Assets Exposed on Social Media

This article was written by KeyNorth Group’s William Fairchild.

INTRODUCTION

As experts in Open Source Investigation we are used to consulting Social Media such as Instagram & Facebook in search of assets owned by debtors against whom our clients are seeking or have already obtained judgments.

However, recently a series of articles regarding the rapper “50 Cent” aka Curtis Jackson caught our attention.

For readers who aren’t familiar with the case, 50 Cent has made a lot more than 50 cents in his career which has transcended the music business and gone as far as becoming a major shareholder in Glaceau, the company behind the now popular drink Vitamin Water. The company was subsequently sold to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion dollars. [1]

However in 2014 the rapper’s bank account was reportedly frozen after he failed to obey a court order to pay $17 million, which he owned following a failed business deal.[2] “Fiddy”, as he is also known, subsequently filed for bankruptcy in July 2015 and records he produced claimed his assets were worth $24 million, whilst his debts were at $32 million.[3]

Then in November 2015 The Evening Standard featured an article which referred to 50 Cent posting pictures & videos to his Instagram account which showed what appeared to be stacks of cash in his fridge. These were seen by his 7.5 million followers. The article also refers to previous posts by the rapper which showed him sat next to the word “Broke” which was spelled out in cash.[4]

It seems that word got around as in March 2016 The Telegraph ran an article in which 50 Cent claimed to have been interviewed by the “Secret Service” regarding the cash shown in his Instagram posts. The article concludes with a quote from 50 Cent saying he is “quitting Instagram”.[5]

So, 50 Cent has learnt his lesson but there are 400 million other Instagram users and over a billion subscribers to other social networking sites who may not have. This represents a massive and fruitful source of information for online investigators.

Other articles which we came across in researching this piece included a woman who posted a picture of her winning roll-up-the-rim Tim Hortons cup, only for someone to use the code shown to claim the prize before she did[6], and the prisoner who posted pictures of contraband in his cell using a cell phone which itself was contraband. A cell search followed shortly after the authorities were made aware. [7]

Both articles feature social media users who appear to have the need to create posts even when it is clearly unwise to do so.

From our experience it is not uncommon to find pictures posted by users of their houses & holiday homes or vehicles which clearly show the licence plate.

SOCIAL MEDIA ADDICTION?

Nearly 45% of the world’s population is thought to now use the internet and forecasts indicate that this number will continue to rise. Couple this with the fact that the newer users, who have grown up with social media being the norm, have been found to be sharing more information of all types[8], and the fact that other studies have indicated the social media creates a kind of addiction in its users[9] and the future looks rosy for online investigation.

LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS

Even if the Subject of an investigation is not a social media user the chances are that their spouse or their children are.

Social Media accounts such as “RichKidsofInstagram” & “RichKidsofSnapchat”, the latter of which is actually a Facebook account of images taken from the more temporary medium of Snapchat, show how young people today may expose the assets of their social media sceptical parents.

GOVERNMENTS AGENCIES USING SOCIAL MEDIA AS A PART OF THEIR ENFORCEMENT ACTIONS

It is not just the professionals at the KeyNorth Group who are finding social media to be useful for helping their clients.

The Government of Australia are using social media to investigate welfare claimants. Examples of their success in doing this include:

-A couple who claimed they were single but who investigators found had announced on Twitter that they were in a relationship and expecting a baby.

-A total value of $1.7 Million AUD in fraud from eBay sales of benefit recipients who did not declare this money as an income.

According to the article we viewed this online investigation is proving more efficient and cost effective than traditional methods and has halved the amount spent on covert surveillance.[10]

ADMISSIBILITY OF EVIDENCE

Case law suggests that evidence obtained from social media will be admissible in court and is increasing being used by Judges in their considerations.

In R v Nde Soh, (2014 NBQB 20) the court deemed Facebook chat statements attributed to the accused was hearsay, but they fell within a recognized exception to the exclusion of hearsay and admitted them.

In Tambosso v. Holmes (2015 BCSC 359) evidence obtained from the plaintiff’s Facebook account was accepted by the court and played a significant part in discrediting her claims that two motor vehicle accidents had left her with “post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and mild traumatic brain injury”.

The judge did approach the Facebook evidence with caution recognizing that it may not be a true reflection of an individual’s life but decided that it could be used in deliberations:

It was submitted in argument that persons posting the events of their life on social media tend to post positive events and activities to portray themselves as “social” and avoid posting negative thoughts, events and news. There is no opinion evidence to support this submission, but I nonetheless approach the Facebook evidence with caution. However, even given potential frailties with this evidence I find there are numerous examples that buttress my findings on the plaintiff’s credibility.

A WORD OF WARNING

As investigators we use open sources such as social media a lot in our daily work. However, as Investigators we are also skeptical and seek to verify any evidence we collect. This skepticism is especially important with social media where the lines between reality and fiction have become somewhat blurred.

YouTube stars the Shaytards are a family of vloggers (Video bloggers) who have made millions from their YouTube channel. But it is not all from overt advertising, they also create revenue by product placement and endorsements in their “home videos”.

So, the Rich Kids of Instagram posing in front of “Daddy’s Toys” may just be a normal teenagers in the Porsche showroom looking to get some likes on their Instagram account.

CONCLUSIONS

A growing user base which is accustomed to, and unafraid of, sharing personal information online along with what appears to be social media’s addictive qualities will mean its importance and use in OSINT investigations will continue to grow. As more of life goes online traditional investigative techniques such as surveillance may come under pressure from more effective and less costly online based investigations.

[1] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/coca-cola-to-buy-vitaminwater-parent-glaceau-for-41-billion
[2] Down to his last? Rapper 50 Cent has his bank account frozen ‘after failing to pay $17 million judgment’ to Florida earphone maker. Paul Chavez. Mail Online. December 2, 2014.
[3] 50 Cent Bankruptcy: By The Numbers. Katy Stech. The Wall Street  Journal. August 4, 2015.
[4] 50 Cent posts Instagram showing stacks of cash hidden in his fridge months after filing for bankruptcy. Emma Powell. Evening Standard. November 27, 2015.
[5] ‘Bankrupt’ 50 Cent: Secret Service questioned me about ‘prop’ money. Telegraph Reporters. The Telegraph. March 11, 2016.
[6] Newfoundland woman learns lesson after $100 Tim Hortons prize stolen online. Jillian Kestler-D’Amours. The Star. February 23, 2016.
[7] Drug Dealer uses Facebook and Instagram to boast about cushy prison life nearly a year after authorities vowed to stop him going online again. Darren Boyle. Mail Online. February 2, 2016.
[8] Teens, Social Media & Privacy – Pew Research Centre.
[9] Missing Photos, Suffering withdrawl, or finding freedom? How experiences of social media non-use Influence the Likelihood of Reversion. Eric P. S. Baumer et al, Cornell University.
[10] Centrelink investigators nab welfare cheats via social media. Kate Aubusson. The Sydney Morning Herald. February 4, 2016.