Tag Archive for 'online'

Loose Talk Online has Real-Life Consequences

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: sometimes, words have legal consequences. You can commit serious legal wrongs (fraud, defamation, solicitation, conspiracy, etc.) using words alone. Furthermore, speaking without thinking can hurt your legal position in other ways, inadvertently defeating an essential element of a claim or defense in a civil case.

I should also note, again, that these legal consequences apply whether you say something in the real world, or on the Internet. And since anything you say on the Internet generally has the potential to reach far more people than something said in the physical world, you should generally be more guarded about what you say online. But, for whatever reason, most people seem to do the opposite – typing out the first thing that pops into their heads, for the world to see.

Today brings yet another case (also seen here) of somebody saying something online, and negatively affecting their legal situation. Though this one is a bit more amusing than most. This case involved a divorcee who was awarded $850 per month in spousal support, partly because she claimed she was unable to work, due to a back injury.

However, the court found out that she was very fond of belly dancing, which, from my limited experience, looks like it would be pretty physically taxing – not exactly something for people who can’t work (even as a legal secretary, which is what our friend did before all this) due to a back injury.

So, how did the court find out that she had recently taken up belly dancing? Why, her blog, of course!

She made posts about how she “swirled around,” “danced herself silly,” and the like. And, of course, either her ex-husband, his lawyer, or the judge found these posts (she must not have made much of an effort to remain anonymous online), and asked her to reconcile this with her claim that she suffered so much back pain that she couldn’t work as a legal secretary.

Rather than fessing up, she claimed that her activities were prescribed by her doctor, as a form of physical therapy. Her doctor was called in, and he testified that he had no idea she was belly dancing on the side. Good work!

In addition to denying her petition for an order of spousal support, the judge ordered her to pay her husband over $5,000 in attorney’s fees. Ouch. This is one of the more boneheaded examples of loose online talk getting people into some sort of legal trouble (or defeating a legal claim that they might have had).

However, it’s gotten to the point that people are so reliable in revealing personal information online, that many older “high-tech” investigative tactics are becoming obsolete.

For example, it’s still pretty common for insurance companies to hire private investigators to keep an eye on plaintiffs in personal injury lawsuits against the insurance company’s policyholders. Just a few years ago, the most high-tech investigative technique they had at their disposal was surreptitious videotaping. They’d set up a hidden camera outside the plaintiff’s house, and look at what type of physical activities they’re engaged in. If they see the person working out, moving heavy objects, climbing on a ladder, playing sports in the front yard, etc., they can be pretty sure that his or her injuries are not as severe as they’re claiming.

Nowadays, however, they sometimes don’t even have to bother: the people they’re investigating will voluntarily post incriminating statements, photos, and videos on Facebook.

What is it about the Internet that it creates this massive blind spot in our discretion in sharing our personal information? I really don’t know. Perhaps it’s the illusion of anonymity. Perhaps it’s the fact that everyone else is cavalier with their personal information online.

In any case, we’ve known for years that this type of carelessness can get us into trouble. Yet, it seems that most people have to learn the hard way just how much damage it can do in real life.

One would think that, the more time we spend online, the more we’d start treating it as we treat real life – you know, thinking about what we say, and what information we share. But it seems that just the opposite has happened: we’ve completely lost any expectation of privacy. Or, if we expect to remain private online, we do next to nothing to protect that privacy, and are for some reason surprised when people find out things about us that we might not want them to know.

I have no idea how to change this. And I think it’s a pretty serious concern. With the Internet, our whole attitude towards privacy is changing, and the long-term effects this could have on society are impossible to predict.

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Should Match.com be Liable if a Date Goes Horribly Wrong?

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Online dating has officially gone mainstream. Some big online dating services trumpet numbers suggesting that 1 in 5 long term relationships now begin online. Those numbers may or may not be exaggerated, but there’s no doubt that any stigma that was once associated with finding love online is rapidly disappearing.

