February 8, 2024

Investigating Fraud Using Digital Documentation: Follow the Digital "Breadcrumbs"

By Richard Harer- VP Specialized Investigations

Many of you may have watched, or followed, the murder trial of attorney Alex Murdaugh earlier this year.  If not, you missed one of the best examples of investigating a case by following the digital “breadcrumbs.”

In a nutshell, Murdaugh was convicted of murdering his wife and adult son, primarily as a result of the digital evidence that was presented.  The most damning evidence was a Snapshat video on his son’s cell phone that was located by the investigators, which placed Murdaugh at the scene of the murders moments earlier, even though he stated that he was somewhere else.  In addition, the digital evidence introduced during the trial included cell phone records, cell site location data, and GPS information which tied all the digital evidence together to present a compelling account of Murdaugh’s movements, distance traveled, his whereabouts at key times, his time to move from one place to another, number of steps he took immediately after the murders, and more.

Electronic data has dramatically increased the number of records available, with over 64 zettabytes (1 trillion gigabytes) of data worldwide – not including physical data (books, paper documents, etc.).  90% of the world’s data was created in the past two years and is estimated to double in size every two years.  We all live in a digital world and need to become “digital detectives” by investigating fraud through the collection and analysis of digital documentation. 

This is a very broad topic, so I will limit it to a few of the digital documentation sources available to all investigators, beginning with surveillance video cameras.  It’s safe to say that video cameras are almost everywhere, making the commission of crimes more difficult for the average criminal.  Los Angeles is in the top 10 of the most surveilled cities in the world.  In January 2022, over 9 million homes nationwide had some sort of Wi-Fi enabled cameras, with over 8 million Americans buying doorbell cameras in 2020 alone. 

Most investigators should know the value of video cameras when investigating suspicious insurance claims and other crimes, including, but not limited to, slip/trip and falls, arson, auto accidents, robberies, burglaries, to name only a few.  What are some of the best methods for identifying and obtaining video documentation when investigating claims or other crimes?  Here are a few things to consider:

Think before, during, and after the claim or crime, when viewing the video footage.  On many occasions, it’s not the video documentation of the actual claim or crime that can resolve a case.  For example, our firm was retained to investigate a claim in which the claimant alleged that he slipped and fell in front of an office building at a specific time and date.  He filed a claim for injuries allegedly sustained.  The owner reviewed the video footage that should have filmed the accident.  There was no video of anyone slipping and falling on the date, time, and location that the claimant alleged it occurred.  At that point, the owner was ready to file a criminal complaint with the local law enforcement agency.  However, the insurer assigned the case to our firm for further investigation.  The investigator met with the owner and asked to view the video around the time of the alleged accident, but nothing was observed.  The investigator then reviewed the video, going back several hours earlier on the same date.  In short, video footage was found of the claimant slipping and falling AN HOUR EARLIER on the same date.  The video did not produce any evidence that the fall was staged, so the slip and fall accident was validated.

Think of where other cameras may have been in the vicinity that could produce video documentation of the claim or crime.  One of my favorite reality TV shows is “See No Evil” on the ID (Investigation Discovery) channel.  In short, it’s a show where homicides are solved by following the video evidence that is found in the general vicinity of the crime, and then by following the video trail.  On one episode, the detectives could not find any video footage in the vicinity, aside from a very grainy and distant photo of the suspect’s vehicle. One of the detectives got the brilliant idea of checking for buses that may have taken the same route as the suspect(s) once they left the scene and drove onto the main outlet street.  They were able to locate a bus that took that route around the same time as the murder and were able to locate video footage of the same vehicle description, including license plate, that was observed leaving the scene of the crime.  They then followed the video evidence from one place to another, until they were able to solve the murder.

Think about dashcams, body cams, doorbell cameras, drones, cell phones, and others video recording devices.  It is predicted that dashcam sales will increase by over 13% annually over the next five years.  Many commercial vehicles are now equipped with dashcams.  More automobiles are now being equipped with side and/or rear-view cameras.  Over 45 % of law enforcement agencies are now equipped with body cams, with that number increasing to 80% by larger police departments.  It is estimated that there may be as many as 30 million drones in the sky.  How many other possible video documentation sources are out there that we may not have even considered yet (e.g., self-service checkout stations, online sources, home digital data recording devices, etc.)?   

