Social media investigations are an increasingly common feature of any investigative effort. The police routinely use social media to gather evidence and build cases. A private investigator used a photo posted on social media to catch a Russian murder suspect in Brooklyn, NY. Thanks to the wealth of personal information online, social media investigations can be used to ascertain someone’s character, check for illegal or inappropriate behavior, to find someone, or to prove (or disprove) an alibi.

Social media investigations are incredibly powerful for two reasons. Firstly, over 81% of the adult US population is on some form of social media, and 79% of all American adults are on Facebook. Secondly, the complicated privacy settings and rules of sites like Facebook mean that most people don’t realize how easily accessible and public the information they post online actually is.

When a private investigator conducts a social media investigation, they’ll check popular social media sites like:

Typical Use Cases:

Social media is a rich source of information for just about any investigation. If your goals include gathering information about someone’s movements, associates, or character, social media investigations are a great fit. Out of the hundreds of social media cases that we’ve handled, these are the most common use cases:  

Gathering Evidence for Court

Social media is a great source of evidence for court cases. Usually, social media investigations are used to gather evidence to establish someone’s character, prove or disprove an alibi, or gather other miscellaneous supporting evidence.

Investigators can gather more information than statuses, tweets, and photos from social media too. The metadata attached to posts can be used to determine where someone was at a given time, as well as someone’s behaviors and habits over time. This sort of evidence can discredit or reinforce someone’s claims, or even establish their reliability as a witness.

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If you’re thinking of using a social media investigation to gather evidence for court or some other legal process, you should be careful. Evidence must be collected methodically, with appropriate metadata and other validating information intact. If the evidence is gathered incorrectly, it can be thrown out of court. It pays to use a professional investigator to gather the evidence in a way that is admissible in court, and supports your case.

Types of Evidence Typically Collected for Court Cases:

  • Relevant statements or comments
  • Metadata from posts establishing time and location of posting
  • Posts relating to past illegal activity
  • Photos
  • Content establishing character (for example, attitudes to police, past sentiments, racist or sexist content etc)
  • List of social media profiles and screen names associated with target individual

Employment Checks

Let’s face it - regular background checks and reference checks are little more than an IQ test for potential applicants. Applicants won’t give you bad references, and won’t submit to a background check they know they won’t pass. If you need to properly assess someone’s character and past, you need to go deeper.

Social media investigations are a great way to establish the character, work experience, and education of a potential hire. Social media investigations can find evidence of past illegal behavior, provide evidence to support or discredit claims about education and employment, and assess whether they are likely to conduct themselves in a manner befitting your organization.


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This Canadian youth hockey coach was fired after parents found out that he was posting pro-Nazi, anti-semetic content on Facebook. (CBC News) 


Before you conduct a social media investigation on an employee or potential hire, you should know that these types of background checks are subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. This means that you need consent from the applicant to conduct the check, and you cannot base your hiring decision based on any information that identifies the applicant as a member of a protected class - for instance, their gender or race.

To avoid a lawsuit, you should ask for consent, and have a private investigator conduct the investigation on your behalf. This way, information relating to protected classes will be scrubbed from any report you receive, protecting you from making decisions that could be construed as being based on someone’s status as a member of a protected class.

Types of Evidence Typically Collected:

  • Posts and photos relating to illegal activity or drug use
  • Posts relating to objectionable content (e.g. racist or sexist content)
  • Posts supporting or discrediting past education and employment
  • Relevant statements and comments
  • List of social media profiles and screen names associated with target individual 

Person Location

Whether you’re looking for a missing person, a runaway child, a bail-skipper, or even a long-lost family member, social media investigations can be invaluable. Social media posts contain a surprising amount of location data, and can be used to establish someone’s real-time location with surprising accuracy.

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 In cases where the person being sought is not clearly identified - for instance, if you were looking for your birth parents, or a long lost friend - social media is also useful. Social media investigations combine social connections and biographical information (like education or birth date) to find people quickly and efficiently.