However, that doesn’t mean that the risks inherent in meeting strangers have changed. And, unfortunately, a story has just come out about a date that went about as wrong as a date can go. A woman met a man on Match.com, and went on a date with him. He seemed charming enough, and she agreed to a second date. After that date ended, the woman went home. Her date, however, followed her home, and sexually assaulted her. Later, the woman looked online and found that her assailant had previously been convicted of several counts of sexual battery.

Needless to say, this is a terrible story. But, should Match.com be liable to the woman? Apparently, she and her attorney intend to find out. She has filed a lawsuit against Match.com, arguing that they could have done more to ensure that a convicted sex offender, and others like him, could not register for the service, such as checking the names of members against public sex-offender registries. Obviously, this would not be a guarantee against these types of incidents, but it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t prevent some of them, and may well have prevented this one.

Still, is that something that online dating sites should be required to do? After all, they simply help people meet, and they don’t guarantee anybody’s safety. A bar, for example, bears little, if any responsibility for what happens to two people who meet there, and go home together.

Also, Match.com does have a long list of safety guidelines for their users, and most of them are perfectly sensible. However, at least one of the red flags they mention – “an inordinate amount of spelling and/or grammar errors” – seem slightly questionable. And in any case, it appears that this woman followed the most important piece of advice: taking her own car to and from the date, and not going home with, or bringing home, her date after knowing him for such a short period of time.

However, despite all this, her assailant followed her home, where he was able to commit his horrible crime. Any victim-blaming is obviously unwarranted. But, just because the victim bears no fault for what happened to her, it doesn’t automatically follow that the dating service does.

I have a feeling that the plaintiff will not prevail in this lawsuit. And, as tragic as the situation is, I think that this is the correct result. Sometimes, when a bad thing happens, nobody is to blame. Of course, in this case, the man who actually committed the crime is to blame, but I don’t think any third party can really be blamed for facilitating his crime, let alone directly causing it.

With that said, however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t more steps that dating services could take in order to reduce the risk of things like this happening. It wouldn’t replace caution and common sense on the part of the users of the service, of course, but a few simple steps could make these events a little less likely to occur, at virtually no inconvenience to the people using the services.

Currently, it seems that most of these sites only require a name, email address, and credit card to join. It would probably not be too much effort for dating services to have a policy prohibiting convicted sex offenders from joining, and asking for a bit more information, such as an address, to further verify the identity of applicants. Then, the name of every applicant could be checked against public sex offender registries.

Obviously, there would probably be quite a few false positives, considering that a lot of people (especially in a large city) are going to have the same name. There would have to be a system to protect the applicant’s privacy (you don’t want your business to end up falsely accusing potential customers of being sex offenders, after all), and allow applicants to prove that they are not the registered sex offender with whom they share a name.

I’m not saying that this should be a legal requirement for dating services, nor that failing to have such a system should be grounds for civil liability. I am saying, however, that it seems to be a good idea with few drawbacks.

In the end, this case should drive home the point that, most of the time, you can’t really blame anyone for criminal activity except the criminal actor himself. And hopefully he is severely punished for his actions.

I should, again reiterate that although I do not really blame Match.com for this incident, I also don’t blame the victim.

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Smiley Faces on Facebook: Evidence of Faked Injuries?

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A few decades ago, there was a big, game-changing trend in personal injury and insurance litigation: law firms and insurance companies would hire private investigators to secretly film plaintiffs – usually outside their homes. The idea was to catch them engaged in strenuous physical activity, as evidence that the extent and severity of their injuries have been exaggerated. That tactic is still used to this day.

But as we conduct more of our lives online (who needs to go outside, anyway? Vitamin D is overrated), it becomes increasingly useful, in terms of information gathering, to observe our online activities.

Some tort defense attorneys are now subpoenaing (also seen here) social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace (I would make a pithy remark about how nobody uses MySpace anymore, but it would just be cruel at this point) for private communications of users who are suing their clients in personal injury matters.

Apparently, the “tone” of personal communications, including the use of smiley faces, might be relevant in proving that a plaintiff is faking their injuries. That seems like a bit of a stretch. People use smiley faces (or “emoticons”) all the time in online communications, and they can mean anything. Much like profanity, they’re little more than punctuation, at this point.

