Social Media Investigations: Lessons From a Master

Joseph Stephenson, Managing Director at Hagerty Insurance Agency, discusses online investigations, social media, and classic cars

Stephenson_Headshot_Jul2018Whether you’re checking out the veracity of an insurance claim, looking for holes in a litigant’s story, or just doing your ediscovery due diligence, a thorough social media investigation is critical. But where do you even start? How do you know when you’re done? What does it really take to do a good online investigation?


If you’ve ever wondered what your investigations are missing, today’s your day to find out.


We recently got together with Joseph Stephenson, the Managing Director at Hagerty Insurance Agency, to talk about social media investigations. Not surprisingly, Joe—a Certified Insurance Fraud Investigator (CIFI), Certified Social Media Intelligence Expert (CSMIE), and Fraud Claim Law Specialist (FCLS) who’s actively involved in teaching law enforcement and insurance professionals about online investigations—had plenty of great advice.


How did you get started with investigations, and how did you find your way to your current role at Hagerty?

I’ve been gifted with such an interesting, eclectic career. I started in police work, investigating child abuse cases, then moved into harbor patrol and eventually to accident reconstruction. That work was the catalyst for moving from public service into the private sector: I wound up working with some terrific folks doing special investigations for an insurance company. Much like my career in law enforcement, I kept moving around to different areas, doing everything from workers’ compensation to property fires and commercial claims. Unlike my experience with the police, though, we had a nationwide focus. I couldn’t just hop in my car to check out a claim that a store had been robbed. So I started looking into what I could do remotely, using technology, and developed a bit of expertise there.


Through that work, I lucked out with landing this job, which is about the most fun you can have with insurance. Hagerty is the cream of the crop—we get to work with all these classic, exotic cars, and we have an incredible clientele. Our clients range from hobbyists keeping a single 40-year-old antique car on the road to major celebrities with entire collections of luxury vehicles. The majority of our claims are legitimate, so we can be more proactive with helping our clients instead of always working on reactionary fraud investigations. No joke, I wake up every day excited to go to work. That’s incredible.


And Hagerty has been so generous in giving me the opportunity to teach at conferences, especially for law enforcement. I love sharing what I’ve learned, but there’s a special joy that comes from seeing the “click” in someone’s eyes when they make a connection using something I’ve taught them. Those lightbulb moments are so gratifying. I keep trying to write a book on how to do online investigations so I can reach even more people, but it’s out of date as soon as I write a section.


You mentioned that you’ve had to learn how to rely more on technology in investigating insurance claims. How has technology affected your work?

 How hasn’t it? Around 2006 or so, the internet just started to explode. All this new information suddenly became available, and I realized that I was going to miss out on a lot of it if I didn’t figure out how to use those online resources. Now I can find things online that I wouldn’t have even thought to look for 10 years ago. Governments and private companies are uploading property cards, assessor records, and inspection reports with notes about system failures or electrical problems—and I can get all this while I’m sitting at my computer.


Technology has also made it easier than ever to learn new skills. I’ve built a network of contacts online, especially on LinkedIn, and they essentially curate a continuing-education curriculum for me every day. They’re sharing what they find most interesting or asking questions that spark entirely new ways for me to think about a problem. For example, I recently saw an article from a forensic investigator about how you could manipulate the address bar in one social media platform to isolate a specific timeframe. It was all about changing over to a binary code and converting the information—which, I’ll admit, gets a little heavy—but I could immediately see how I could translate that concept into other platforms. I can’t tell you how much time and effort that’s saved me. It’s invaluable for me to get these new ideas, and they wouldn’t happen without online networks.


So with the power of the internet, do you start an investigation with a quick sweep of online and social media activity, or is it still better to start somewhere else?


I definitely start online. At Hagerty, we do extensive research on our vehicles, running everything from Carfax reports to reverse image searches or setting up Google Alerts for specific descriptions or sale listings. Sometimes we’ll find a picture that has GPS data associated with it, which lets us go right to the location where that picture was taken. Every car is unique in at least some small way, but our cars are more unique than most!


