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Using Social Media As An Investigative Tool

It’s no question that social media has changed what we know about our “friends” within our networks. At the click of a mouse, Facebook users can check in on someone, who they may not have seen or spoken to in 10 years and see where he or she is living, working, and quite possibly what he or she had for lunch. Although this isn’t always the case with privacy settings, generally users on social media have the option of knowing a lot about a person, simply by following their posts online. As an investigator, this can be a very useful tool.

We hosted Brian Willingham and Pamela Hay to talk about background checks, where we discussed social media in the investigation. Willingham has been a private detective for more than 11 years and has conducted thousands of background investigations. He also owns The Diligentia Group, which specializes in background checks. Hay is president of Broad Range Investigations, specializing in criminal and civil investigation, and a professor at Boston University. She has top secret clearance with the government to conduct background checks on civil authorities, as well.


Hay considers social media “an amazing investigative tool.” She has discovered a lot of valuable information just by searching a subject’s online profile. “It opens a window into a person’s life that you wouldn’t necessarily see,” Willingham agrees, “what they do on a daily basis, where they go, who they’re friends with.” Social Media certainly isn’t an investigative tool to ignore.

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Here are a few different brands of social media and what information they normally hold:


Facebook, being the most common, has the most diverse amount of content. The investigator can scroll back through years of posts and photos to see . . .

  • Photos the user posted
  • What cities the person has traveled to
  • What cities the person has lived in
  • What events he or she has attended
  • What content he or she posts on their page
  • Who the person interacts with on their profile most frequently
  • Who they are friends with

Along with Facebook content, people also connect their other social media outlets (such as Instagram, Foursquare, and Twitter) to post onto their Facebook pages -- making it one of the most comprehensive sites out there. If a user is active on Facebook, the investigator will be able to see into his or her daily life, and if he or she is active on other social media sites.



Twitter allows users to post short (120 characters) messages where they can . . .

  • Link to content that is interesting to them
  • Tell a joke
  • Re-post information and content from their friends
  • Post where they are

It’s a very public, and usually impersonal social media. Users tend to follow celebrities and big names they don’t know personally along with their friends. With an informal platform, users are more likely to post a message that is unflattering or linked to something that they wouldn’t want their Facebook friends (more likely to include family members and professional connections) to know. Investigators will be able to see the user’s interests, hobbies, and connections.



Google+ is a social network organized by “circles.” The user groups his or her friends into circles for work, family, etc. A Google+ profile allows users to post

  • All of the cities where they have lived
  • All of their emails where they can be reached
  • Links to all other social media sites they are active on

An investigator can use a subject’s profile as a quick way to see his or her residential history, see what other social media platforms he or she uses, and through circle groups, the specific relationship to his or her friends.



Instagram is a photo hub where users to take and edit photos and post to their follower’s feeds. The appeal is the editing capabilities within the program that allows users to give the pictures filters for a vintage effect, black and white, etc. To an investigator, this is a photo library of where the subject has been (geographical tagging is available), what he or she is interested in, who the person hangs out with, and more.


Foursquare’s platform is based entirely on where the user frequents. Every time the user goes to a restaurant or any public location, he or she “checks in” online. The location can choose how to interact with users who check in. Restaurants, for example, feature deals such as a half-price appetizer for checking in and gift cards when someone has checked in a certain number of times. This gives an appeal for a user to publicise where he or she is at all times of the day. A couple examples of how this could be helpful to an investigator are: he or she could easily conduct surveillance activity through Foursquare check-ins or learn where a subject travels to frequently to begin checking records in cities the subject visits.

It’s important to note that with the popularity of social media comes more advanced privacy settings. Users have the option of being completely private, even unsearchable within the site if they choose. Users also tend to be more careful with what they post nowadays. Hay shared with us that she works with attorneys who tell their clients not to post anything on social media during cases because “It’s become known that investigators are looking and searching on the internet.”

On the other side of the spectrum, some social media profiles can be too saturated to validate the time and effort it would take to review them. “While it’s interesting in a lot of cases, in some cases it’s a complete waste of time,” Brian adds. He tells a story about investigating a subject with more than 10,000 tweets over just a few years. “For me to review all of those,” he says, “it’s absurd.”

Overall, social media is certainly something to keep updated on and review when appropriate. It could be as simple as confirming a person’s travel history on Facebook that it was, in fact, his or her arrest in Vegas. Monitoring social media and online capabilities keeps investigators up to date on surveillance and investigation techniques, and how to further their practice.

More Information about Social Media Investigations:

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