By Michael Osakwe, NextAdvisor.com
The Internet is a great resource for conducting research and gathering information on almost anything. Today, with the emergence of data tracking devices and social media, this now includes information about people. While some industries have been using social media to get to know their customers, insurance companies are just starting to take notice and expand their use of social media beyond simply adding new followers or getting new likes.
Historically the insurance industry has operated knowing little about its customers; however, now with new technologies and the Internet, it no longer has to. By viewing customers' social media profiles, insurance companies are able to dig a little deeper into their habits. Having accurate information about customers will allow companies to adjust premiums to better reflect each individual customer's lifestyle and potentially save both parties money. While some consumers may see the benefits in the form of lower premiums, others may be a little uneasy to know that their insurance company is checking up on their social media accounts.
Usage of social media has not been standardized within the insurance industry yet, thus it is something that's highly variable between companies. That said, it seems that social media is a boon to underwriters and claims adjusters who create individual policies and evaluate claims. In the past, the only information they had was either self-disclosed or generalized, which made identifying fraudulent claims far more difficult. In fact, the incentive to use social media in this manner began in part to combat insurance fraud. As such, insurance companies are more likely to snoop around on your profiles if they suspect something may be off. If information regarding a reported incident can be found online, the insurance company can properly use that information to deduce causation and the extent of the damages. Until recently, this was mostly the extent of social media usage by insurance companies, but some insurance companies are now seeking to use data on a much larger scale in ways that more directly affect premiums.
Because of differences among companies, there's no absolute certainty as to how your social media information is being used. As early as 2012, some companies have admitted to data mining social media for purposes outside of claim investigations. That said, the number of companies who data mine, and the exact manner in which the data is used is ambiguous as nothing currently requires this information to be disclosed.
Beyond simply looking at social media, some companies are starting "opt-in" programs that reward customers with lower premiums for sharing relevant personal data, as reported by The New York Times. For example, an auto insurer would request GPS data to see how far its customer drives, while a health insurer would request Fitbit or other fitness app data with the goal of adjusting premiums in real time based on daily activity. As of now these opt-in programs have no penalties, meaning your rates won't surge if companies evaluate you poorly; you'll simply be rewarded for good behaviors in the form of reduced premiums. For example, someone whose Fitbit data indicates that they workout multiple times a week would be given slight premium reductions, whereas someone who doesn't would experience no change in their premium.
While opting to share your data might not have any apparent downsides, it presumably comes at the cost of your privacy. Companies have yet to disclose how the data is used, where it is stored and who "owns" the data. If data isn't properly encrypted, this might be an additional means for hackers and identity thieves to get your information.
Since social media acts as a window into your life, it is an extremely appealing way for companies, employers and even law enforcement to learn more about you. As such, online etiquette should not be thought as distinct from real world etiquette. This was true in the initial days of social media, and it is especially true today. Here are some ways you can protect your information from the potentially preying eyes of an insurance company:
1. Don't overshare. Similar to how you can protect your information on social media in general, try to limit the amount of personal information you share on social media. This is especially true if you're filing an insurance claim, as you'll want to make sure not to post anything in relation to the incident. Although it's tempting to tweet about your frustration about a rear end collision or post pictures or even a vague status about how you feel, it's not clear if or how exactly this information might be used. While you think you're just sharing a photo with your Facebook friends or Twitter followers, in actuality this post could be shared with your insurance company.
It's possible that now or in the future certain types of lifestyle information reflected in interests, posts or pictures may be used to affect premiums. Similar to how earlier social media mistakes involved employers misjudging employees, it's likely the same dynamic could exist with insurance companies. Keep in mind that pictures and interests listed on your social media accounts are oftentimes the closest thing to a full impression that a company will get of you.
2. Be upfront with your insurance company. There are reported cases in which undisclosed information found during an adjuster's investigation on social media (pictures, friends and posts) was seen as deliberately withholding information and treated as fraud. For example in 2011, four women involved in an accident denied knowing one another but were identified as friends via their Facebook friends list. While this incident was most likely a deliberate attempt at fraud, it still highlights the point that all information should be shared with your insurance company. If your social media profiles identify certain individuals as your spouse or kids, make sure those are the names of your listed spouse and kids on any insurance policies.
3. Turn off geolocation. Be aware of features like geolocation, which specifically disclose your geographic location unless prompted otherwise. Geolocation is used on almost all social media sites -- Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more -- and can be used to determine your exact location at the time of an incident or to get a sense of places you may frequent. While it's fun to let your friends know you are a regular at the local coffee shop, it may not be something you want your insurance company knowing. Luckily, geolocation can easily be turned off by visiting the settings section of the social media site or clicking on the location icon before making a post.
4. Check your privacy settings. Even with the highest privacy settings on social media, you're still susceptible to some degree of data mining, as different tools collect information in different ways -- some of which can access your profile content through friends or friends of friends. Still, make sure to check your privacy settings often, especially after a major site change. As you look through your settings, verify that everything is set so that only your friends or followers can see your posts and photos.
5. Know what you're tagged in. With the ability to tag friends, unfortunately only changing your privacy settings isn't enough. That's why you also want to make sure to monitor not only your own posts, but posts from friend and even friends of friends. If you're uncomfortable with the photo or post you're tagged in, remove it, as it's possible it could be used against you in the future.
Understanding how your information is used by major companies is one of the first steps to learning how to protect your privacy. Find out more ways to protect your privacy by visiting our identity theft protection blog.
This blog post originally appeared on NextAdvisor.com.