We had one case involving a car worth over a million dollars that was stolen right out from under the owner in New York City. This was not a car that anyone should have taken lightly—it’s literally one of a kind. And I’ve got to tell you, I don’t have a good ending for this story; we’ve never recovered the car. But it illustrated the awesome power of the internet and these online networks of people. We put out alerts through the usual news media, but we also spread the alarm in our online communities. Within 24 hours of that claim, we had a global awareness about the car and the theft. There are such tremendous networks now that a single email can cover every continent, every port authority, INTERPOL, you name it. I wish we’d gotten a better result for it, but what a demonstration of the power of technology. I never could have accomplished that reach in the 1990s.




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One thing that’s important to remember, when you start digging into social media, is that it’s not just about what you’re finding: it’s also about what you’re not finding. Yes, people lie on social media or paint these airbrushed, idealized versions of their life, but there’s always some truth in that information. If you focus in on it right, you can find what you’re after. For instance, if someone reports that their beloved, precious dream car was stolen, but I can’t find any pictures of them with the car, I’m going to wonder why that is. I need to validate their claim, which means finding information and evidence to support it. If I can’t do that, I’m going to slow way down and start digging deeper.


Also, with online investigations, it can be hard to know when you’re done because the internet is bottomless. You’ve got to be efficient and calculated to know that you’re catching the big fish and validating everything you can, but you’ve also got to know when you’ve done enough.


When you’re searching for information online, do you do that manually, or do you rely on any specialized technologies or tools?

It used to be all manual, but now that we have advanced tools, we definitely use them because they’re so much faster and so much more precise. And now there’s just too much information to validate it all manually. Say somebody shows you a picture of a guy holding a gun and says this picture proves that a crime happened. Well, so what? When was the picture taken? What country was it taken in? Is that a real gun? Is that really the person it looks like? Until you validate and verify every piece of information, you’ve got nothing.


Hanzo is a game-changer here. Their ability to capture, certify, and then preserve and protect online resources is invaluable. When you’re investigating something in preparation for litigation, you can think that things are going along great, but then you get to court and realize that nothing’s actually been done right. You’ve got to have verified information that’s admissible and useful in court, and you’ve got to save that information so no one else can delete or modify it. Hanzo does all of that. And then the new artificial intelligence capability, where you can investigate fraud or anything else online, further simplifies and automates everything I used to have to do manually. Now I don’t need to spend two days looking for data; Hanzo pulls it all in for me so I can just tick off the boxes and validate the key elements. Then they save it for litigation so I don’t have to lose sleep over it. I’m getting back two or three hours a day, and I’ve got a respite from stressing about my workload or my results. It’s beyond exciting.


What advice do you have for people just starting to dig into online or social media investigations?

There are a couple of things you need to succeed in this line of work. First, you’ve got to be detail-oriented. That’s absolutely the key: you cannot, and I mean cannot, do a good investigation if you miss details. Second, you’ve got to be patient. You can’t be in a rush. Sometimes you’ll need to slow down, step back, take a breath. The process can take time, so you have to give it time.


Then you also need to be committed to constantly learning. The industry is changing—we’re seeing more people coming over from an IT background than from law enforcement these days. And that makes sense: we’re doing less and less with personal interviews and relying more on technology and remote work.


I suggest to people that they get in the habit of spending their Sundays surfing. Grab your coffee, fire up your laptop, and devote a couple of hours to searching and really thinking about what you find. Read articles, do some research, maybe play around with a new platform. There’s no book on how to do this—though if I ever finish mine, there will be! You have to look everywhere, and you can’t do that from your own little box. You can’t relate to someone from a demographic that you don’t know anything about. You don’t know what keywords to use or what platforms, dating apps, or trading sites that person is on. The world isn’t centered around you, so spend some time getting to know who you’re researching.


We don’t know about you, but we know what we’ll be doing this Sunday morning.




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