By Kendra Budd, Editor
We have all heard it before: be careful of what you put on the internet. Well, most people nowadays don’t heed that warning—and thankfully, that just makes things easier for private investigators. These days, people are masters at incriminating themselves through their social media accounts. As PIs, we just have to know the proper techniques for uncovering that information.
In March of 2022, Working PI was able to attend our first conference: The 38th Annual INTELLENET Conference, where Cynthia Hetherington shared her expertise on how to use social media in investigations. Hetherington is a leader in her field and President of the Hetherington Group, a consulting, publishing, and training firm that specializes in due diligence, corporate intelligence, and cyber investigations.
Social media is still a rather new concept. “All of these sites weren’t here when we started. You had to sit outside a house for hours on end or even hide behind a trash can,” Hetherington remarks. Finding a person’s online profile isn’t necessarily any easier. However, getting a hold of these accounts is one of the most important steps you can take in an investigation. They can offer valuable information on someone’s present and past behaviors, social circles, and political affiliations or opinions.
Luckily, Hetherington has a leg up in the industry. Before she was an investigator, Hetherington was a librarian—researching is in her blood. “I was Google,” she says, “but I was also giving away my information for free.” So naturally, she became a private investigator who was able to apply her librarian abilities to all types of investigations.
The Role of Social Media
First and foremost, we need to properly define the role social media plays in private investigations. Hetherington urges investigators to remember that it’s secondary evidence at best. “Social media is always hearsay until other evidence is presented. However, it is still going to be your biggest ally in finding leads,” reports Hetherington.
For example, people like to overshare on social media. Maybe the person you are investigating has posted a confession about performing illegal activity. “You would be shocked to find out how many people have tweeted a confession that they drove home drunk,” Hetherington recounts. Social media allows you to easily discern your client’s activities based on what groups they’re a part of, the accounts they like or follow, and even events they are attending. Most importantly, you’ll see the connections they have made. “Their friends list will be full of coworkers who may offer helpful information, and the classic oversharing family members. People love to post the most helpful details for private investigators, whether they realize it not—even location, workplace, and relationship statuses,” says Hetherington.
Social media is the ultimate rabbit hole of potential information.
So how do we navigate the rabbit hole of never-ending material? Well, Hetherington suggests two search databases.
• Ferretly is a great database if you need to search for specific, and often incriminating, evidence on a person’s social media profile. It runs social media profiles for free, but you do need to know the individual’s handles for this first. This database’s main purpose is to search profiles for specific criteria including hate speech and foul language. However, you can also use it to search specific words or phrases,” Hetherington reports. So, if you want to find out if they have posted about a person or an event, this will show you every time they did so.
• CARA Analysis can comb through various profiles to find the same as Ferretly, but it asks for more information on your end. “CARA will ask for some of the following: height and weight, contact information, business partners, opinions, academic history, sexual preference, illnesses and much more. Your job is to fill out as much as this information as you can,” Hetherington informs. This database is great at examining all the potential matches you’ll come across, especially if your target has a common first and last name. Therefore, you’ll need your client to give you as many details as possible to find your specific target.
These are just two out of thousands of databases, but Hetherington swears by them. Nevertheless, she does warn investigators to be smart when using them, “I never trust a database to give me everything. It’s a great tool to strengthen my search. These tools are a great first step in the investigation, but you have to make sure you’re also searching for other evidence to support your findings,” Hetherington advises.
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Searching a Timeline
Once you find your target’s social media profiles, you’ll want to search their timelines for any relevant evidence and information. A timeline can usually be found on their profile—it will contain all of their public posts, photos, friends list, events attended or created by them, etc. This is especially true for Facebook users.
If you’re going to search for a profile on Facebook, make sure you have created your own account as well, otherwise you won’t be able to access profiles. “Once you find an account you can use the ‘search profile’ feature, usually found in the top right-hand corner of the site. This will allow you to find any post, photo and any other visible activity they’ve made via keywords”, Hetherington says. She also tells us you’ll be able to shrink your searches by entering any valid dates in this feature.
However, this feature will not always be available. “If it’s not, take a look at the URL for the profile page. If it has a question mark in it that means their profile-id number is hidden. This is when their profile picture will come in handy. Download the picture and run a reverse image search on it. This will pull up the same photo and show the URL with the id-number instead of the question mark. Once you enter this new URL, you should be able to access the search profile feature,” informs Hetherington.
Next, you’re going to want to look at their friends list. “These lists are often a good indicator of who your target surrounds themselves with. They can be coworkers, family, and potential people to interview,” Hetherington attests. Their friends’ profiles may provide insight on how they know your target, and if they could potentially lead you to valuable information.
Finally, an important aspect you’ll want to search is your target’s “likes.” This can be particularly useful if you’re investigating a business. “A person or business’s likes will reveal their affiliates, opinions, and events they might regularly participate in. This is all considered valuable information when building your case. You’d be shocked to see some of the incriminating pages people like on Facebook,” Hetherington reports.
Many of these same tips can be used on other websites as well, including LinkedIn.
“[LinkedIn] is your best friend. It is more formal and gives you a lot of information. LinkedIn will give you insight into where the person works, their full name, contact information and even their preferred pronouns (sometimes). More importantly it will show you who is endorsing and recommending this person,” says Hetherington.
