SMI came on the scene in 2011. It evolved because its founders saw a need to take the vast array of social media information available and make that information easier and less time-consuming to digest and use to make decisions.
I’ve been following the company for quite some time, and ran into some of its employees again at the 2015 ACFE Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, where I got a chance to speak extensively with SMI’s sales director, Mike Bosick, and its cofounder, Chris Randall.
I’ve been interested in giving the company a shot for quite some time, and did a quick demo with Mike Bosick several months ago; then after speaking with Mike and Chris at length, they agreed to do a sample report on me so that I could get an idea about what they provide.
I have a pretty extensive profile in social media and on the Web, and I was interested in seeing what they would find, what they wouldn’t find, how it would be presented, and if I could incorporate their social media investigation into my work.
(I was not paid to write this review. Other than receiving a free “Deep Report” on myself, I have not received any other compensation to write this.)
What They Do?
SMI has a team of researchers whose job it is—every day—to identify and capture information on individuals posted on various social media sites. While that doesn’t sound all that complex, for those of you who haven’t conducted social media research before, it’s not as simple as it seems. Given the constantly changing online landscape, conducting social media investigations is time-consuming and sometimes complex.
To do this, they do not just use some computer algorithm that spits out a bunch of pages as a report. It’s also pretty clear that they are not just doing a Google search. They have actual humans who scour the deepest parts of the Web, determine the relevance of what they find, and capture the information. This is very similar to what I do on a daily basis.
Why This Is Important
Social media investigations have become more and more critical as more and more people join the social media revolution.
Because people will provide information on social media platforms that you just can’t get anywhere else. Like their daily activities. Whereabouts. Employment history. Connections to other people. As an investigator or law firm, this information is priceless.
Because of the immense growth of social media and the constant changes in the landscape, finding someone’s social media presence is not as simple as you may think.
Simply finding a social media profile of a person can be a task in and of itself. Just the other day, I spent hours trying to figure out if I had the correct Facebook profile of a guy named Paul Blair, and I still don’t know if it’s the right guy.
Also, most social media accounts don’t require your real name, so there is a distinct possibility that an account may be created under a pseudonym or a generic screen name (insider’s tip: most people use the same screen name across multiple platforms).
In my case, I don’t have a terribly common name and I have a fairly prominent media profile out there that often includes my picture, so it’s not all that difficult to match up my picture with the right social media profile. But if my name were more common, or I didn’t have any photos on the Web, it would make this task much more difficult.
You would also see that I was in Baltimore, Maryland, for the ACFE conference last month; I love food and sports; and that I talk endlessly about fraud and investigations (I know … it’s quite a snooze).
What You Need to Give SMI
In my case, all I gave them was my business card, which had my name, email address, company name, and phone number.
That was it.
In general, however, it’s best to provide SMI with as much information as you can up-front, so they don’t have to spend too much time trying to figure out if they are researching the right guy, like whether the Chris Brown they want is the musician, politician, baseball player, veterinarian, hockey player, or … you get the idea.
The more you can provide them with up-front, the better.
What You Get
In my case, I received a 103-page report that captured the various links and screen shots of my social media profiles as well as instances in which I have been mentioned across the Web. They do not capture every instance, but they do a good job of prioritizing, by putting the more significant social media sites and mentions toward the top of the report, with the less relevant information filtered at the bottom.
They found a number of social media accounts that I use (including some that I had forgotten that I had signed up for), as well as various articles that I have written or have been quoted in. They also found some phone numbers and addresses that have been associated with me, most of which were accurate (but some that were not).
They also found a website by an investigative firm in California that has literally copied every single blog post that I have written and pasted it into their site (thanks SMI!).
What I Was Surprised About
The biggest surprise was that they found my Facebook profile. For most people, that would not be a surprise, but I’ve effectively locked down my privacy settings on Facebook so that you can’t search for me by name or email, and I turned off the feature that allows Google to capture and index my name.
It’s not impossible to find my profile if you know what you are doing, but it does take some trial and error. This alone showed me that they know what they are doing.
I wouldn’t say I am surprised, since they told me they use “real” humans to do these investigations, but they didn’t provide any false positives. In other words, they did not provide results of other people named Brian Willingham, like the real estate broker or the former cop.
Computers are not all that great at telling the difference between two people with the same name, so it’s clear that this report is not just coming from some computer algorithm that is spitting out a report.
What They Didn’t Find
They didn’t find my Instagram account, which I am pretty active on. I have my privacy settings locked down in such a way that none of my photos or followers are publicly available and my profile picture is not a picture of me, so I wasn’t all that surprised that they couldn’t find that.
Frankly, if I don’t specifically point out which Instagram account is mine, there is pretty much no way you would ever know it was me, as there is no way to specifically link it to me.
And they didn’t find a personal blog that I have maintained for the past few years, but I registered the website under a proxy, so it’s not attached to my name, and the website is not indexed by Google, so again, no real surprise there.
They also didn’t capture my profile on About.me. Frankly, there is nothing significant about this website, but it does show a picture of me other than my normal corporate headshot that is plastered everywhere. As an investigator, I would be interested to know where the picture was taken (any guesses?).
For $150, I think SMI’s Deep Report is a great value. SMI estimates that it would take another investigator at least two to three hours of time and up to five or six hours to find the information that they provided. In some cases, I think it would take much longer.
Social media investigations take a certain level of expertise and patience, and SMI has clearly demonstrated an expertise in this area.
For those who are not all that familiar with conducting social media investigations, I think using them is a no-brainer.
On the other hand, if you are familiar with conducting social media investigations, at the very least, the Deep Report provides a good backstop that could even find some things that you couldn’t.