That depends given the world we live in. It’s cute when Lady and the Tramp share spaghetti. And when a five year old opens up a box of crayons and says you can use any color you want, we think we’ve taught them well.
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So how will we teach children that sharing is important, but not to ‘over-share.’ Is there such a thing? You bet – just log into your social media accounts. Odds are, if you’re reading this, you’ve got your share of social media accounts considering that 56% of Americans have social networking website accounts. Youngsters aren’t the only Facebook-ers or Tweeters — 55% of Americans aged 45-54 have a profile, and three out of ten people aged 55 or older have accounts. Whether it’s picture #20 of your cat this week, or how much you ‘heart, heart, heart’ Chipotle, the majority of Facebook status updates, Tweets, and Instagram pictures are useless information. Over-share happens right before ‘TMI’ — ‘too much information.’ You can fill in those examples.
Thankfully, we can block those who over-share or who have a penchant for TMI, but have you ever thought about who might be looking at your information? We’ve heard the debate over employers using social media in hiring and firing, but you may be surprised at who else is reading your Tweets. You may be poking the one bear you don’t want to poke — it’s called the insurance industry.
User Name: Social Media P.I.
Let’s be clear – the insurance industry is not the big, bad bear you think it is, nor does it hibernate. Insurance is there to protect you. Hopefully you’ll never need most of your insurance policies, but if you do, you’ll be thankful for it and will likely find it a gentle giant.
Similarly to any animal or even person though, it reacts if provoked, and takes cautionary measures essential to preserving a smooth, working ‘ecosystem’ of insurers and consumers.
Keeping that ecosystem in good working order has gotten easier for insurers since the advent of social media, which has proved to be invaluable to insurers in many ways. Insurance companies have specifically developed social media investigative departments to assist with claims, underwriting, and catching insurance fraudsters.
You may not have patience for the ‘Facebook Friend Who Says Too Much,’ but social media investigators do have the patience to sit through ten dancing baby videos to find the one post boasting you just finished a 10 mile run — despite making a worker’s compensation claim last week.
Contego Services Group, an insurance services company specializing in investigative services and fraud investigations, has an entire unit dedicated to social media investigations. As the supervisory company that handled the domestic investigative operation for AIG, the company specializes in workers’ compensation claims and detecting possible fraud by social media.
“We look for videos and photographs of the claimant engaging in activities that indicate an exaggeration or misrepresentation of an injury,” explains Alon Grandstaff of Contego Services. “We also look for secondary income being obtained by the claimant. This information is presented to the adjuster and the adjuster determines if the claim should be denied based on the evidence.”
Is It Legal?
But is it legal for insurers to do this? Read the fine print on social media websites’ terms & conditions — if material is publicly posted online — especially incriminating information. Law enforcement and investigators can, and will, use it against you. Due to clauses of implied consent, you’ve likely agreed to publicly share information when using social media websites. Some attorneys and investigators claim mining social media websites is no different than video surveillance, which is permissible to use in a court room.
So do you need to read yourself Miranda Rights every time you partake in social media activity? There are some legal boundaries –claims adjustors or investigators would be crossing the line if they tried ‘friend-ing’ you. By doing so, they’d be violating claimants and defendants that likely have legal representation, which is illegal. They’re not allowed to contact the claimants in such scenarios. After claims are filed, there’s only so far they can go before it’s considered entrapment.
Sometimes, however, what people share via social media stops things from even getting that far. Consider the case of Jacob Cox-Brown from Astoria, Oregon. Police were perplexed on Jan 1, 2013 as to who may have side swiped two cars during the night. It didn’t take long to figure it out. A message was sent to an officer with Cox-Brown’s status update: ‘Drivin drunk… classic 😉 but to whoever’s vehicle I hit I am sorry. :P” After police arrived at his house and matched the damage to his car, Cox-Brown was arrested.
Cox-Brown now claims it was all ‘a big joke.’ To insurance companies though, this type of situation is no laughing matter. Had Cox-Brown not given himself away, he could have easily submitted a hit and run claim with his insurance company and possibly received benefits – which would have been a fraudulent claim.
