Social media opens up our world in wonderful ways, but it also can bring the world crashing down.
A bragging Tweet, an incriminating bit of video on YouTube or a few unfortunate friend connections on Facebook can expose a lie or even a crime. It’s no wonder, then, that police -- and insurance investigators -- are watching.
“What you share or post online, depending on what it is, even has the potential to get you into legal trouble,” says Brent Purves, social media consultant and CEO of Stir Solutions social media agency. “As my mother is wont to say, ‘If you wouldn’t show it to me, don’t share it online.’ “
But some people can’t keep things to themselves.
A thrill-seeker with the handle Afroduck recently posted video of himself taking a high speed, 26.5-mile jaunt around the edges of Manhattan in 24 minutes – breaking the record he himself already held, he said in an interview with the automotive website Jalopnik. He bragged online that he couldn’t be caught.
The New York Police Department used traffic cameras to follow the trail to the driver, whom they charged with reckless driving and five other traffic-related crimes. They also impounded his beloved ride, a 2006 BMW.
Once the legal system is done with him, it’s the insurance company’s turn.
While car insurers don’t use social media as a routine way to screen new customers, calculate rates or cancel policies, CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner says, anything that turns up in the course of an investigation could ultimately affect your driving record or the status of a claim.
“Reckless driving can be a big hit to your car insurance premiums, but the court has to convict you first,” Gusner says. “Claims are different. The insurance company can decide for itself whether you’re covered.”
Proof of crime discovered online
Some may consider Afroduck’s exploits to be harmless self-expression, but social media has been instrumental as authorities pursue far more serious cases.
In August, an 18-year-old man was arrested in the death of a bicyclist in Dublin, Calif. Prosecutors changed the charges from manslaughter to murder after investigators looked into his social media history, specifically Tweets about his penchant for speeding, giving the teenager the dubious honor of being the first person charged with murder by way of social media.
California fraud investigators last year pointed to Facebook connections of suspects in staged accidents. They claimed to be strangers but were linked on the social media site.
In Florida, a woman made a car insurance claim as the victim of a hit-and-run incident, but revealed on Facebook that her daughter had wrecked the car.
Fibbing about a fender bender is still a crime. The Florida mother was convicted of filing a fraudulent insurance claim.
Investigators may be looking at your Facebook page right now
Car insurance investigators know that people pour their hearts out on Facebook and Twitter, and as a result they scour social media sites for clues to the real story behind insurance claims.
For 101 years, the National Insurance Crime Bureau has been investigating insurance fraud, teaching insurance companies and law enforcement professionals the tricks of the trade. Spokesperson Frank Scafidi says this kind of crime is rampant and usually very easy to identify even without direct confessions.
“It’s not surprising anymore that these things occur,” he says. “What’s surprising is the circumstances – the things people have done and the things they lie about.”
Tweets, posts and photos examined
Like a seasoned cop who’s seen too many crime scenes, an insurance investigator knows when something isn’t quite right.
Once a hunch is in play, the evidence-gathering begins. Car insurance investigators use all available resources – including social media sites – to expose the truth. Even a simple photo can hang you.
“Digital photos and videos can now be ‘geostamped,’ sometimes whether you know it or not,” Purves says. So along with the photos you’re uploading, you may also be uploading information about where, when and with what device a photo was taken. That’s bad news if you’ve been less than truthful about something the picture details reveal to investigators.
What happens if you’re caught?
If you’re caught by social media, or other means, in a falsehood or misrepresenting information to your car insurance company you can expect costly repercussions. Gusner says that depending upon the severity of your offense you might see one or more of the following:
- A denial of your claim
- A hike in car insurance rates
- The cancellation of your auto policy
- A fine
- Jail time or community service
Law enforcement and insurance companies work as a team in these situations. “It will be investigated, and we work in tandem with the criminal justice authorities,” Scafidi says.