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Social Media Investigation Update

By Scott B. Elkind, Esq.

Private insurers are routinely investigating claimants for many reasons: operation of businesses, ownership of properties, credit information, bankruptcy filings, and daily activities. This investigation process now includes checking social media sites (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and the like) to verify claimant activities.

The use of routine activities by insurers is two-fold: First, to show that activities reveal the functional capacity to perform work and; Second, to reveal “inconsistencies” in reported activities to the company. These “inconsistencies” will then be extrapolated to an allegation that no statements by the claimant are credible and they are fully capable of working.

On 11/9/10, The Hartford presented a program for its investigative personnel entitled “Investigating with Social Media.” This presentation lists dozens of social media sites to be checked in addition to blogging sites (WordPress, blogger, mybloglog, etc.). For this purpose, The Hartford specifically states that such internet use constitutes a “pattern of activity” by the claimant. Its investigators have been instructed to search both the claimant and the claimant’s network of friends (up to three degrees of separation). This is being done in an effort to “combine social media with traditional investigative tools for a more complete picture.” So, in the end, the friend of your friend, can really be your enemy.

For this purpose, investigators are utilizing meta-search tools as part of a name search and will look for identifiers including a claimant’s hometown, age, and birthday. These identifiers are then utilized to find other family members or cohabitants in order to search for coded claimant identities on the internet. Once the claimant identity is found, applications are utilized to monitor social network activity.

As part of the investigation, the investigator will use a pseudonym which will not identify them as part of an insurance company. They will attempt to join a social network in which a claimant is participating to gather information about his/her activities.

In particular, insurance investigators are looking for items such as status updates indicating when a claimant will be away from home, broadcasts of trip itineraries, and travel plans.

The Hartford pointed to several examples where claims had been terminated due to social media investigations. One claimant who suffered from depression had posted pictures of herself in a bikini during a beach holiday, going to a Chippendales show, and attending her birthday party. Her benefits were terminated. Another example was a Twitter feed from a disabled person who was taking part in a “pub crawl” through several college bars over the course of an evening. A third example included a permanently disabled fireman who was photographed taking part in a bodybuilding event on YouTube. A fourth example revealed a disabled male who reported he was “unable to do anything,” yet posted a large fishing catch picture on Facebook.

Although it may be argued that such activity is not work activity, this will not always be a winning argument. In my own practice, I was presented with an actively blogging client. Her blogs were presented as evidence as evidencing her ability to work. She stated that such activity “kept her sane.” If not for some excellent efforts in developing her claim, her blogging efforts would have kept her poor instead.

Rather than have to explain such activities away and hope for the best, the best offense in this case is a good defense. For this reason, if you are making a disability claim, DO NOT PARTICIPATE in any form of social media activity while your claim remains active. To do otherwise will endanger your claim as insurers will do anything to deny benefits to save money.

It will come as no surprise that insurers are actively seeking to deny or terminate claims in order to conserve their assets in order to increase their profitability. For this reason, it is incumbent upon claimants to understand this economic reality and act accordingly.

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