Of course, I doubt that they’re relying solely on the plaintiffs’ use of emoticons; they would have to look at the substance (a term I use loosely) of these communications, with the use of smiley faces being one small part.

For example, the story linked above mentions that one plaintiff mentioned a planned vacation, suggesting that her injuries were not as bad as she claimed, if they existed at all.

There’s no denying that this evidence is extremely useful for attorneys who defend against personal injury claims. After all, when a person sues for personal injuries and emotional distress, they’re voluntarily putting their physical and mental health directly at issue. Furthermore, defendants in these cases have the right to defend themselves in court. That right includes access to evidence that might exculpate them, even if that evidence is held by third parties (in this case, social networking sites). This is done through the subpoena process.

However, some of these networking sites are fighting the subpoenas (which they certainly have a right to do), on the grounds that complying with all of them would be too costly and onerous, and that the messages could be just as easily obtained from the plaintiffs through the discovery process.

While they aren’t likely to be raised (or at least not argued particularly vigorously) by the owners of social networking sites, there are also serious issues concerning privacy. Courts have ruled that plaintiffs who voluntarily (remember, you don’t HAVE to sue anyone) put their physical condition in issue must make their private communications on social networking sites available to defense counsel. The court reasoned that plaintiffs surrender any legitimate expectation of privacy with respect to such information when they put their physical condition at issue.

While nobody is disputing the right of defense counsel to gather the necessary evidence to mount an effective defense, if we’re going to go down this road, we need to ensure that there are safeguards in place to protect privacy. When you sue for a personal injury, you may lose your expectation of privacy with respect to your physical condition, but that doesn’t mean you lose your expectation of privacy in every other sphere of your life.

When people send messages on social networking sites, they probably aren’t talking about their physical condition, at least not directly. While a person may reveal information about their physical condition in a personal message (“I’m going to go to the store, and I think I’ll take my unicycle for a spin afterwards” would definitely hurt a personal injury plaintiff’s case), that information is usually not the main topic of discussion, and is contained in a message that may also reveal information that’s personal, embarrassing, and/or irrelevant to the case at hand.

When this is the case, some type of safeguards must be put in place to ensure that plaintiffs don’t have embarrassing, personal information (that’s irrelevant to the case) aired to the public. That’s difficult, since a jury will have to see the evidence.

Perhaps a neutral third party could review the communications before they’re aired to the jury, and create a summary of the incriminating evidence, with as little context as possible. Or perhaps it should be viewed by the judge, who could then summarize it for the jury.

Of course, private, irrelevant information can be gleaned from more “traditional” methods of sleuthing, so maybe we simply need to accept that nothing we do will ever be 100% private. And maybe, just maybe, people should stop exaggerating or outright manufacturing injuries when they file personal injury lawsuits, because, if you do, the chances that you’ll be found out get better every day.

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Keeping Down The Creepy: How To Protect Your Privacy Online

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It’s good to finally see that in this age of limited connectivity, overly secure privacy protection, and a general lack of accessibility to information both personal and otherwise, there’s finally a service that allows strangers to search for and/or stalk other people.

Oh, I’m sorry, what I meant to say in that last sentence is exactly the opposite of what I typed.  Damn you, haxors!!!11

In case you haven’t heard about the website already, Spokeo is a new information gathering web service that allows users to search for the personal information of strangers, friends, co-workers, etc.  From this description, it doesn’t sound like anything new, as Facebook, Twitter, and even Google allows users to do essentially the same thing.  However, if this was the case, than this blog would be pretty pointless.  “Nothing to report here, just move along.”  But thankfully for me it isn’t, as it would mean that this blogger gig of mine would soon be coming to an end.

What Spokeo does to really crank up its creep factor and set itself apart from other information gathering web services is the amount of searchable personal data it provides to users.  Everything from where a person lives, to how many people are in their family, household income, relationship status, age, even when they had their first kiss, and more, is available on Spokeo.  The website accomplishes this feat by searching through other websites, such as those previously mentioned ones, as well as other public databases and uses the data it finds to compile a person’s profile.  It really is quite creepy.  I searched my own name and was able to find my personal information on the site, all of which was reported within incredibly accurate detail.  Thankfully, though if one wants to see the more intimate details of another person’s life, they’ll have to fork up a subscription fee to Spokeo.

