In the hours after a car accident, filing a claim with your auto insurance company is one of the first steps you should take. But auto insurance industry insiders say a smart second step is giving social media accounts the once-over to prevent all or part of that claim from being denied.
In the past five years, the use of social media has exploded within the insurance industry, says Frank Darras, an insurance attorney in Ontario, California, who represents plaintiffs in suits against insurance companies. Because social media Web sites provide a real-time examination of users' lifestyles, insurance companies, claims adjusters and attorneys have begun to monitor and mine them as a valuable source of claims-investigation evidence. Insurers are reviewing information found on such social media sites as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare, Google Plus and Pinterest, and applying it to auto claims, says Chicago personal injury lawyer Michael Helfand.
"This happens all the time," he says.
Facebook is used in almost every claim now, especially when there is an injury. "Checking social media accounts has become one of the first things an insurance company or adjuster will do when you file a claim," adds Darras. Especially when any injuries stem from the accident.
Claims Investigation by Social Media
Part of the new claims-investigation process is for an adjuster, agent or insurance company to look for the Facebook, Twitter or other social media account of a person claiming bodily injury stemming from an accident, Helfand says. They're looking for proof that the person is filing a fraudulent claim, he says.
If the part of your accident claim is for a back injury and you share post-accident pictures of you golfing, surfing or playing ball with the kids, your claim could be denied.
"Over the years, social media has killed a bunch of claims," says Helfand.
"Almost every insurance company has a special investigation unit (SIU), and policyholders should work on the assumption that SIUs will look into questionable or fraudulent claims," says Michael Barry, vice president of media relations for the Insurance Information Institute.
"Mining social media for clues is one of the fastest-growing areas of insurance-fraud investigation," says James Quiggle of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud in a report published in 2012.
While insurance adjusters or agents may not look into the social media accounts of every person who files a claim, they will definitely dig into social media if they have any reason to suspect a fraudulent claim.
"It's simply part of the due diligence in investigating a case, because so many people are brazen or dumb enough to say one thing to an insurance adjuster while at the same time telling the world something else," Helfand says. "It's not unusual for a person to tell the adjuster and doctor how much their back hurts and then post photos from their softball league.
"Facebook and other social media sites have become a great tool for fighting claims because the 'look at me' nature of social media causes people to shoot themselves in the foot," he says.
A claims adjuster will also stick directly to the language you use in the claim. If you report that you're unable to lift more than 20 pounds, but a picture on social media shows you doing otherwise, Darras says you can expect the claim will be denied.
The same goes for tweets and status updates detailing your mood or mental state related to the accident. A stream of tweets about your road rage or noting that you're driving against doctors' orders because you're under the influence of medicine will raise red flags on any auto-accident-related injury claim.
Switch Your Privacy Settings
Using Facebook or Twitter activity in the claims process is completely legal — as long as the information is part of a "public" profile, Darras says.
"It is generally understood that if the adjuster or insurance company has to 'friend' or have a third party 'friend' the claimant on Facebook to obtain the information, then it becomes unethical and an invasion of privacy. Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily make it illegal," Darras says
You can reduce your exposure by adjusting the privacy settings for Facebook accounts so that only people you select as friends can read your status updates or view photos on your account. And make sure privacy settings on Twitter are set to "Protect my Tweets" to limit who can read your timeline.
But beware: Your friends' social media accounts could also complicate an insurance claim. A photo or post on Facebook that's visible on a friend's public page might also be spotted, and used, by a car insurance company or claims adjuster, Darras says.
To be safe, Darras suggests removing the Facebook photos and tags or tweets of anything incriminating. For instance, delete a post in which your friends say that you're a terrible driver — even if they're joking. Helfand says an insurance company could use this evidence against you during the claims-investigation process.
"The responsibility to be constantly vigilant with Facebook profiles and Twitter streams is ultimately on consumers," says Helfand.
Don't rely solely on privacy settings to protect a claim. Helfand says the best advice is zipping your virtual lip.
"No matter how rattled, irritated you are, it's never wise to tweet or post on Facebook that you were involved in an accident," he says. "There's nothing to benefit from doing that."
In fact, getting social about an accident or car insurance claim is possibly the worst thing you can do.
"Doing this is just asking the insurance company to use the information against you, even if what you said was harmless in your eyes," Darras says. "Remember that jokes and sarcasm aren't conveyed well on social media and the insurance company will use everything they can."
Often insurance companies ask a person injured in a car wreck to provide information about their activities for a two-week period, says Darras. If any public Facebook activity doesn't match the log, the insurance company can think you're lying and treat the auto insurance claim as fraud.
Disputing the Social Scoop
If the Internet interferes with your claim, all is not lost. It may be possible to dispute anything an adjuster turns up on your social profiles.
"One of the biggest arguments consumers can use against insurance companies is their failure to investigate the information further and receive third-party support of the information they found on social media," says Darras.
And because social media should be a starting point, not the only evidence used in approving or denying a claim, you can press the insurance company to consider statements from other sources, such as doctors or witnesses, or allow you to explain the circumstances around the information found on your social networking profiles.
The Bottom Line
There is a time and place for social media, and it's not necessary to shut down your accounts after an accident. But it is important to watch what you post and be cautious about your participation in conversations, says Darras. And remember, regardless of your privacy settings, social media is never really private.
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