Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sleuthing Social Sites

In September, The Economist ran an article titled "Untangling the Social Web." Pursuit Magazine recently published the first of a four-part series last month called "The Power of Social Media." PI Magazine regularly addresses this topic. Everyone--investigators, creative professionals, and entrepreneurs of all kinds--aims to harness this so-called power, but few of us know quite how.

Clearly, social media is a two-edged sword, one we professional investigators can, and must, learn to wield in both directions.

An Investigative Tool

I still find it amazing that some detectives-for-hire view technology with suspicion. A recent article in our local newspaper featured a retired DEA agent-cum-PI proudly asserting, "They call it the ol' gumshoe...no amount of technology is a substitute for knocking on doors and putting in the legwork."

Really? What about when someone doesn't want to willingly cough up the information you need? The "ol' gumshoe" isn't just about putting mileage on your feet. It's a metaphor for problem solving, which means availing yourself of the very best tools--from your mind, eyes, and ears, to electronic substitutes thereof.

Case Study - Choir Boy or Criminal?

Last year we were hired to compile a profile of a man involved in a high-stakes lawsuit. "He's a choir boy,"his family told investigators. "Always doin' good. Ain't never use drugs."

Problem: strolling the subject's neighborhood and knocking on doors was a pretty unlikely way to find out any real information about him. We would've been spotted immediately as outsiders in the community and viewed with extreme suspicion. But in the virtual neighborhood of social media, it's pretty easy to assume a believable disguise and join in the conversation.

As the subject's new online acquaintance,  a whole world opened to us. Photos and comments about the subject painted a completely different picture of his personality and habits. The mythological choir boy image didn't stand up well against a photograph of the youth proudly puffing a blunt whilst flashing a gangster pose. Using connections linked to his page, we also identified a vast list of potential witnesses, uncovered other questionable activities, and unearthed at least three other social media sites portraying the young fellow's extralegal antics.

Case Study - Globetrotting Tweeter

A client hired us to locate a person who'd left the scene of a car accident. The young woman proved elusive and failed to return numerous phone calls from an attorney. The sheriff's office had given up after trying three times to serve subpoenas to her last known address.

We surmised that the demographic in question (women, mid-twenties) can scarcely evacuate their bowels these days without documenting said activities on Facebook and Twitter. It didn't take much techno-gumshoe poking around to discover her Facebook page and Twitter feed. Conveniently, the young lady enjoyed tweeting incessantly on the subject of her location and future travel plans. Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, L.A. (including her actual street address! She checked in on FourSquare.) I forwarded her Twitter handle to the client, and he had her served in California two days later...on the first try.


A typical skip trace might run a search via IRB and Tracers Info. The address would've turned up nothing except for the house her father maintained while serving five for insurance fraud. The sheriff's office didn't find her there, and neither would a social-media-phobic investigator. Our tweeting sweetheart hadn't been there in years.

Case Study - FCPA Due Diligence

One case promised to take us to exotic, sunny locales to perform clandestine shenanigans for fun and profit. Unfortunately, we were able to pull together enough information using databases, law enforcement sources, and a healthy dose of Facebook revelations to convince our client not to do business with this subject. If it weren't for social media, we'd have a lot more stamps in our passports right now, and our client would be out several grand in travel expenses.


I could go on and on, but you get the point. I understand that canvassing and in-person interviews are valuable tools. But to exclude new and innovative methods of analysis isn't just short sighted, it borders on crazy. New technology isn't an excuse to avoid old-school detective work. It's an opportunity to use the ol' gumshoe skills virtually, in a global neighborhood. It allows an investigator's eyes and ears to blanket the world.

Coming Soon, check out Part Two: Marketing in a Social Media Age

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