Businesses hire private investigators to trawl social media
Published: Monday, November 28, 2011, 5:40 AM Updated: Monday, November 28, 2011, 6:45 AM
By Alison Grant, The Plain Dealer
Business Wire file more than 82 percent of companies use social media to find out information about their competitors, according to a Forrester Research survey last year of more than 150 companies.
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The telephoto lens is still one of a private investigator's most valuable tools, but a Facebook account is becoming just as important. Especially in the business world. Increasingly, corporations are hiring private investigators to trawl social-media sites for intelligence about competitors and to watch for insider leaks, product complaints and evidence of employee misconduct.
Investigators still use the old-fashioned ways -- snapping secret photos, slapping global positioning devices onto cars, tunneling through criminal files. But today's corporate sleuths spend more time mining the mass of information people put online about themselves.
"We use social media primarily to research people," said Avon Lake native Kristin Wenske, an investigative analyst in New York City with Corporate Resolutions Inc., an intelligence service. Wenske's clients are mostly private-equity firms and hedge funds, and before they plow hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars into a company, they want to make sure its management team is clean.
Private investigator Tom Pavlish of Cleveland also has been assigned to check into chief executives of companies targeted for acquisition. In one case, the CEO had a favorable public image, but research unearthed sexual harassment accusations from two sources. Pavlish's client decided not to keep the executive when the deal closed because of the potential exposure and liability if the manager repeated his conduct.
"Remarkably, I've developed negative information even from LinkedIn references," Pavlish said.
Spying on the other guys
More than 82 percent of companies use social media to find out information about their competitors, according to a Forrester Research survey last year of more than 150 companies.
Paul Baeppler, a Cleveland police sergeant who founded Integrity Investigations in Westlake, said Tweets, Facebook updates and Google searches back up classic detective work, allowing investigators "to read between the lines and see what's not actually there and using that as a lead into something more concrete."
At Corporate Resolutions, Wenske uses social media to look for illegal activity, undisclosed business interests and resume puffing. For one client who needed help collecting money from a businessman who pleaded poverty, Corporate Resolutions' cyber-search showed the businessman was hiding assets. The businessman's son posted comments on Myspace.com about hanging out at his dad's place in the Caribbean, with photos of the property. "Based on these comments we extended our asset search to the Caribbean," Wenske said.
The hazards of an accidental online disclosure also tripped up Hewlett-Packard Co. this year when a vice president mentioned the computer maker's new web-storage initiative on his LinkedIn profile. Business rivals got a look at previously secret details of the company's cloud-computing services.
Kroll Inc., an international firm, has a reputation as Wall Street's private eye because of the agency's corporate espionage. Social media is a tool that only gets better as it gets more robust, said Peter Turecek, Kroll's senior managing director of business intelligence and investigations. Kroll builds profiles of executives in prospective deals, "where we hope the person is good and angelic," Turecek said. Fraud investigations look at the modus operandi of suspects. Have they done this before? How did they do it? Who in their network may be in on it?
When one client asked Kroll to investigate an intellectual-property breach, the company used photos posted on Twitter -- shot from the rooftop of a New York City building -- to determine the address of the suspect's apartment.
In another investigation, Kroll used LinkedIn and Facebook to establish connections between a vendor and an employee who may have embezzled company money.
"Not too long ago it was very difficult to try to ascertain who someone's network or associates were without doing a lot of data mining and even surveillance, which is fairly labor intensive and therefore costly," Turecek said. Mario Zelaya of Majesetic Media in Toronto said he and his partners were shocked to learn how easily they were able to spy on a competitor. By blending information from Google, Facebook, Twitter and geolocation sites FourSquare and Gowalla, Majestic Media identified which clients the competitor's salespeople spoke with and what potential deals were occurring. It would have been quite possible to phone the clients and confirm the hunches -- and possibly disrupt ongoing negotiations if contracts weren't signed, Zelaya said. That's why he considers such tactics unethical. He said his experiment was meant only as a cautionary lesson about posting sensitive information online.
'You want to avoid surprises'
Jim Silvania, owner of Silvania Investigative Services in Columbus, has used social media to check the financial strength of people who wanted to invest in a client's business; to see who was responsible for giving business secrets to a competitor; and to investigate a violent employee who turned out to be a member of the American Nazi Party, posing in an Internet photo with a rifle in his arms and a swastika. "They provided extra security when they did the termination," Silvania said.
The Cleveland law office of Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur has hired investigators to find out more about a company or its executives when there were reasons to be "abundantly prudent," partner Michael Ellis said. "You try to gather as much information about the other side, good and bad, as you can. You want to avoid surprises," he said.
As the effect of social media becomes more intense, companies have begun monitoring what's being said about them online -- and trying to manage their Internet footprint.
In a warren of cubicles at SP Data's U.S. headquarters in Tower City, many of the office's 225 employees track what is being said about SP Data's customers on social media, blogs and opinion sites. Online chatter about a company or its products that is positive might prompt an SP Data employee to re-Tweet the comment or respond to the writer with a thank you. When the sentiment is negative, the poster might get a response through the same online site, or by phone or email. "Only 5 percent of posts ever made about a company are responded to," said Daniel Bemis, president of SP Data. "It should be commonplace."
Reputation.com Inc., based in Redwood City, Calif., helps businesses promote themselves on the web. Chief Executive Michael Fertick advises businesses to start by understanding how they're perceived online. Does 50 Likes on Facebook mean anything? Does the fact that people are mentioning you once a week on Twitter mean anything? How does that compare with other businesses in your field? Reputation.com says there's a way to put the Internet genie back in the bottle: Once a company has a handle on its image, it can start to manage it. The firm has made "millions of observations" about the secret rules of Google, Fertick said, to figure out how to shuffle postings about a company to put it in the best light. As for web monitoring for competitive business intelligence, Fertik figures it's in its infancy.
A single Fortune 500 business might be mentioned dozens or hundreds of times a day online -- a mountain of traffic to analyze. So Reputation.com is designing software that understands human language enough to sift for positive and negative sentiment. The computer analytics are daunting. "We've worked on it for 4½ years," Fertik said.
But when it comes to human investigators sniffing the Internet for specific companies or employees, the hunt for fertile tidbits is in full swing. "Every day, in a multitude of ways, in social networks," Silvania said, "it's out there."