In the ever-expanding world of social media, companies and private investigative units are turning to sites like Facebook and Myspace to fight workers’ compensation fraud, but it raises ethical questions about obtaining information.

Social media sites are the most popular way for people to share their ideas and activates in the digital realm, and more companies are monitoring their employees’ social media presence.  Companies keep an eye on social media sites to make sure employees comply with company guidelines, but they also turn to these sites to investigate possible workers’ comp fraud.

“It’s really amazing what people put on Facebook, and then brag about it,” said Andrew Matthews, whose company Avizent hired a consultant to monitor social media activity. “You’re looking for an indication of activity they’re talking about that they’re not supposed to be doing.”

Depending on a person’s privacy settings, many companies can legally access and view information on sites like Facebook and Twitter.  Companies can usually find social media profiles through a simple Google search, and certain posts can lead to disciplinary action.

“There was one instance of an individual who says he was too injured to work, yet he mounts a video camera to the handlebars of his BMX bike and participates in a race and posts it,” said one district attorney. “It completely conflicts with [the physical limitations].”

In most cases, posts are much less incriminating than the above example, but they still prompt investigation.  Companies often hire outside investigative firms to keep an eye on supposedly injured workers.

“If someone writes on his wall that he’s going to be moving this weekend, that’s a good time to do some surveillance,” says one fraud expert.

Social media isn’t just being used to monitor your activity, it can also be used to find potential witnesses or prove collusion, said Richard Harer, vice president of Specialized Investigations.

“If there are two people who are in an auto accident and they say they don’t know each other, but we find out later that they are ‘friends’ on Facebook,” said Harer. “It turns out that these two people might be colluding to commit fraud. That may blow their case apart.”

Legality of Information Collection

Knowing how to protect your information is crucial in making sure only people you want to see your information have access to it.  For example, Facebook allows users to make their information available to anyone in their network (like University of Minnesota students), to anyone who is a friend of a friend, or to only people who they approve.  Most people want to restrict their information to only people they are “friends” with, but that isn’t always the default setting.  If your information isn’t protected, it can be used in court.

“It’s fair game,” said Roy Mura, who practices law in New York.  “There is nothing unethical for attorneys to be harvesting information from open sites from those who don’t understand the privacy controls.  It’s the protected content that’s more difficult to obtain.”

Mura added that social media sites won’t turn over protected information in civil subpoenas, saying “they’ve won over and over again.”

This can make it difficult for companies to gain access to employee profiles.  They can set up a Facebook page and send a friend request, but employees have no obligation to accept the request.

One technique that has come under considerable scrutiny is when a company creates a fake Facebook page and identifies themselves as someone they are not in order to gain access to personal information.  Currently, Minnesota is the only state in the nation with a law that forbids companies from creating a fake profile, but Mura believes it is only a matter of time before more states adopt similar measures.

“Facebook’s own terns of use forbid it, but the most direct result is to be thrown off Facebook,” said Mura

Harer added that using fake profiles is an issue that has been brought up by numerous insurance companies.

“Insurance investigators in a number of states — currently 14— have the legal and ethical right to utilize a pretext as long as it’s for the investigation of a suspected insurance fraud claim,” Harer says.

Both Mura and Harer believe individuals need to strongly consider what information people are posting to social media sites, especially if they are too sick or injured to come into work.