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FM Edition:

When William Owen came seventh out of 2,000 runners in a 10km race in St Helens, in the UK, he was so elated he splashed pictures of his achievement across his Facebook page.

It was a bad move by a less-than-honest or smart Owen.

The pictures alerted insurer Aviva, which had paid a sizeable sum to Owen for a severe whiplash injury he claimed to have sustained in a car accident.

Aviva kept tracking the social media-obsessed Owen. It was rewarded for its tenacity. Next up on Owen’s Facebook page was a photo of himself atop Mount Snowdon, in Wales. He followed it up with a tweet telling the world he was soon to run a half marathon.

Aviva swooped. It was an expensive move for Owen — a court ordered him to pay £9,213 in costs to the insurer. He also received more mainstream media coverage than he could ever have dreamt of, or dreaded.

While monitoring social media is accepted by the UK and many other countries as a legitimate investigative tool, the position of insurers in SA, where no precedent exists, is uncertain.

"Insurers would be stupid not to use social media," says Dawie Loots, CEO of insurer MUA. "But we do not know if it will stand up in court."

Maria Philippides, a Norton Rose Fulbright director, says: "SA law is 10 years behind countries such as the UK, the US, Australia and Canada."

Those opposed to using social media to detect fraudulent claims argue it is an infringement of privacy, says Philippides. She has no doubt it is not.

"Once you put information on social media it is in the public domain." She likens it to a person who has been paid out by an insurer for a severe injury but is soon spotted in public.

"There is nothing to stop the insurer using the information," she says.

If not to nail fraudsters in court, SA insurers are using social media as a fraud-detection tool. Old Mutual concedes this in a measured response. Its Protection Solutions GM, Craig Peters, says: "Our claims management tools include medical evidence [and] information from various databases. When these steps point to discrepancies or flag areas of dispute, we may [obtain] information in the public domain, for example [from] social media platforms."

But, he says, "social media serve as an investigative tool only and are not used in isolation when making a decision ".

Christo Bester, Sanlam’s head of policy administration, is cagier. "Sanlam does not use social media to track fraudulent activities in the processing of life insurance claims," he says. But, he continues, "we have in the past tracked down individuals via social media who provided false information to Sanlam."

Local fraudsters can be relieved they are not in the US. There courts have ruled that even if a person’s Facebook profile is private, an insurer’s legal advisers can demand full access to everything from messages to chat logs.