Modern-day private investigators have more tools at their fingertips than ever before. Where they used to have to comb through phone books and interview neighbors, colleagues, ex-lovers, friends and family to track someone down, now they may need only log in to Facebook or Twitter.
They don’t even have to be in the same city, state or country as the person they’re tracking. A private investigator with a smart phone can theoretically run skip traces on subjects in Minnesota from a sunny beach in Hawaii.
People have developed this habit of logging in and checking in with Facebook or Twitter or Yelp, said Lanie James, a social media specialist with Chesapeake Energy in Oklahoma. They’re leaving a trail of digital bread crumbs without even knowing it.
James spoke to a group of Oklahoma private investigators recently about how they can use and exploit social media in their businesses. She explained to the investigators how skip tracing via social media is happening all over and the tools are very effective. People have opened so much of their lives up to the general public that its very hard for them to hide these days.
Police, lawyers and employers have all been using social media to dig into the history and character of subjects as well as to discover their whereabouts.
The Jackson Police Department in Jackson Hole, Wyo., used YouTube and Facebook to find two foreign bandits who stole the state and national flags while they were at half-staff to honor a local fallen soldier in 2009. They posted a video of the theft online, where it was distributed via Facebook, and the two men were identified. Then through Facebook messages, authorities got the flags returned from overseas with notes of apology.
James said she knows of investigators who have been able catch clients spouses cheating by following their digital breadcrumbs. Many social media outlets now include geo-tracking software that allows members to sign in at different establishments such as bowling alleys, bars and restaurants. Letting friends know where you are via social media sites has become trendy and a lot of establishments offer incentives including prize drawings for doing it.
It becomes so instinctual, such a habit for people to check in, she said, that they don’t even think about whether they’re where they said they would be or not. People share just so unconsciously.
Because social media tools can be extraordinarily useful to private investigators, James emphasizes the importance of knowing how to use the tools. Her advice:
1. Have a smart phone
Having a smart phone is a must, James said. You can’t do this without the right equipment.
A smart phone allows the private investigator to get immediate updates from subjects. If the investigator has a Twitter account, he or she can sign up to have the subjects updates pop up instantly. People tend to tweet about what they’re doing or where they are, which makes following or finding a subject easier on the fly.
2. Understand the demographics social media sites attract
There are hundreds of thousands of social networking sites out there. Many are niche sites that only certain people will belong to, for example NASCAR fans or online gamers, James said. But those people are probably most likely to surface on those sites first.
Then there is the mainstream. Members of Generation X are the most likely to be on Twitter, according to statistics, James said, though the younger Millennial Generation is starting to pick it up as well. Older people are very unlikely to be on MySpace, James said.
But if you’re tracking Grandma, she added, you should know that Grandma is the single fastest-growing demographic on Facebook.
Just as investigators have always had to judge their subjects and develop their tactics around that persons character and habits, they will have to judge which social media outlets best suit their subjects.
3. Have your own accounts
While its not commonly allowed or accepted on the sites, it could be advised to open fake accounts, James said.
She said it goes against her values in most cases to create a fake online persona, but has proved useful and may be required in some cases. There is information on the social media sites that is only available to members. Once you have an account, you’ll have access to a lot of information, James said.
People just don’t pay attention to their privacy settings, she said.
And people tend to share a tremendous amount of personal information on their social media sites. A lot of people include their addresses, cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses on their unprotected information pages.
For some people, they see there’s a field there and they think they have to fill it in, she said.
4. Know how to use the technology
While the subjects investigators are tracing may not bother to familiarize themselves with privacy settings, the investigators should. They need to know how the technology works so they can find and exploit the loopholes in order to get information.
They can really figure out how all of that works by spending some time with their own accounts, James said. They just have to mess around with the different settings and take the time.
5. Keep up with the times
James recommends that investigators follow blogs like Mashable.com to get the latest news about whats happening in the social media world.
6. Use social media to promote your business
While Facebook, Yelp, Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn are useful skip tracing tools, they are also powerful marketing tools. Once you log off of your stealth accounts, log into your business accounts and let the world know what you do and how well you do it. Share your business information and let clients friend you and vouch for your effectiveness, James said.
Social media has permeated James life. She said she’s careful about what she shares online and has been able to manipulate the content that pops up on Google searches when she types her name in so that she’s the one who shows up first and so that the most positive information is at the top.
She studies and writes and even tweets about social media and its many uses.
“I’m just a nosy person by nature,” James said. “So, I’ve always been really fascinated by all the applications there are for this information.”