely locate her on campus (and why and where she might be at CalTech), and more photos of her. A good starting point and what we might consider some basic research. I knew her aspirations, what future projects she was working on, and even found a technical paper she had co-authored.
Was I done? Of course not. I had only spent 10 minutes and still had a bunch of rabbit holes to follow. Now, what intrigued me most on this research was a photo of her in a lab and where following something unique like that might send me. So off on another Google search, but this time under the ‘Images’ tab (another highly underutilized search function).
What did I locate there? Well, would you believe that in addition to the fact that she likes yoga I also learned about her other likes and dislikes…beer is a yes but it seems she prefers dogs over cats. She liked one airline more than others (or they were cheaper); she is from a city in Northern California, where she was editor of her high school year book; she lived locally; owned a Prius and a Honda (but admittedly one might be her roommate/boyfriend’s); I knew where she went to yoga class; and more importantly, what time.
Plus, she had just gotten back from a trip to Australia in July (and was in Sydney on July 5th). Yup, all that and I hadn’t even left the Google Images results page yet! Seriously, with info like that who needs to access dating websites!
Although I hadn’t found an address and hadn’t checked any metadata on photos yet, I did know what she drove. And thanks to her photo, I also had the plate numbers on both cars. If I was a burglar, I had almost everything I needed to case her apartment – just a little more info and I’d be there. However, the scarier thought was that as a possible stalker I had everything I needed and just had to follow her home from campus.
Wow, this is crazy! You couldn’t give me more info…or could you? What if I told you that among the photos she had posted she included a picture of her California driver’s license! What?!! California is one of the strictest states regarding the disclosure of DMV data and PII (Personally Identifiable Information) and this young woman is giving it away to everyone! I didn’t have a specific physical address, but I did have her name, date of birth, driver’s license number, school information, vehicle info, hometown and high school. Finding her mother’s maiden name would only have been a few more clicks away and then I’m making my own Visa cards!! Skip going to her home and breaking in and risk getting caught – this guy just became an identity thief!
So, in less than an hour I had gathered, without really trying, enough information on this future rising scientist where if I had been a thief, she might spend years, without success, trying to rebuild her credit. No owning a home or buying a new car, and eventually court subpoenas on loan defaults she had no idea about. And not because someone hacked her bank’s records, stole her phone, or robbed her house, but because she gave out all of this information voluntarily on the Internet.
Now imagine what we can find on someone who is the focus of our questionable claim. The information is there and it’s ready to be captured, we just have to be willing to work at it. I never had to create a username or an account to access the information on this young lady, and I never had to run a comprehensive report or access prior claim information to build her profile. I did have to know about the social media platforms I was trying to access (formats like Instagram are more mobile based, so you may not find those results on a laptop), and there are tips and tricks of the trade that will make better use of your time, but it really comes down to perseverance.
The Internet, and more importantly the people who use it, are supplying all of this data to us for free, it’s just up to you and I to learn how to access it in an ethical and professional way. In this example I only accessed about 6 websites and stayed predominantly on the search engine I was using for the majority of the information I was gathering. For most people that means no blocked websites from your corporate IT or other issues accessing the preliminary data. I do suggest that you develop a protocol of how you will catalogue the data, both what you do and don’t discover, so you can consistently document your findings. Don’t discount the information that isn’t there – that can be as valuable as what you do find and in some instances, more valuable that what you uncover.
Take what you want from this research example, but do not ignore the importance of using the Internet or making it a mandatory resource during your investigations. And while this article doesn’t list a lot of search specifics, you don’t need a roadmap to find the information, you just need to spend some time surfing and thinking about what your goals are. Ask yourself ‘what am I trying to determine?’ and then focus your Internet queries on that goal. If you aren’t already doing this, then you are significantly limiting yourself and your investigation. Oh, and if you use social media, stay current with your privacy settings or you may just end up being someone’s research example!
Joe Stephenson is the managing director of SIU at Hagerty Insurance, specializing in classic and collector car and boat claims investigations. He is an accident reconstructionist and certified insurance fraud investigator (CIFI), and a member of several industry anti-fraud organizations. Stephenson lectures to various groups regarding the abundance of free information available on the Internet and the benefits of using it as a main source of research.