Legal Update: You have a new follower (and it's your insurer)

facebook-detective

  • Social media investigations must be carried out with due regard to the Data Protection Act
  • Insurers must be able to prove the information obtained is relevant and proportionate to the claim

Social media has a crucial role to play in cracking down on insurance fraud but privacy rules apply.

With 73% of online adults using social networking sites, many brands see this as a huge opportunity to engage with and better understand their customers. For the insurance industry, social media analysis is increasingly being deployed as a vital weapon in the fight against fraud

A number of high-profile cases have heavily depended on evidence gained from the fraudsters' social media activities. Indeed, in two cases involving a Miss England contestant and a Northwich Victoria player, both claimants were found guilty of contempt of court based on damning evidence obtained from their public Twitter feeds.

Although social media can offer insurers a trove of intelligence on claimants, it is vital that any searches and analyses are carried out in a legal and ethical manner, with due regard to any privacy restrictions and the Data Protection Act. And recent news have highlighted how careful insurers need to be when considering using social media profiles for commercial purposes. In terms of using social media profiles for counter fraud purposes, the law is somewhat more open to interpretation. However, insurers must still be able to prove that any information obtained is directly relevant and proportionate to the claim.

Claimants' social media fails
2016 has seen a number of cases where the appropriate use of social media evidence has proved pivotal in bringing fraudsters to account.

One is the case of martial artist Rafal Sikorski and his Playboy model partner Anna Radomska, who were involved in a suspected staged accident in London. The pair submitted claims for neck, knee, shoulder and back injuries worth more than £13,000. An online investigation found multiple examples of evidence that the pair had been fit and well within weeks of the incident.

This included both claimants taking part in intensive physical training in Phuket, Thailand and Sikorski winning an extreme martial arts contest in the Phillippines. After considering the claimants' accounts alongside the damning evidence gathered, the judge was not satisfied that the collision or the injuries were genuine. Both claims were found to be fundamentally dishonest, with the claimants ordered to pay insurer Liberty's costs of £9892.

Also this year, semi-professional footballer Gary Burnett was handed a four-month suspended sentence for faking a £2000 whiplash claim. Burnett had been involved in a minor bump at a drive-through restaurant, and submitted a claim to his insurer Aviva, stating he was unable to play for his team. However, his tweets showed he had a match the day after the incident. Match reports and other social media posts confirmed he had continued to play throughout the prognosis period.

When the evidence was submitted to his solicitors, Burnett discontinued the claim. However, taking a zero tolerance approach to fraud, Aviva took the matter further. Subsequently Wigan County Court ruled the claim to be fundamentally dishonest, ordering Burnett to pay costs of over £11,000. He was later found guilty of being in contempt of court.

Proceed with caution
Searching a consumer's social media profile constitutes a form of ‘surveillance', which is often a contentious issue, and must, therefore, only ever be used where truly justified. Insurers must do their research before carrying out any surveillance online, and must not take it lightly, even though this type of monitoring is now easier than ever, given GPS and location services are available on smartphones.

If other methods of gathering evidence are available, these will almost always be preferable and looked upon more favourably by the court. This is not only due to a perceived breach of personal privacy, even when posts are made public, but also because social profiles can be hacked and fake posts made in the claimant's name.

What insurers must keep in mind is that the purpose of this surveillance is to report fairly and honestly.

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