Hetherington suggests taking a look at their reviews too, both good and bad. “Finding the right connections between people can often uncover otherwise tough information to find. My job isn’t to find out whether something is legal or not, it’s to find the connections. And that is what all these platforms have in common; they are all about connecting,” remarks Hetherington.
Other platforms to search include, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Reddit, and Parler. All of these websites have similar search features to Facebook and LinkedIn, but Hetherington suggests starting with those before moving on to the others. Searching a person’s online profile is only one of many ways to find information through the power of social media.
Another successful technique is going back to the classic search engine: Google.
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Google For Deep Searches
Google carries a deep plethora of searchable content, but wading through the never-ending information can be difficult and stressful. Hetherington lives by one motto when it comes to Google, “Google can’t solve crimes. But Google in your hands can.”
A good technique to use for Google is to turn on your alert function. If your target has a website you can set up Google to alert you when there is a change on it. Furthermore, the same goes for if they update their social media profiles, or if their name comes up on another site or database. This feature will allow the evidence to come to you as it presents itself.
“Another good rule of thumb when making your searches on Google, is to employ the asterisk (*). An asterisk will broaden your search. When you use it with distinctive word stems, Google will retrieve a variation of terms with less typing, essentially saving you multiple searches, and instead bringing up the best possible results in one click,” advises Hetherington.
An additional useful tool is the plus sign (+), this will help broaden your search by eliminating your search history. “When we search anything on Google, it will use an algorithm based on our past search history to find the most relevant results for us. Adding the plus sign at the end of a word will give us all possible search results that are the most relevant to the words themselves,” Hetherington says.
These same tactics can usually be used on multiple different search engines, but Google tends to be the most reliable and typically protects your privacy better than other sites. As a private investigator, your privacy should be held to the highest regard.
Hetherington was able to remind investigators that when investigating, your privacy is of the utmost importance. These days, data stealing is a huge problem, and as an investigator you’re more than likely holding on to a lot of people’s personal information—including your own.
What Hetherington recommends is simple: make fake profiles, never post personal information and to continually clean your computers.
Making a fake profile is vital for you to have as a private investigator. Hetherington says, “Let’s say you want to connect with a friend of someone you’re investigating. If you use your personal profile, odds are they won’t add you when they see ‘PI’ listed as your job. However, if you make a fake profile, filled with similar interests, employment, etc. then you’ll be able to make that connection easier.” This includes using a profile picture without your face. “I have two methods I go by,” Hetherington informs, “Cute cuddly animals and coffee cups.” Creating a separate profile from your personal one, will also allow you to keep your private life separate from your work.
More importantly, it will keep you and those close to you safe. According to Hetherington, “I do like having fake profiles, but not so I can get into private accounts, but so they can’t see me looking at them.” That’s right, if people know how to work a social media site correctly, then they can see who’s looking at them. “By not using a fake account, you could be setting off a huge red flag to your target. They’ll start to wonder, ‘Hey, why is this private investigator looking at me twice a day?’ Essentially forcing them to private all of their profiles.”
Despite taking this precaution, some people will get tipped off that you’re investigating them, so it’s imperative as a PI never to post personal information. Hetherington warns, “If my name is out there, you can find anything about me. Just like with law enforcement, they will often have social media profiles with pictures of their kids and loved ones. Then the news will post their full name—telling the world about a drug bust they were a part of. Can we not do that?” Obviously, you can still have a profile to connect with people and potential clients, but in the private investigation business, it is best to keep your loved ones safe by never posting about them. Even if you keep your account private, people have ways of getting access to that information.
Finally, Hetherington urges everyone to clean out their computers regularly. “You might not even realize the plethora of information you’re sitting on until it’s been stolen right from underneath you. This is luckily an easy step. Sometimes you can download software to do the cleanup for you, but you don’t have to. You can easily do it yourself by removing cookies, certain downloads, and unplugging and re-plugging your router once a week. It also doesn’t hurt to install firewalls into your computers and software,” suggests Hetherington. Remember this will not only protect your personal information, but from a lawsuit as well if your target’s information gets leaked from your computer. Safety as a PI should always be your number one priority.
Social media will never remain stagnant, so while these are all great resources for your investigation, it’s important to remember that trends constantly change. Hetherington gives an example: social media has entered the dawn of “stories,” which are posts that have 24-hour time limits on them before being deleted. Because of this, we’ll soon need to find a way to screen-record those posts that don’t alert the user via notification. And who knows what the next big social media platform will be! Hetherington believes once it comes out, we might have to change tactics depending on its drastic differences from other sites. This is why learning the ins and outs of social media and trends is important, so you’re best prepared for your investigations.
If you’re not keeping up, then you may be falling behind. It can be stressful, but remember it is a learning process that takes practice. Once you master it, social media will become your best friend when finding information about an individual. Because naturally, people love to talk about themselves—sometimes a little too much!
(The Hetherington Group offers a wide breadth of investigative services + provides live and online training for PIs. Visit https://www.hetheringtongroup.com/training/.)
About the Author
Kendra Budd is the Editor of Working PI magazine and the Marketing Coordinator for OREP, a leading provider of E&O insurance—trusted by over 12,000 professionals nationwide. She graduated with a BA in Theatre and English from Western Washington University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University.
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