April 2, 2020
These are unprecedented times and the effects of mandatory business closures, shelter-in-place orders, and unexpected unemployment have yet to be seen. In an effort to preserve jobs, restaurant staff have been assigned delivery jobs, often requiring them to use personal vehicles for work. Likewise, Uber drivers have transitioned to Uber Eats drivers, due to the decline in the need for rideshare. The transportation, manufacturing, hospitality, and retail industries are all currently laying off employees due to a lack of work. With the effects of COVID-19, people are more focused on essentials versus discretionary expenses. Business models based upon socializing and social unity, are being forced to close. Unfortunately, the one thing we know will continue to rise, is fraud. Whether it’s opportunistic fraud, intentional fraud, or ‘last resort’ fraud, we know that our clients will be victims of this in some fashion.
Will COVID-19 shape how claims are handled both in the short and long term? The answer is yes. How do we prepare for this? Much like you, INTERTEL has been discussing this new ‘normal’ with many other industry leaders in order to outline what actions our clients should try to implement while we weather this storm. What we do know, is people are social. Even while physically distancing themselves, they continue to socialize. The evidence of this is a rise in social media use. Instagram was the platform of choice when DJ D-Nice hosted a dance party with over 100,000 people attending online. The ‘Quarantine Dance Off’ challenge has started and platforms like TikTok are exploding. Online gaming platforms, such as Twitch and Mixer, aren’t just being used by gamers to pass their time indoors, but by others looking for new outlets to share their media creations. With an increase in online exercising, more information is being recorded and transmitted on Fitbits, Apple Watches, phones, and other various devices. Outdoor platforms like AllTrails, will also rise in use as people take advantage of nice weather to “hit the trails”, while trying to avoid potentially overcrowded parks and playgrounds. Whether it’s using online services for home schooling, or selling items to try and make money, online usage is undoubtedly up and will only continue to grow.
However, it’s not just individuals. The same is true as commercial businesses utilize social media to post closures, adjusted hours, delivery options, and more. Employees are posting videos of empty properties, cleaning crews, or lamenting about the lack of work or layoffs. As businesses close and infections increase, claims related to business interruption, workers compensation, and short-term disability claims will also increase. Are people unnecessarily exposing themselves to COVID-19? What does a business interruption claim look like due to COVID-19? Did that business close because of a possible infection or because of a government order? Did the business suffer a direct physical loss? If so, for how long? Were cleaning crews delayed because those businesses are booked out for days or weeks? Did an employee get infected as a result of exposure or were they out of work before they contracted the virus? All of this might be discoverable online on the business website, Facebook page, or YouTube page. Images, videos, and even text on an unrelated photo or post might offer valuable information. Knowing where, and what to search, becomes critical in finding the right information.
We, at INTERTEL, feel it is important for our clients to recognize that social media and online research isn’t about a single person. The focus shouldn’t always be on who, but also be on what. Researching businesses, locations, or specific items are just as valuable as looking for a single subject. Looking at community responses develops a greater perspective of what is occurring at that time. This sudden change in social mores and the larger disparity between generations is also something to consider while mapping out your strategy. Much like understanding who the focus of your investigation is, and how their personal traits will shape your investigation, like what social media resources you need to search first, your COVID-19 investigations should take similar facts and information into consideration as well. Initially, age and location will be primary factors in identifying data. Consider the images of Spring Breakers on beaches, even after mandatory closures, versus images of long lines at grocery stores and pharmacies typically consisting of middle aged to elderly people. Where does all this documentation reside? Instead of focusing just on the person, reviewing media located within business websites, government pages, news, and social media might offer more evidence. More importantly by searching locations and reference data (like hashtags) you might find a tweet from a public works employee who must clean up the mess. Or the Fire Department that has 100s of photos of people on the beach. Or even that Starbucks that has a live video feed showing everyone coming and going at the drive thru. Social media and online resources contain valuable information if you know where to look and are diligently planning out your investigation.
The same holds true if you are handling property claims. When the economy fails, there is a rise in auto thefts, arsons, mysterious disappearance claims, etc. Looking back over someone’s social media, and more specifically classified ad postings, might show attempts to sell the property or the ability to determine the condition of the item before it was damaged. It might indicate a pattern of selling off assets, often an indication of an underlying financial problem. The key is to know what you are looking for, and when. Finding someone’s profile on Facebook doesn’t mean you will see their listings on Marketplace. You must search them both, and search under immediate family as well.Knowing which classifieds to search are important, like the traditional eBay & Craigslist, but also LetGo, OfferUp, Mecari, and Poshmark to name just a few. Searching isn’t as simple as running a phone number or email address in Google either. Some platforms are mobile only or offer more search options using a mobile device than a PC. Are your employees posed to search mobile? When something is found, how will they document and save it on a mobile device if working from home.
