Social Media in Fraud Investigations

By Lindsay Gill

June 13, 2013

There’s no denying it: social media has changed the way we interact with each other. People are tweeting live from events, “checking in” on Facebook, posting pictures to Instagram and commenting on, liking or sharing just about everything.  The amount of personal information that social media users willingly put “out there” is staggering.

But did you ever stop to think about how helpful this information could be in an investigation?

There are hundreds of social media sites— the most popular being Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Keek, Google+, YouTube, Linked in, and FourSquare.  On sites like these, users disclose a great deal of personal information – information that they would not necessarily be willing to divulge to their employers, potential employers, or investigators.  Many social media sites allow the user to control what information is visible to the public, but this feature is not always used.  And what an opportunity this is for investigators!

Some of the information that may be gained through social media analysis includes but is definitely not limited to:

  • Personal and professional profiles
  • Friends and contacts lists
  • Locations/check-ins
  • Likes/dislikes
  • Photographs
  • Timelines

By taking advantage of this information, an investigator can build a timeline of events, confirm an alibi, identify relationships between individuals or even locate a subject in real-time.

Below are some practical examples about how social media might help an investigation…

  • Personal Injury Matter – The use of social media may reveal pictures of the “injured” individual enjoying a weekend at an amusement park or dancing at a local club. In addition to pictures posted on Facebook or Instagram, you might find a Twitter feed with similar information or a YouTube video for visual evidence.
  • “Unused” Vacation Payout – Suppose an employee is about to retire and cash in years of their unused vacation. As part of your due diligence, you want to verify that the employee has indeed earned the vacation being requested. Through a simple search on the internet, you locate Facebook and Instagram accounts for the employee. With just a few clicks, you are able to see that the employee spent a week in Barbados last summer and the summer before was checked in at the top music festival in the region for several days. After reviewing the personnel file, you confirm that the employee received regular pay for these dates when in fact they were on vacation.
  • Living Beyond Means – A past investigation began with an employer’s concern that an employee may have been embezzling. Analysis of the books revealed that one of the accounts payable employees was possibly involved. A few quick searches on social media found that one employee had taken several extravagant trips and frequently checked in at some of the most exclusive department stores.  In addition there were numerous pictures of the employee’s NEW luxury car. After additional investigation and an interview, the employee confessed to embezzling from the company.

It is important to note that the use of social media should be fully documented, and the authentication of evidence gathered must be considered.

Social media is a great tool for the investigator’s toolbox, and its importance will only continue to increase.  Investigators need to leverage its capabilities and capitalize on users’ willingness to share an inordinate personal information with the online community.  The accessibility and expediency of social media allows for its power to often go overlooked.

However, if investigators can learn anything from the movie The Social Network it would be this: “The Internet’s not written in pencil … It’s written in ink.”