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Warning: Facebook Photos Can Cost You Dearly

A financial warning for social networkers and all those who associate with them: there is a growing number of court cases where tagged photos on Facebook and other websites are being used as evidence in cases of alleged insurance fraud and even those concerning child custody.

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Here’s why you should be concerned: whether or not you have a Facebook account, there is nothing you can do if someone takes a photograph of you and uploads it on the Internet.

A distant acquaintance can take a picture of you at a work or social event, upload the photograph on Facebook, “tag” you on that picture by adding your name to the caption or linking it to your Facebook profile page if you have one. You can “untag” yourself but – once you agreed to be photographed – it is near-impossible to force someone to delete the picture.

A case in Quebec, Canada, due to be heard early next year, concerns a woman on medical leave from her technician job at IBM due to depression. Her insurer, Manulife Financial Corp., stopped her disability payments after Facebook photos surfaced of her allegedly posing on a beach.

Manulife spokesman Tom Nunn says the company assesses an individual’s claim fairly and thoroughly: “The assessment of a claim is complex and requires multiple pieces of information to fairly determine an individual’s eligibility. We carefully assess and pay all valid claims, plus we would not deny or terminate a valid claim solely based on information published on websites such as Facebook.”

The lesson? The insurance industry is watching you.

Mike Loguercio, vice-president of sales at Los Angeles-based FSC Insurance Solutions, says social media plays a “tremendous” part in evaluating claims. “If your medical insurance says you’re a non-smoker and you show up on Facebook with a drink in your hand and a Cuban cigar, that’s a problem.”

But this isn’t confined to just the insurance industry. Omer Tene, affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, this week wrote about a child custody case at the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The judge in the case awarded custody to the father after he introduced a Facebook photo showing the mother drinking alcohol.

Tene believes the case has big privacy implications. “A mother lost custody of her daughter based on evidence featuring, among other things, Facebook photos showing her drinking. This was against her psychologist’s advice, given that she was treated by medication for bipolar disorder, which could trigger adverse effects when combined with alcohol.”

But he tells Pay Dirt that photo-tagging is just the beginning: “Photo tagging is quite a primitive technology which will soon be overcome by face recognition software. This will greatly increase the stakes since, absent some consent mechanism, people will be able to identify and locate you anytime simply by pointing their iPhone at you. This is just around the corner – not science fiction.”

Internet security consultant Carole Theriault says there are unforeseen legal and financial consequences. “The law may be far behind where social networking sites are taking us,” she says. “There is also a moral argument: maybe you shouldn’t tag people without their permission?”

Our advice: when someone takes your picture, simply say: “Don’t put it online and don’t tag me on that.” Alternatively, quietly and modestly step out of the frame altogether.

As Lori Johnson, a California-based licensed investigator, puts it: “Whether it’s Twitter or Facebook, it’s an avenue that most wise investigators would exploit,” she says. “We go over, shake the tree and see what kind of monkey falls out.”

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    • Srew this. I lost custody of my child bc I snorted coke on FB. Wtf?

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  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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