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FRAUD FILES: Social media and other information sources for litigation

Tracy Coenen

Who would have thought that a simple internet search could help you win a case in front of a jury? Just 10 years ago that may have sounded far-fetched to many. But those immersed in the world of data mining knew it was possible, even then.

The work of a financial investigator and expert witness is focused on financial documents and numeric evidence. Much of the information in fraud cases or contract litigation is found in private records, such as income tax returns, accounting records, bank statements, and financial statements.

In addition, public records can enhance a case. Traditional public records include real estate records, civil and criminal court files, probate court files, vital records, corporate registrations, intellectual property documentation, and professional licensing records.

Publicly available information

One source of information that is sometimes overlooked by counsel is publicly available information. The data includes everything else that is readily available to the public, if one knows where to look and how to get there.

Publicly available information was long restricted to databases maintained by companies such as Dun & Bradstreet or Hoover’s. Their usefulness was limited, however. Today there are many more databases available, in a much more accessible format, and with new information being added continuously.

Beyond these databases, the Internet in general holds a wealth of information for the financial investigator or expert witness. Many professionals are still wary of what can be found on the internet, thinking of the information as unreliable or suspect. That is not necessarily the case, however, as long as the investigator can verify the source of the information, cross-check the information with other sources, and use the data appropriately in light of its reliability.

Finding and using information

Search engines are the portal to all the information on the World Wide Web. Proficiency with search engines is the key to finding useful information. In fraud investigations and litigation, commonly useful sources of information are newspaper articles and other media reports. Also found on the internet are public company filings, corporate press releases, and outlines from presentations at seminars and conferences. Research reports and investigative projects by students and independent bloggers might also provide information you never expected to find.

Arguably, the “holy grail” of online information may be social media. Sites like Facebook and Twitter encourage users to document every detail of their lives for the world to see. These sites have some privacy controls in place, but the truth is that information on the internet is never guaranteed to be private.

Social media sites can provide information about a person’s whereabouts, friends and family, business relationships, calendar, and ongoing projects. Such information can be used to support or refute claims being made in litigation.

Imagine standing in front of a jury with a witness who is giving testimony damaging to your case. How powerful would it be to bring forth information from a social media site that shows the witness has lied? Even if we don’t know if the witness was lying then or lying now, we could still show that the witness has made contradictory statements and therefore is not a credible source of information.

As with any information uncovered in an investigation, careful consideration should be given to the source of information and its reliability. Many times obscure information found on the Internet will play only a supporting role in the litigation. Nonetheless, this information can speak to litigation theories and may even help identify new avenues to pursue in the investigation or litigation.

Tracy Coenen CPA, CFF is president of Sequence Inc, a forensic accounting firm with offices in Milwaukee and Chicago. She can be reached at 414-727-2361 or

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