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Social Media: A Multi-Purpose Investigation and Profit-Making Tool

  • February 15, 2011
  • by Colleen Collins

Tweeting's for the birds, a private investigator recently griped. No way youre gonna catch me on Twitter.

If I told him Twitter, and other social networking sites, could attract new clients, aid finding people and evidence, as well as professionally brand his business, think hed re-think his stance?

Attracting New Clients

There's a new term, social commerce, that refers to online consumers learning and trying different business services based on trusted online referrals and recommendations. In a February 2011 article on TechCrunch, Social Commerce And The New Rules For Local Businesses, author Craig Donato says social commerce is re-humanizing online commerce due to its word-of-mouth marketing, which works best with businesses that are bound to relationships in other words, service industries. His advice? Attract customers by being conversational and developing relationships.

Social commerce sounds a lot like what my dad did running a hardware store -- chatting with customers, developing friendships, selling hardware. But does social commerce in 2011 work for a private investigator? According to Skipp Porteous, co-author of Into the Blast: The True Story of D.B. Cooper, and president of New York-based Sherlock Investigations, Inc., the answer is yes. "I'm a big believer in social media to help small business," says Porteous. "Last year I got three cases through Twitter alone. American private investigators are still mostly in the dark about social media, but they'll catch up."

Finding People and Evidence

Social media is a ripe area for researching and locating people. A few years ago, an attorney asked my investigations firm to find a woman who was on the run. She'd ditched her cell phone, wasn't contacting friends or family, wasn't driving her regular vehicle nor using any credit cards or other trackable items. We found her through a search of social media. She'd taken great care to cover her tracks, but she couldn't stop posting on her MySpace account.

Another private investigator used Facebook to find a subject. Facebook assisted in locating a missing individual in a probate search, says Dave Smith, D P Investigations in West Sussex, UK. He was from the UK, but had moved to live in Toronto, Canada. Messages through Facebook confirmed he was the person I was looking for.

Lawyers are mining social media for evidence, too. The January 2011 ABA Journal article titled Tort Defense Lawyer Contends MySpace Smiley Faces Are Damning Evidence reports that an increasing number of defense lawyers are seeking access to plaintiff's social media pages, searching for evidence of fakery and other activities. In a recent case, Facebook filed a motion arguing that defense lawyers should obtain account information directly from the member rather than subpoena Facebook. New York attorney James Gallagher is instead requesting a court order requiring the plaintiff to sign a consent form granting access to her Facebook account, which will be attached to a subpoena. "This is a wave that is going to explode all over plaintiffs' law," Gallagher says.

Searching Dozens of Social Media Sites at Once

You can easily search popular social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Friendster through their search facilities, using names, ZIP codes, email addresses, keywords and other indicators. Using these sites typically requires registration.

There's also a growing number of social media search engines that let you conduct free searches on dozens of social networking sites by a persons name, nickname, phone number, email address and more. Below are a few free multi-social-media search engines. Results show in social networks, search engines, photo/video/audio sites, and personal references. This real-time search engine instantly combines results from Twitter and Facebook in an easy-to-read format organized by date stamp.

SocialMention: Another free, real-time search engine that searches in over a hundred media properties, from blogs to comments to images. It also provides a social media analysis that shows associated information, such as top keywords, usernames and hashtags (inline tags prefaced with a hash mark, such as #PInow).

For more tips on using social media to find people, read the article Private Investigators Powering Searches with Social Media.

Networking with Peers

By connecting with their peers through social media, private investigators learn about professional events, share tips and professional accomplishments, and advertise their services. Tamara Thompson, owner of Tamara Thompson Investigations in Oakland, California, says, "I've used social media to inform my readers about my investigative specialty Internet and database research while providing tools and resources they can apply in their businesses. I never sell myself, because thats boring. I write about what interests me and always stick to work-related topics. Most of the benefits are indirect: connecting to a variety of professionals, enhancing my reputation, getting access to data or knowledge sources and keeping my name in circulation. It's tricky because you have to make a commitment to participate and do it regularly but then you dont want it to become a time-sucker."


Successful PIs are good listeners. Cases have been solved just from listening to what people say about each other and themselves. When you funnel those words into digital gathering places, add indicators to locations and other information, and provide opportunities to promote and build clientele, the result is a multi-purpose investigation and profit-making social media tool for private investigators.

Maybe that investigator who thought tweeting was for the birds should try a test flight before grounding the idea altogether.

Guest contributor Colleen Collins is a professional private investigator who co-owns Highlands Investigations and Legal Services, Inc. ( based in Denver, Colorado.

If you would like to redistribute this article or any other content for your website, newsletter or other publication, e-mail [email protected] to find out how. And if you're interested in writing articles about the private investigation industry, is always looking for guest writers to share their industry knowledge.

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