Friend-ing and Defrauding
Fraud – the ultimate provocation — is just one reason insurance companies started utilizing social media as an investigative tool. According to the Insurance Information Institute, insurance fraud accounts for approximately $30 billion in claims annually, so insurers ‘heart’ a tool making the claims process so open and shut. This is especially true with a high number of questionable claims — the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) reports questionable claims totaled 116,171 in 2012, a 16% increase from 2011.
Although social media users have been told time and again of over-sharing implications, some blatantly disregard the advice, even after committing crimes. It doesn’t take a criminal profiler to figure out that had Cox-Brown successfully made a fraudulent claim. According to Jim Quiggle, Director of Communications with the Coalition of Insurance Fraud, people like bragging when they’ve “stuck it to the man.”
“People love to brag about how they ripped off insurance companies. They can’t keep their mouths shut.”
Stetson University professor Susan Rozelle says this behavior isn’t new, and social media simply makes it easier to catch criminals. “People have always said foolish things, but now they have the ability to say it louder and to more people.”
With megaphones to most of our mouths, things are easier for investigators. In the past, investigators followed paper trails, sometimes very difficult ones. Paper is easily misplaced, and rarely gets filed in the right slot, but computers made life easier for everyone. Digital trails are much easier to follow, and are becoming much more affordable.
Just ask Novarica Market Navigator, a company which specializes in market research and trend analysis. The company says, “Our electronic trails have been digitized, formatted, standardized, analyzed and modeled — and are up for sale.”
Thinking about switching to private mode yet?
In 2011, four women in Sacramento, Calif., probably wished they had after attempting to pull one over on moving truck company, U-Haul. Krystelmaree Marquez rented a truck, added the extra insurance policy, and proceeded to get into an ‘accident’ with her friends. The three ‘victims’ made injury claims, and all denied knowing each other. Enter Facebook. Investigators discovered all the women were friends. You may think they fall into that category of people who ‘friend’ every single person they ever meet, but social media conveniently tracks history. Social media was the flaw in their plan, and they picked up three counts of insurance fraud each.
Criminals, though, aren’t all insurers are looking for via social media.
Status: “Insurance Companies Luv Social Media!! XO”
With the advent of behavioral tracking techniques, companies gather information from you at all times. You didn’t think the fact that you were looking for a new sofa and then got a pop-up ad for a furniture sale was coincidence, did you? So what do insurance companies want to know? It’s not how you’re spending your Friday night — or is it?
Whether you’re aware of it or not, the things you share with the digital world say a lot about who you are. It’s hard to find an internet quiz that doesn’t ask you if you want to share your results. Underwriters will look at your profile, as a whole, to get an idea of your lifestyle and habits. It may not be possible to be denied an insurance policy solely due to social media accounts, but your posts can trigger deeper digging – sometimes into your pockets.
Darren Black, head of home insurance for Confused.com, a UK insurance website, says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if, as social media grows in popularity and more location-based applications come to fore, insurance providers consider these in their pricing of an individual’s risk.”
In addition to higher premiums, there are denied claims. In Canada, 29 year old Natalie Blanchard was denied health benefits due to her Facebook posts. She was on long term sick leave from her company due to major depression when her benefits were abruptly cut off. She called the insurer, Manulife, to question the stop payment. The insurance company informed her that since she had recently posted pictures of herself seemingly having good times at the bar, and sunning on the beach, she evidently wasn’t depressed. Blanchard argued that she was going out on doctor’s orders, in an attempt to “forget her problems.” Maybe if her doctor had diagnosed her with Seasonal Affective Disorder it would have been another story – and if her prescription had included bikinis and tall fruity drinks.
Although Manulife made no comment on the specific incident, it positively confirmed that they, and other insurers, use social media to investigate clients. The company did say, “We would not deny or terminate a valid claim solely based on information published on websites such as Facebook.”
But isn’t that what happened with Natalie Blanchard? Claude Distasio, spokeswoman for Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, says the source of the information is irrelevant.
“We can’t ignore it, wherever the source of the information is. We can’t ignore it.”
