A little while ago, I was reminded about an article that I read in the Wall Street Journal in November, 2009 about how a woman lost her Disability benefits when her Long Term Disability Insurance carrier accessed her Facebook postings. Based on photographs of her on a beach during a vacation and celebrating her birthday in a nightclub, the carrier had discontinued her disability benefits. (You can read more about this individual case here.)
News reports of this case cited the LTD insurance carrier, who claimed that while they use Facebook and other social media cites as “checks” of their claimants, they do not rely exclusively on them. Yeah, right!
Even before I read that article I recognized that the persona someone tries to convey in Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and even professional networking sites such as LinkedIn and Plaxo, are not necessarily reflective of what is really going on in that person’s life.
Just today, while reviewing my notes on one of my clients, I remembered that when we first met she had indicated that she was very computer savvy and that she had accounts on a variety of social networking sites. Out of curiosity, I went to two of those sites and discovered that she had never changed her status on the professional site, which indicated that she was still working as a consultant—information that I know for a fact is no longer true. On the social networking site I saw photos of my client smiling and read public posts informing her online friends that she is doing “amazing,” and “great,” and publicly announcing her activities of the day and what’s on her mind.
While I know for a fact from a lengthy discussion with my client’s psychiatrist that my client is not doing amazingly well and that her online ramblings are actually reflective of her mental illness, I also know that if a Long Term Disability carrier’s investigator or a Social Security claims analyst were to Google my client, they might draw the mistaken conclusion that my client is not disabled and should thus have her claim for Disability benefits denied.
While there is nothing that I can do to prevent my clients from using the popular social networking sites, since the popularity of these sites has grown I have encouraged every one of my clients that at the minimum they should check their privacy settings to make sure that the public does not have access to their private information. While this certainly will not prevent someone with malicious intent from accessing information reserved for online friends, it will certainly make it more difficult to access that information. With regards to the professional networking sites, all I can recommend is that people find a way to suspend their account or provide only the bare minimum information. I understand that today’s computer savvy professionals, be they lawyers, health professionals, businesspeople, teachers, social workers or construction workers, all want to maintain online professional networks of colleagues and friends. However, I am deeply concerned that the appearance of being actively involved in a work-like environment can be misconstrued and result in the denial or suspension of disability benefits.
I know that I am very careful with what information I allow my kids to let loose in the cloud of the internet. At this point, I encourage my clients to think the same way about their own information. The key is maintaining close control of private information. When you are either trying to get Disability benefits or are in pay status, there is always someone looking over your shoulder at the pictures you post and the things that you do. All I can say is don’t make it easy for them.