Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice charged eight Brooklyn, N.Y., men with fraudulently scamming more than $2 million out of COVID-19 relief programs.
How did investigators track down the alleged scammers? Four of the accused men gave the investigation team a substantial assist by brazenly posting pictures of themselves on social media. The men posed holding wads of cash, flashing $100 bills in front of cars, and covering their faces with money.
Though not every fraudster makes it so easy for investigators, social media has clearly become a powerful tool in the investigative arsenal. People share personal photos on Instagram and videos on Tik-Tok, live tweet from events, and detail their network of professional connections on LinkedIn.
On a Facebook page alone, a user may reveal dozens of personal data points, from photos and posts about their activity to profile data—including their full names, birth dates, family and friend relationships, current and former employers, place of residence, their hometowns, educational background, links to other social profiles, email addresses, and phone numbers.
All of this material can assist in tracking down evidence of illegal activity, corroborating or disproving a fraud claim, or preparing an investigator for an interview with a key source or the target of a forensic investigation.
While usage is certainly highest among young people, the percentage of adults on social sites has grown dramatically in recent years. A study released in April by the Pew Research Center shows that nearly three-quarters of American adults use some type of social media site — up from half of adults in 2011 and 5 percent in 2005.
Usage is consistent across demographic groups, with large majorities engaged with social media no matter their race, gender, income, education, or whether they live in cities, suburbs, or rural areas. Adults over 65 are the only group whose members don’t use social sites as consistently. Yet even among seniors, social media usage has skyrocketed. Just 12 percent of age 65+ adults used social sites in 2011; in 2021, 45 percent did, according to Pew.
And the number and variety of social sites people are using is growing as well. While Facebook has plateaued in recent years at around 70 percent of adult users, much of the recent growth has occurred on sites like Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, Yelp, WhatsApp, and NextDoor. And those sites are generating enormous tranches of data. Though used by only 23 percent of adults, Twitter alone accounts for nearly a half-billion new posts every day, according to World Economic Forum data.
In other words, for employers, counsel, and the forensic investigation experts who assist them, the odds are high that an investigative target will have a social profile and will have posted some material to a web site—no matter how old they are, their educational attainment, or how much money they make.
WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CAN REVEAL
From an investigative standpoint, social media content can help create a timeline of events, provide evidence of assets or specific activity, verify an alibi, and identify relationships among individuals.
Though geotagging has declined in popularity over privacy concerns, social sites can also assist in tracking down a subject’s location. Instagram posts, for instance, often include location information. And investigators can use photos themselves to help pinpoint activity. After all, a photo from the top of the Empire State Building gives one a pretty clear indication that the person was in New York.
When conducting a search, it pays to be thorough. Examine all publicly visible posts, photos, personal information, and connections. Determining associates and family members can be very helpful: A post by a friend or relative may include a photo or description of activity by the subject of an investigation. Remembering the purpose of a particular site can be useful as well. For example, if you are trying to determine if a suspected fraudster has set up an enterprise on the side try visiting Yelp and searching for possible reviews of the business.
Let’s consider a few practical examples of how social media might be used in a fraud inquiry:
1) Workers Compensation Fraud. An employee claims an injury and accepts benefits for a disability that prevents them from doing their job. A review of social media, however, reveals a Tik-Tok video of the worker performing a funny dance routine with their kids or a tweet about “doing heavy #yardwork this weekend.” The worker may not even post material on their own pages, but investigators may track down information via posts by a spouse, friend, or relative.
2) An “Unused” Vacation Scam. An employee on the verge of retirement may have banked years of supposedly unused vacation that they are now looking to cash in. An employer may want to verify the employee has indeed earned the vacation being requested. The due diligence process should include a review of social media. Records may show that an employee was “working remotely” or “on a work trip” during a particular period, while Instagram or Facebook posts from the same time may reveal photos of an employee tanning on a beach in Barbados or living out a hippie fantasy following Phish around for a week on tour. A review the personnel file can confirm whether the employee received regular pay for dates when they were, in fact, on vacation.
3) Signs of Embezzlement Fraud. An analysis of the company’s books reveals anomalies in one of the accounts payable—and sparks concern that someone may have been engaging in embezzlement fraud. Social media searches reveal an employee appears to have been living beyond his means, going on several extravagant trips, and shopping at exclusive department stores. Photos on Instagram show the employee has purchased a new luxury automobile—one with a sticker price that’s higher than his annual salary. While none of these is proof that the employee has engaged in embezzlement fraud, they provide an employer with questions for an interview that could trigger a confession.
An investigation using social media is even more powerful when combined with effective querying on search engines like Google and easy-to-access online public records. For example, the Secretary of State website in many states is the chief repository for business licensing and chartering information, which can help in the searches for shell companies or side businesses.
As for Google, consider these tips to help conduct more productive searches:
- Use quotation marks. Quotation marks around two or more words ensures that the search returns only results featuring those exact words or phrases.
- Use parentheses. Boolean operations contained within the parentheses are completed separately from other search components, which can lead to more specific results.
- Use AND. Typing AND in all capital letters between two terms returns only results that include both terms.
- Use OR. A capitalized OR between 2 terms returns results for either term.
- Use Boolean search strings. These can be helpful when searching common names.
Finally, it’s important to remember to play by the rules. When investigating, fully document findings on social media with screen recordings, screen shots, and the like. This will help authenticate findings—and ensure that you have a record if a social post is deleted or made private. And you must always act lawfully when searching—for instance, you cannot create a fake, online identity to gain access to someone’s private account.
To learn more about how FSS can assist with a fraud investigation, contact us for a consultation.