It’s not just your posts insurers and investigators can’t ignore. You should probably do some reflecting if you catch yourself dancing on bars regularly, but you may want to think twice before doing so because of the fact that your friend is photographing the entire night of debauchery.
Joel Winston, Vice President of Consumer Advocacy at Annual Medical Report, an organization aimed at improving privacy protections for personal medical information and preventing medical identity theft, points out another activity in addition to sharing that can come back to haunt your insurance policies – playing ‘tag.’
“Somebody might post a picture of you diving underwater and tag it to you on Facebook, and so suddenly your insurance company knows what you’ve been up to, and it isn’t even something that you disclosed,” Winston points out.
Seeking Status Updates: What Insurance Companies and Underwriters Want to Know
Don’t start deleting your social media accounts just yet.
Winston says although insurers may note “the groups you’re involved in, the commentary you write on Facebook, the stuff you post on Instagram,” the Average, Honest Joe probably doesn’t have a lot to worry about.
“If you have a low-value insurance policy, it won’t come up, but if it’s a serious policy that could bring in big numbers, they’ll want more background on you.”
It’s not just personal insurance policies and individual social media activity subject to some social media snooping by underwriters. All kinds of insurers dig around for all types of insurance policies. Whether you’re attempting to buy a million dollar life insurance policy or if the only insurance policy you have is liability-only auto insurance, here are just a few examples of things insurers look at for various policy types, and a few things to keep in mind before you ‘check-in’ somewhere or start re-Tweeting Snoop Dogg’s Tweets.
When applying for many types of insurance policies, often family members, spouses, and even domestic partners are on the same plan or will at least somehow be a factor in your insurance policies. Underwriters check profiles to ensure you’re telling the truth when it comes to your relationship status. (And all this time you’ve thought everyone was just taking the whole Facebook relationship status thing too seriously.)
Bad Habits, Your Medical History, & Your Possible Medical Future
Posting pictures of the last few nights at the bar may be the only way you remember what happened, but your health insurer won’t black out anything. Underwriters are looking for things making you higher risk, noting possible habits you seem to enjoy, as well as your medical history. For example, smoking, drinking, or even leading a sedentary lifestyle makes you more vulnerable to serious health issues. Case in point — the classic ‘smoker question.’ If you check ‘no’ to being a smoker on your life insurance application, but yet you have a cigarette in your hand in every photo of you online, and you ‘Like’ and ‘Follow’ the Marlboro Man, it’s a safe bet that one, you’re a smoker, and/or two, you’re either still doing or have done considerable damage to your body and increased your risks of cancer and heart disease. Health insurers may deny benefits completely, deny claims, or even cancel coverage mid-policy.
Information About Your Family
Family details are up for review too. Health insurers and life insurers may note that you ‘Like’ or ‘Follow’ 100 breast cancer awareness profiles – and that many of your female family members have fought breast cancer battles.
Homeowners insurance companies are interested in social media for a variety of reasons. Don’t even think about trying to deny ownership of a pet to your homeowners insurance company if every other picture you post is of your dog Precious – who happens to be a Doberman – in bed snuggling with you, sticking its head out of the doghouse in your backyard that you told the insurer ‘was there when you moved in,’ or having bath time fun in your bathroom.
Underwriters are especially interested in what type of pet you have. Most insurance companies use an unofficial ‘dangerous animal’ list which includes dogs notoriously prone to violence as well as pets out of the norm, like snakes and spiders. In the eyes of underwriters, animals like mean huge liability.
Sharing TMI — That Possibly Leads To Insurance Claims
It’s not just your four-legged friend or DIY remodels or wood stove installations property insurers are looking for. You’re undoubtedly excited about your upcoming vacation to Tahiti, but you should probably rethink before you start sharing dates and travel plans. If you’re robbed while you’re gone but posted trip details on Facebook or share photos of you lounging on the beach while still on vacation, could your claim be denied? Some companies might argue that it’s similar to leaving your doors unlocked.
“Criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their information gathering, even using Google Earth and Streetview to plan their burglaries with military precision,” explains Black. “Insurance providers are starting to take this into account when they are assessing claims and we may in future see insurers declining claims if they believe the customer was negligent.”
Do you get your kicks taking monthly skydiving trips and swimming with sharks? You probably have hundreds of ‘Likes’ on pictures from your last death-defying jaunt, but if a variety of insurers, from life, health, and travel insurers, get ahold of pictures of you taking another skydive, it’s likely your rates will go sky-high.
Are you bumping into Bono and Angelina Jolie on all your trips overseas where children sit with machine guns, or wading into the flood waters to help re-build devastated cities? You’re to be commended for that, no doubt, but you can likely forget getting trip insurance or travel health insurance – even if it’s for your honeymoon.
“We provide a couple unique insurance products and have used the Web and social media to find additional information on an individual, company or event,” says Adam Bates, VP of InsuranceForTrips.com.
Information About Policyholders’ Businesses
Commercial policies aren’t exempt either, which can require extensive underwriting given the many liabilities presented, and social media is great for that.
“I also use LinkedIn to help determine risk of different companies we insure. We provide accidental death & dismemberment insurance which covers losses from war and terrorism,” says Bates. “When a company inquires and wants a quote, I will use LinkedIn to discover the locations and possible activities in the high-risk or volatile countries the company is located in.”
Telecommuting and running businesses from home are becoming increasingly popular, and some homeowners insurance companies look for such scenarios when underwriting new homeowners policies or processing claims. For example, most home insurers either deny coverage or increase premiums drastically if high-risk businesses like daycare are operated out of private residences. A lot of traffic in and out of private residences – particularly when children are involved – increases liability risks, so if insurers discover your daycare business’ Facebook page shares your home address, expect denied or cancelled coverage, increased premiums, or even insurance fraud charges.
Photos That Tell 1K Words — About Recent Claims
Natalie Blanchard learned the hard way how a simple photo can affect health benefits. Car insurance claims and premiums are vulnerable too. You told your auto insurer you hadn’t made modifications to your vehicle? That ‘Fast and Furious’ photo of your ride with ground effects, tinted windows, rims, and a lowered suspension will affect your rates or result in future denied claims. Additionally, when something bad happens to your car or your house, your first reaction might be to snap a picture and post it to your feed. If you’re being honest with the insurance company, you have nothing to worry about. If the damage is ten times worse when the adjuster shows up, the original pictures could be used to deny your claim.
It can lead to more than denied claims – it can lead to criminal charges. In the court case, People V. Franco, the defendant lost her case thanks to a MySpace posting. She was involved in a car accident and was found at fault after the prosecution investigators found the following post:
“If you find me on the freeway and you can keep up, I have a really bad habit of racing random people.”
Maintaining Privacy in a Public World: Personal Measures and Laws
You may not always have a choice as to what is done with the information you put out there, but you do choose what information you put out there at all. Some people don’t post anything they wouldn’t want their mothers to see. That’s a good self-editing rule, but hopefully you’re not doing anything you wouldn’t want your mother – or insurer – to see.
Regardless of your feelings about privacy or insurers mining social media, there’s a way to make the best of this as long as it’s a reality. Knowing such information is used may lead to new awareness or self-reflection. If you’re uncomfortable with your insurer seeing something you post, ask yourself why. Maybe you’ve noticed a martini or cigarette in your hand in 98% of your photos. You’re afraid health and life insurers will see it and have premonitions of liver failure, lung cancer, and lowered life expectancy. Maybe that’s motivation to make healthier choices or modify habits, hobbies, or lifestyle choices.
On an ‘official’ and national level, legislators are attempting to keep up. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has set requirements for short form advertising on social media networks, and social media reports must be made available to the consumer based on Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) standards; however, questions for the consumer remain. Where do you get these reports? If a company denies mining social media websites, do reports even exist? Can you dispute content? The search for answers continues, but unless you’re comfortable with potentially anyone in the world seeing what you post, you may want to think twice before answering Facebook’s prompt: What’s on your mind?
-Follow Desiree on Twitter @DesireeBaughman.