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Collin Greenland | Social media - a treasure trove for investigators

Published:Friday | September 30, 2016 | 12:13 AMCollin Greenland




The use of social networking (or social media) is now phenomenal both personally and professionally, as the use of Web-based and mobile technologies has turned communication into interactive dialogues.




• According to Link Humans, of the 7.2 billion people on earth, 3 billion have Internet access; 2.1 billion are active on social media; and 1.7 billion use social networks from a mobile device.

n Fifty-two per cent of online adults now use two or more social media sites, according to Pew Research.

n The number of worldwide social media users is expected to reach 2.5 billion by 2018, according to Statistica.

• Ninety per cent of adults (ages 18 to 29) use social media. Thirty-five per cent of those over age 65 do. (Pew Research Center).

• The "most important" social networks to teens and young adults (aged 12-24) are now Instagram (32 per cent), Twitter (24 per cent), Facebook (14 per cent), Snapchat (13 per cent) and Tumblr (four per cent) (Mary Meeker's Internet Trends).

n The average social media user maintains five accounts (Link Humans).




Since social media is changing the way humankind communicates in every way, it makes sense for investigators to regard it as a prime place to search during their fraud or other type of investigations. The digital trail left by fraudsters on their social accounts, and others, sets the stage for investigators to connect the dots in ways that were unthinkable just a few years ago. Social media has therefore become a treasure trove for investigators saving time, cost and substantial effort in collecting information on suspects and other persons of interests in all types on investigations.

However, there are a few matters that investigators must be aware of, so here are some pointers:




While obtaining information from social media can be greatly beneficial to an investigation, it is crucial that investigators secure the data ethically and legally. It should only be information available to the public, and it is often deemed unethical to "follow" or "friend" the suspect or their acquaintances. For example, most jurisdictions, professions and social media organisations prohibit or discourage "pretexting" the use of impersonation or fraud to trick another person into releasing personal information, or any effort or strategy intended to conceal something.




Timestamps and Geo-locations:

Fortunately for investigators, social media users often overshare their locations and activities on their social media accounts. Even when they don't overshare, some social media platforms provide a plethora of searchable metadata, including timestamps and geo-locations, allowing investigators to more easily connect the dots in investigations by giving them more clues to sift through. Even if these clues are not verbally expressed, photos on some social media platforms contain geographical information that can assist an investigator's search.

Investigators can also obtain evidence from publicly available information from the suspect's friends and followers lists, along with locations, check-ins, Facebook emoji (like, love, wow, angry, etc) and timelines. Through these variables, investigators have the opportunity to build a timeline of events, confirm an alibi, identify relationships between individuals or even locate a subject in real-time.




Internet Archive:

While the social media information can point investigators in the right direction, social media evidence can also cause legal issues due to its easily editable, or removable, nature. However, there are software on the market that be used to preserve evidence discovered on social media.




For matters in litigation, a letter of preservation should be issued to include all social media accounts to decrease the chance that the perpetrator deletes or hides the suspicious content. To prevent losing the information, investigators must immediately save all evidence by noting the link to the accounts and printing all materials. There are several tools that investigators can use to record all activity appearing on screens, but it is crucial to authenticate not only the evidence gathered, but also the methods used to do so.




Public social media profiles commonly are used in certain types of investigations such as workers' compensation and insurance claims investigations. Users interact in a casual format on social media and will tag or post information about themselves and their friends or acquaintances. It is wise to glean any information possible from the suspect's closest contacts, such as family members, friends or colleagues.




When most think of social media, they think of these practices as a lighthearted, engaging avenue to keep in touch with contacts and to read up on the news. Investigators, however, also think of social media as a prime place to search during fraud or other types of investigations.