What if the stories you told friends were all being recorded, to be viewed later by authorities trying to catch you in a lie?
It's hardly a futuristic Big Brother dystopia. It's today. It's Facebook and YouTube and a million user-forum pages where people feel oddly compelled to spill their guts and where, increasingly, police and auto insurance investigators are tuning in.
Take the prosecution of a Canadian teen, who surely felt that a page for BMW enthusiasts would be a safe place to crow about ramping his BMW M5 up to 87 mph in a residential neighborhood. An American reader who apparently didn't find the behavior too cool tipped off police, who used the posts to launch an investigation. The 19-year-old was charged with dangerous driving and lost his license for six months.
"People who do stupid things and then brag about them in very public ways really are just proving that indeed they are stupid," says Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit that works with law enforcement to investigate insurance fraud. "Some of these cases are just made very easy for investigators because of what these suspects do - boasting about their activity."
Insurance investigators have computers, too
And therein lies the divide: Many who share their exploits online don't consider themselves stupid; they consider their posts private, viewed by friends or followers they believe share their values.
But such a notion is as naive as thinking a second date won't do a Google search or a hiring boss won't check LinkedIn profiles. When it comes to insurance, anyone who files a claim should expect the insurer to conduct at least a cursory check of the claimant's online musings. The bigger the claim, or the brighter the red flag it raises, the more intense the snooping.
"It's becoming rather commonplace," says Gregory M. Duhl, an associate professor at William Mitchell College of Law, in St. Paul, Minn., who trains adjusters and students to make an online search a first stop in any insurance investigation.
"It doesn't take long to do an Internet search and see what you can find out about the person," he says.
And while you can control your own postings online, everyone with a phone or an e-mail account is a potential witness. Ask the two drivers in Texas now accused of street racing (a felony) after a video of their encounter went "viral."
It's worth the effort
Insurance companies won't discuss specific cases or reveal investigatory techniques. But the industry is reporting that trolling through people's social networking sites has joined the arsenal of tools used to root out insurance fraud, a massive criminal enterprise that costs insurers $30 billion a year.
A good chunk of those costs involve cooked-up auto thefts and accidents, as well as exaggerated medical bills following car crashes -- all costs that get passed along to consumers. In Florida, for example, drivers paid an average of $58 more in insurance premiums per vehicle in 2011 to cover the costs of auto insurance fraud, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III), a national trade group. (See "Where car insurance fraud is a sport.")
"Insurance fraud is a big problem," says Jeanne Salvatore, a spokesperson for III. So if there's an auto claim, and something "doesn't add up," investigators are "going to go online to see what someone has posted. . . . It's part of collecting additional data."
The cover-up may in fact be worse than the transgression. An insurance company won't pay for damage done purposely -- like maliciously hitting another car -- or something such as street racing expressly prohibited by your policy.
But driving with your feet as you eat a large pepperoni pizza and talk on a cellphone? A burnout that gets away from you? The company probably will pay. (See "Why your insurance company has to pay for your illegal acts.")
"Being an idiot is covered," says CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner.
Lying about it, though -- filing a claim for money that includes false information -- is a crime in every state, she says.
The World Wide Web is not private
An online search may be as mundane as a claims administrator scanning photos on a public page. (A Washington, D.C., man had his worker's compensation benefits suspended without notice after his insurer spotted a Facebook photo of him sitting at the beach, beer in hand. The man, who was injured and awaiting shoulder surgery, hired a lawyer and won on appeal.)
But an insurer's search may also include public information that others have posted about the claimant, or messages the claimant thought he'd tucked securely behind online privacy settings. Lawyers need only name the type of activity they're seeking and how it may help prove fraud. Judges, at least in U.S. courts, have been granting access, including in civil trials.
"Some courts have gone so far as to say that there is no privacy interest in information stored on the Internet," Duhl and a colleague write, because even when protected with privacy settings "it could be accessed by certain members of the public."
Unlike files in your home, social networking data is stored at host sites. As Scafidi puts it: "Once you hit 'send,' you can't take it back. It's out there."
Looks real to me
Just as important, judges and juries are giving such evidence ample weight at trial.
"I'd say that judges are becoming more educated about social networking," says Duhl. As long as they believe the information is legitimate, they'll give it weight, he says. "In five years it's going to be completely accepted."
In one Texas trial, a jury will likely give large weight to a video pulled off YouTube. The video shows a $1.2 million Bugatti Veyron - a limited production French sports car - careering into a saltwater lagoon. The owner, an auto dealer who had increased his insurance to $2.2 million shortly before the incident, claimed he had swerved to avoid a pelican. But Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Co. argues no pelican can be seen in the video. (See "$2.2 million car insurance claim is going to court.")
The video had been taken and posted on YouTube by a passing motorist, and now has nearly 3.3 million views.