One of the most important aspects to consider, even before this pandemic, was the proper documentation and storage of digital evidence. When you find it, how are you saving it? How are you ensuring that the data isn’t lost, that it is properly archived, that it can survive a suppression or authentication hearing, and more importantly that you can show that it wasn’t altered or compromised in any way. Did you copy the source information to prove to the court where the data originated from? INTERTEL has been leading the development and use of digital captures in social media investigation, because we know that documentation is vital to the success of any claim. But what you may not know is that when information is digitally captured, this also allows you to utilize it, days, weeks, or months later. From looking for hyperlinks imbedded in text to cognitive language structures, you aren’t limited in how you use the data later. Additionally, you can combine data from different sources looking for commonalities or links, which is difficult to do with a PDF report and no underlying metadata.
Having a strong digital evidence solution is vital, not just with being able to conduct your investigation, but with archiving your evidence for the long term. Consider that following September 11th courts closed nationally only for a day or two, allowing most judicial branches to quickly recover. However, it took the NY Court System about a year to do the same. Unfortunately, that is not the case with this pandemic. Local, State and Federal Courts are holding only essential hearings, and many pending cases are being rescheduled to the fall or even later, creating a backlog. New cases aren’t going to slow down, and in fact, may even rise as the situation draws on. Likely, there will be a pecking order when the system comes back online, with priority potentially going to criminal over civil, juvenile and family over small claims, etc. Where does that leave your litigation? What do you do in the meantime? This is when you need to prepare a litigation plan that may include regular monitoring of social media and online activities, but also needs to ensure that data is protected. Does your current evidence have safeguards in place that limit access? Can you prove during a challenge that your evidence wasn’t tampered with or altered? Do you have adequate backups of the information? What are your new requirements under the current civil unrest orders? What constitutes due diligence?
Legal and compliance units are operating under a whole new set of unknowns and the last thing you want to do is forget about these pending cases. Create a plan that includes looking routinely at the parties’ social media, what are they doing during this time of social distancing and isolation. Has family moved back with them, adding to social and economic stressors? Did they go back to work, post a TikTok video, have another accident? Did they contract COVID-19? Sometimes we don’t know what is important until later. Documenting and saving now may be critical to your claims/cases
later, you just may not know it until then.
As important as litigation and new claims are, let’s not forget that unscrupulous medical providers will still be a problem during this time. As non-essential medical providers close, will they still attempt to bill for services not rendered and/or while closed knowing that carriers will be overloaded with claims and unable to scrutinize every bill? Will clinics in PIP states bill during closures or bill at higher rates claiming emergency procedures or off-duty hours because they had to come in causing potential exposure to treat someone? Do you have problematic clinics/providers currently under investigation, pending litigation, or pending criminal indictment? Are you monitoring their activities during this pandemic?
Being able to document offices being closed when mandatory government actions went into place, if they were still treating on an emergency basis, etc. will be just as important. Have they switched gears and are now claiming to test and treat for COVID-19? Many new schemes have been set up claiming just that. With growing fears regarding COVID-19, fraudsters are offering fake tests, non-existent vaccines, and even claiming that the government is mandating testing for elderly people. This is an attempt to trick potential victims into fraudulent tests to bill providers. Fraudsters may also be attempting to gain victim’s personal details, including social security number, in order to commit identity fraud or falsely bill insurers. Are you prepared for this? Monitoring these providers could be imperative at this juncture. Not only with social media, but with documented calls to the facilities.
Do you have questions? Need help with a strategic plan? Need help with the deluge of claims and wanting to make sure you have a viable solution now, not 2 months from now? Give me a call to discuss how. Together with INTERTEL, we can assist you during these unsettling times.
Joe Stephenson, is the Director of Digital Intelligence for INTERTEL, Inc. and an internationally recognized expert in the field of Social Media and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). With over 30 years’ of investigative experience in both the insurance and government sectors, Joe spearheads the development of innovative products for fraud detection and analytics, particularly those that draw from Social Media, Deep Web, and IoT data. Joe a former Board of Director for IASIU, past President of the New England Chapter IASIU, and currently sits on the Executive Board for the Northeast Chapter IAATI. He is a regular contributor to SIU Today and the AFA newsletter, where he discusses practical online techniques investigators can use
in their day to day investigations. You are encouraged to connect with Joe via LinkedIn, and as always, never hesitate to reach out to him with questions you may have at email@example.com.