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9 June 2014

Facebook and Twitter used to track hidden wealth in divorce cases

Judges are granting permission for lawyers to trawl through people’s Facebook and Twitter accounts looking for evidence of hidden wealth during divorce proceedings, reports The Telegraph.

Social media sites, which contain a mass of personal data, are increasingly being used to collect evidence to try and recover assets from lying ex-spouses, a top solicitor revealed.

Lawyers can apply for court orders for disclosure of private information from people’s Facebook and Twitter profiles without the defendant being informed, fraud and asset recovery specialist Steven Philippsohn explained.

This can offer important insights into whether a person has lied to the court about their wealth and provide clues as to where they might be hiding it.

English law usually gives such court orders precedence over normal privacy laws when fraud is suspected such as in the case of a divorcing party attempting to hide their wealth.

Mr Philippsohn, of PCB Litigation, said: “The mass of personal information online has made it easier for people to get caught out by their partners or husbands and wives doing things they shouldn’t and it has made our job much easier too.

“It is not so much word of mouth anymore, people write to each other and about each other more than ever before in texts, emails, on social media, and we as lawyers can look for evidence among this.

“There might be an argument or disagreement said between two people which you will never be able to prove but if it is there in black and white on the internet that will make it easier in regard to any court application.

“Cases where we are retaining and retrieving assets have improved substantially.”
The disclosure orders can apply to any company or organisations holding information that may be relevant to a fraud investigation.

“Past experience suggests that the introduction of any new form of social media is invariably followed by disclosure and search orders to obtain material evidence from that source,” Mr Philippsohn added.

His law firm has used Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media sites to try and locate defendants and potential assets not just by searching out information on the fraudster but also on their family members.

“The situation used to be that where money was in a bank account six months ago and you wanted to know where it had gone you would ask the bank to tell you where it has been transferred and then you could go there and see if the money is there and if so freeze it or move on to the next place,” he said.

“People’s social media information can now be used to detect the assets or anything in relation to the assets and where they have gone that might be relevant.”

Twitter states it will only give out private information about Twitter users to law enforcement agencies where a court order or subpoena is provided.

It guidelines read: “Non-public information about Twitter users will not be released to law enforcement except in response to appropriate legal process such as a subpoena, court order, or other valid legal process – or in response to a valid emergency request, as described below.”

It adds: “Requests for the contents of communications (e.g., Tweets, Direct Messages, photos) require a valid search warrant from an agency with proper jurisdiction over Twitter.”
Facebook did not respond to requests for information about its position on the issue of disclosure orders.

In March, Samantha Close, a married woman claiming benefits as a single mother was caught after her Facebook page revealed she was married.

Canoe fraudster John Darwin was caught when a member of a public spotted a Google Images photo of him in Panama with his wife.

A 2011 personal injury claims made by nine people following a car crash were proven to be fraudulent after AXA researched the individuals on Facebook and discovered links between the parties involved in the accident.

In divorce cases there are concerns that people attempting to hide their wealth from their ex-husband or wife using internet currency like Bitcoins, which are hard to link to individuals.

This is likely to lead to a growing number of lawyers including digital currencies in financial disclosure orders if they can provide evidence it is being used.

Ayesha Vardag, a divorce lawyer who runs London-based firm Vardags, said: “They can be used to run a parallel economy. “People will go to immense lengths as a spousal claim is more damaging than tax because it is half your wealth.”