Our firm is frequently receiving requests for video and other digital documentation on cases.  So, how difficult is it to obtain digital documentation?  It often depends on the type of case involved, the private or public entity in possession of the data, and/or whether you work as an investigator in the private or public sector.  The general public is more likely to cooperate with law enforcement investigators in releasing digital data.  In some instances, a private sector investigator may be able to enlist the assistance of a law enforcement investigator to obtain the digital evidence, if you can present your case as a potential fraud and/or other criminal offense.  

A private sector investigator can also make a similar plea when requesting video from an individual, business owner, or others.  When potentially relevant video documentation is identified, it is important to be prepared to download the video documentation by having (larger storage) USB drives in your possession.  It is also important to have a recording device (cell phone, video camera, etc.) ready when asking to view the video footage.  In a case several years ago, one of our investigators located valuable video footage taken by a neighbor’s home security camera, recording the insured having his vehicle dropped off by a flatbed truck in front of his uncle’s residence, where it was later reported stolen and subsequently recovered burned nearby.  The homeowner did not know how to download the video, so the investigator recorded the key video footage on his cell phone.  When he went back to retrieve the video several days later, the homeowner was uncooperative.  Thank goodness, the investigator recorded the video footage, which was later used to confront the insured, who confessed to committing insurance fraud by having his car stolen and burned, as it was inoperable due to a transmission problem.

Private sector investigators can also obtain dashcam, bodycam, and other digital documentation from some public (law enforcement) agencies.  For example, Mobile Video Recording Systems (MVARS) and Body Worn Camera (BWC) footage is a public record in certain circumstances under the California Public Record Act (CPRA).  CHP and other law enforcement agencies may release the digital documentation if you follow their protocols and/or request it through a CPRA request. 

The release of MVARS and BWC footage will vary by state and by respective law enforcement agencies, which will require some research on the investigators’ part.

Obtaining vehicle digital documentation, including EDR, Infotainment, and dashcam/vehicle video footage is becoming more common, as more models offer in-car DVRs and other digital data.  In many states, it will most likely require the registered owner’s consent to obtain the digital documentation.  According to a forensics expert, it may be important to obtain the data from the original source, as it matters how the data is collected.  Getting a “transcoded” version (converting from one format to another) can potentially change important image data and metadata.   

It is important to preserve the digital documentation as soon as possible.  Fortunately, digital documentation can be preserved much longer than analog data (i.e., old surveillance camera systems), so don’t give up if you haven’t gotten to the digital documentation right away.  For example, the Ring doorbell video footage default storage is 60 days, but it can be stored up to 180 days, if the owner elects to do so (extra fee).  Some companies and/or individuals can save digital documentation for an extended period of time, if they have a valid reason to do so.

It may also be important to present/serve a “preservation” letter to anyone who refuses to provide the digital documentation to you.  The preservation letter puts the owner of the data on notice that they could be subject to civil penalties for spoilation of evidence if they delete the data.  The preservation letter may “encourage” them to preserve the data longer to avoid potential consequences for deleting it.  I recommend creating a “preservation” letter template that you can complete while in the field, if you encounter someone who will not release, or let you review, the digital documentation. 

As mentioned above, this is a very broad and rapidly expanding topic that is impossible to cover in one article.  There are a myriad of other topics including, but not limited to, the use of photographic documentation, image forensics, audio documentation, cell phone data, home digital device data, digital “deepfake” and “shallowfake” scams, and AI, as potential tools for the fraudsters and the fraud fighters.  Perhaps, this may turn into an article series – written with the help of AI, of course.   

AZ: 1728551 AR: CMPY.0003344 CA: PI29059 CT: A-2955 DE: 19-213-A FL: A1000232 GA: PDC002655 IL: 117.001919/115.002772 IN: PI22100025 IA: PI00291 KS: A-5959 KY: 271759 LA: 9440-103018-LA MD: 23PLU-PD30846 MA: LP1489A MI: 3701208223 MN: 2374 NH: M-2023-0780 NJ: 9620 NM: TPI3411 NY: 11000211562 NC: 348993 OH: 20192100301747 OK: 0189815-IA000135 PA: MCPD 233 SC: 1781 TN: 2353 TX: A10563001 UT: P111951 VA: 11-19576 WA: 603279962 WV: 71994
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