Home Management Private Investigations How a Social Media Canvass Can Affect Your Case
How a Social Media Canvass Can Affect Your Case

How a Social Media Canvass Can Affect Your Case


Your case is a slam dunk. You have a client accused of a crime in Lake Tahoe, but he lives in San Jose. The opposition doesn’t have much physical evidence, and you’re two days away from deposing a credible witness who will testify under oath that he was with your client in San Jose on the day the crime was committed. Nothing can go wrong.

But, without your knowledge, the opposition is ready to ruin the credibility of your witness. They have rebuttal evidence tucked away and are waiting for the right moment to lay it out on the table. Where might that evidence have been found? Has your investigator been monitoring your client’s Facebook page? What about your witness’s? You might assume that neither of them would be short-sighted enough to not delete pictures from Lake Tahoe from the exact day they were supposed to be in San Jose. Unfortunately, perhaps without thinking, or maybe without their knowledge, such pictures might be readily available with a cursory search of social networking sites.

Whether you’re defending a client whose case can be damaged by items posted online or you are on the other side hoping to find such evidence, a private investigator can help you navigate these sites to find what is out there. As much as we all want to claim online/Internet proficiency, private investigators are often more skilled at uncovering evidence through social networking than others.

I’ve worked many cases in which a subject’s post on social media proved to be instrumental in solving the case. I’ve seen people off of work on workers’ compensation listing current employers or posting status updates about their side business. I’ve found people on Twitter bragging about gaming the legal system. I’ve conducted successful surveillance investigations based on information I learned about a subject from her blog. Breaking cases open with easy social networking searches has become a common occurrence for private investigators. You might assume that the number of people posting incriminating information online would lessen over time, but it has actually increased with the number of sites that are now commonly scrutinized in every background investigation.


Checking the Obvious

The first step to conducting a proper social networking canvass is to check the obvious. All parties associated with your case – the subject, any witnesses, and possibly even family members and associates – should have their social networking sites monitored by your investigator. Facebook is always the first place to look because it tends to contain the most information. Never assume that your subject can make the connection between his or her current legal troubles and what’s appropriate to post on the Internet. Now that Facebook’s privacy controls have made it more difficult for people to understand what can and can’t be seen, a picture shared between friends can quickly become accessible to the general public.

Facebook is a great place to start, but these days it is only one of many popular social media sites. Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Instagram – these are among the many popular platforms that have allowed us to expand our basic Internet searches. Outside of these more commonly known sites, there are an infinite number of specialty sites related to music, athletics, blogging, picture sharing, online dating, and more.

Recently, I completed a case in which a workers’ compensation claimant alleged injuries sustained at his current job. Without any witnesses to his injuries, the case was a battle of believability until I searched the Internet. I found that the claimant in question kept a detailed profile on LinkedIn with a list of all of his former employers. All I had to do was place a quick phone call to each employer and I discovered several instances of the claimant being injured at work and never reporting those injuries to my client. His injuries may have been real, but thanks to social networking, I found that they might not have occurred at his current employer.

One thing to remember is that locating a profile and taking notes on what is found is often not enough; skillful investigators check these profiles on a regular basis and memorialize each update with screenshots. These sites are updated regularly and they need to be closely monitored for up-to-the-minute information.


Don’t Forget the Past

Your client might tell you that he has shut down his Facebook and Instagram accounts. He might claim that no trace of him can be found on the Internet because he’s “off the grid.” Does that mean it’s true? He may have deleted many of his accounts, but unfortunately most of us don’t actually know how many accounts we have. Does your client still have his LinkedIn page from a job search four years ago? Did he create a Twitter account, follow some friends, and then forget Twitter existed? The sites that your client or witness can’t remember can quickly haunt your case. Even a privated Instagram account can be accessed by those who know how to view private instagram profiles using various tools that exploit bugs in the system.

If you ask around, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who still uses Myspace. Many former users probably haven’t logged in for six years. So that means that their Myspace accounts no longer exists, right? Fortunately, that’s not the way that social networking sites work. Just because someone can’t remember their Myspace password after half a decade doesn’t mean their profile looks any different to an investigator than it looked when they were actively using it. In addition to searching all of the new and popular sites, a skilled investigator will know to check what might have existed in a subject’s past. Myspace accounts are rather easy to find, and if they’re public, leads develop quickly.

I recall one case we handled where we were asked to locate an individual that was unusually absent from many sites; we couldn’t find him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or any of the other commonly-used sites. However, we were able to find some very old social media accounts, including a Myspace profile, belonging to him. Among the items found on this profile was a photograph of the subject’s vehicle complete with the license plate number. When we ran the plate, we found that the vehicle was registered to a woman who we determined to be the subject’s girlfriend. When we found the girlfriend, we found the subject. And all from a profile that hadn’t been viewed in ages!


Push the Limits

During a search of social networking sites, all investigators will run into cases in which nothing can be found for a particular individual. That’s where the line develops between investigators who know how to search the main sites and investigators who think outside the box. In many instances, these deeper searches can uncover some of the juiciest material.

Often, deeper Internet searches can be performed using phone numbers. Has your client ever posted an ad to Craigslist? A good investigator knows how to use a phone number to search for a Craigslist history. The ads may not mean anything at all, or they may uncover an illicit business that could break a case.

I was once tasked with finding a witness who had disappeared. After weeks of using conventional search methods, I decided that she was staying with friends, but never with one single friend on a regular basis. Couch surfing makes it particularly hard to deliver a subpoena. After punching her phone number into some of the Internet’s less common sites, I found her phone number connected to a prostitution ad. One phone call later, I knew her exact location on a particular day and at a particular time! Case closed.

In today’s world, an examination of the ever-growing list of social media sites is a step that can’t be overlooked. With the amount of information available today, the Internet can either make or ruin your case. Hopefully, the next time your client decides to post incriminating pictures on his Tumblr, you’ll be working with an investigative firm who knows how to uncover the information before it’s too late.


About the Author

Christopher Miller (California license #17694) is the Owner and President of Western Limited , the premier provider of investigative services on the West Coast. Chris has been a private investigator for 25 years and has personally conducted or managed tens of thousands of investigations in that time period. Chris ensures a comprehensive approach to each case by both utilizing all resources available through Information Technology and pounding the pavement in order to access the needed information. Chris can be reached at chris.miller@westernlimited.com.

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James Nguyen
James Nguyen


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