Insurers relying on social media sites for customer intelligence may need to look elsewhere, according to new research released by the Pew Research Center. Approximately two-thirds (63%) of American adults say they currently maintain a profile on a social networking site, notes Pew, which may be a rich landscape for insurers who gather and analyze social data to cross-sell, up-sell and investigate claims. But as social network site users become more savvy, it may also present challenges.

As part of the Pew Internet & Life Project, the research organization released results of a recent survey revealing that nearly six out of every 10 (58%) adults who use social media say their main profile is set to be private so that only friends can see it; another 19% set their profiles to partially private so that friends of friends or networks can view them; 20% say their main profile is completely public.

The number of SNS users who prune and manage their accounts has increased, according to the survey results: 63% of them have deleted people from their "friends" lists, up from 56% in 2009; 44% have deleted comments made by others on their profile; and 37% have removed their names from photos that were tagged to identify them.

For insurers’ special investigative units assigned to investigate insurance fraud that have, in the past,  come to rely on the publicly available activities of their claimants, the lockdown of social networking information creates a new game of cat and mouse, forcing SIUs to use other means to check the validity of personal injury or workers' comp claims.

According to the Klein Law Group, P.C., a law firm focused on employee benefits, social media evidence is playing a larger role in the realm of workers' compensation. In the firm’s workers' comp blog, it describes an Arkansas man who was denied an extension of benefits because of pictures of him "drinking and partying" that were found on Facebook and MySpace:

“The 27-year-old man suffered a hernia in 2009 when a refrigerator fell on him at the warehouse showroom where he works. He has since had three surgeries, and his application for additional benefits claimed that he is still in "excruciating pain" and needs further medical treatment.

“But his application was denied by an administrative law judge, the Arkansas Compensation Commission and eventually an appeals court. When appealing the decision, his lawyer tried to have the photos banned in court. His attorney claimed, "That had nothing to do with whether or not he had a hernia. It's irrelevant, immaterial and prejudicial. It should be about whether [my client] needed additional treatment.

“But the photos were admitted; and the appeals court ultimately agreed with previous rulings that his request for extended benefits should be denied.”

Insurers seeking demographic information in order to better target engagement campaigns may seek a younger male audience ahead of female, as some 67% of women who maintain a profile say they have deleted people from their network, compared with 58% of men. Likewise, young adults are more active unfrienders when compared with older users.

For all the technology-savvy SNS users out there, however, there are still a large number who don’t believe going public with their information will matter one way or the other. Interestingly, half of the SNS users in Pew’s study reported that they have some difficulty in managing privacy controls, but just 2% say it is “very difficult” to use the controls. Those with the most education report the most trouble, according to the report.

According to Pew’s report, some researchers believe that social network users are uniquely unconcerned about privacy, primarily based on regular use of social media without any major negative experiences.

“Other threads of the privacy-is-dead argument point to the relative ease with which people’s digital footprints and physical whereabouts can now be tracked and the great lengths to which someone must go to protect their anonymity online — or offline,” notes the report.

Other users may be more open with what they share because they don’t adequately understand enough about how their data is stored and used, notes Pew.

“Yet, social science researchers have long noted a major disconnect in attitudes and practices around information privacy online. When asked, people say that privacy is important to them; when observed, people’s actions seem to suggest otherwise,” notes the report.

— Pat Speer is the editor-in-chief of Insurance Networking News, a SourceMedia publication.

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