Types of Evidence Typically Collected

  • Location metadata from posts
  • Location metadata from images
  • Relevant statements and claims
  • Photo analysis
  • Leads from interviews and social connections

Custody Cases

Custody cases boil down to determining what arrangement is in the best interests of the child, and that means establishing the character and suitability of each parent to care for and nurture the child. In determining this, the court considers everything from the lifestyle of the parent to their standing in the community. Social media investigations can be instrumental in collecting evidence to support, or discredit a parents claim to custody, or to prove that violations of existing custody agreements have occurred.

It’s important to note that the manner in which evidence is collected from social media affects whether this evidence is admissible in court. Private investigators know how to collect the relevant metadata and supporting information to make sure that photos, statuses, and other sorts of evidence collected from social media will be admissible in court, and able to support your case.

Types of Evidence Commonly Collected:

  • Posts, statuses, and photos establishing character
  • Interactions with associates
  • Location metadata from photos and posts
  • Evidence of abuse or neglect
  • Evidence of illegal activity, such as drug use
  • Evidence of care and love for the child (or lack thereof)
  • Morality and conduct of the parent
  • Photo analysis
  • List of social media profiles and screen names associated with target individual

Infidelity and Divorce Cases

The vast amount of personal information found in social media investigations is extremely useful for cases involving divorce or infidelity. In fact, messages from social media were used as evidence to support the infidelity accusations that resulted in the recent resignation of the Governor of Alabama.

The power of social media investigations extends beyond simply collecting photos or messages too. Metadata from photos and posts can also be used to place two people in the same place at the same time, for instance the same restaurant or hotel room in the case of infidelity, or the same address night after night in the case of cohabitation.

Again, you should be wary of collecting this sort of evidence from social media yourself. Not only are private investigators skilled at locating this sort of information, they know how to collect it in a way that is admissible in court. If you collect the information yourself, you could end up damaging your case.

Types of Evidence Typically Collected:

  • Posts and photos with associates supporting infidelity claims
  • Location metadata from photos
  • Photo analysis
  • Associates and connections from hashtags and location data
  • Photos of assets or locations
  • Reverse image source to find dating profiles and alternate online personalities


Online Dating Checks (Identifying Scammers and Catfishers)

Social media investigations are often able to quickly verify the veracity of an online profile, or find out if your significant other on a dating site. If you’re not sure who someone really is, a social media investigation can find out whether they’re who they claim to be, or if they are a catfish (or worse).

Types of Evidence Typically Collected:

  • List of related or connected social media and dating profiles
  • Original source of person’s profile image, and other photos (catfishers and scammers typically take them from somewhere online)
  • Metadata from photos and posts revealing actual vs. claimed location of poster
  • Other evidence supporting or discrediting claims of person being investigated


Social Media Investigation F.A.Q:

What Information do You Need to Start a Case?

The more information you have the better. Generally speaking, a first name, last name, and email address are more than enough to get going - but whatever information you have is useful when starting a social media investigation. Trustify has run cases on nothing more than a name or an email address - sometimes even less than that. Social media investigations require time and patience to execute, but the more information you have, the faster they will go and the more information can be gathered.

What do Investigators Look for?

The most basic thing that private investigators will do in a social media investigation is scour an individual’s social media accounts for content relevant to the goals of the investigation. For instance, if the goal is to look for illegal activity, an investigator will examine all tweets, posts, and photos by hand to determine if they could be considered evidence of illegal activity.

Private investigators will also analyze posts, photos, and tweets, looking for metadata that might be useful. For instance, Donald Trump’s tweets have famously been analyzed using their metadata to determine what sort of device is sending the tweets, and therefore when the president or an aide is tweeting. Aside from information about devices, social media posts will often contain other metadata about time and location of posting. Photos also contain EXIF data relating to the time and location in which they were taken.

Investigator will also look for alternate or linked social media accounts and profiles using advanced search tools, and techniques like Google’s reverse image search. Using these, they can gather information about a person, and determine whether a profile is likely to be legitimate, or if it is a front for other profiles. This technique is particularly useful if you’re looking for a hidden dating profile, or determining if a dating profile is real.

Elliot Rysenbry

 Tags: Business

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