Obviously, this raises some privacy concerns, especially in this era of ours where people voluntarily and stupidly post the most private details of their life on the internet.  The blogosphere has picked up on Spokeo, too, with the consensuses being as disparate and chaotic as ever since it’s the internet and that’s just how it goes.  The funny thing is that Spokeo itself isn’t really a new site and has actually been around for years.  Ironically, it’s been us, the bloggers and internet users that have really raised the profile of the once unknown website.

Now to be fair, Spokeo doesn’t publish secured information such as social security numbers and bank accounts, as stated by Spokeo a few weeks back.  Oddly to me, this statement in and of itself scared me because it made me think that they had all that information and were just sitting on it until we pissed them off.  I’m joking, of course… hmmm… yeah, joking.

Seriously though, all is not lost if you want to get off of Spokeo’s radar.  The site offers people a chance to have themselves removed from search results if they email Spokeo requesting such action.  Generally, other information aggregating websites offer the same opportunity.  The problem is that the automated nature of these sites, as well as inability to truly erase anything from the internet makes completely opting out of any of these services nearly impossible.  So how does one go about protecting their privacy in this modern age of ours?

Well, you can sue under any applicable legal statute.  For example, if you request to have your information removed from a website like Spokeo and the website refuses or removes it only temporarily, you may be able to sue under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, as was done by some organizations against Spokeo.  However, suing in this case can be rather expensive, timely, and ultimately not worth it if your goal is to remain anonymous from the general public.

The better way to protect your privacy is to limit what you put online.  Here are some tips to consider:

  • Delete your Facebook account or severely limit and/or remove private information and pictures from your profile.
  • Don’t post information you want to keep private on any website unless it’s absolutely necessary
  • Ask your friends and family to respect your privacy by not posting your personal information online, such as via Facebook tagging, Twitter, etc.
  • Request to have your information removed from information gathering websites

I can’t stress how important it is to not post anything you want to keep private on the internet.  That may sound very much like common sense and indeed it is because successfully protecting one’s privacy is accomplished via common sense.

What tips or stories do you have about internet privacy?  As always, please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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Bad Job Market? Sue Your College!

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graduate lawsuitThis may be old news to some, but I recently stumbled across this little gem. Yes, you read that correctly: a recent graduate of a college in New York has sued her alma mater because she can’t find a job…after a grueling 3 month job hunt.

The economy is in the tank, but it has been particularly stressful for recent college and professional school graduates looking for their first “real” job. Combine this with the stress of being unceremoniously thrust into the real world (a stressful period in one’s life in the best of times), and you can understand the anxiety and frustration that many people are feeling, especially when they have massive student loan debt hanging over their heads.

But it should go without saying that this is not the way to go about improving your lot in life. First of all, most people assume (correctly) that school career services are supposed to be tools for students to use in their own job hunt – they don’t exist to hand recent graduates a job on a silver platter.

According to the story, this student graduated with a GPA of 2.7, and her crowning academic achievement is a “solid attendance record”. Oh, but it gets better. According to the recent grad, “They’re supposed to say, ‘I got this student, her attendance is good, her GPA is all right — can you interview this person?’” On what planet? Once again, career services offices exist to help you in your job hunt, not to find jobs for you.

In a recent post I talked about the importance of managing one’s online presence, and about the fact that filing a lawsuit, even if it has merit (which this one definitely does not), is not always the best way to accomplish one’s ultimate objectives. In my earlier post, I noted how the mere fact that the apartment manager filed a lawsuit over a single Tweet did far more damage to its reputation that the Tweet ever could have.

Here, it is clear that the unfortunate alumna, by filing this lawsuit (and agreeing to be interviewed by CNN), has done irreparable damage to her future employment prospects, regardless of the state of the job market. A quick Google search for her name returns nothing but news articles and discussions related to this story on the first page.

It is now common practice for employers to run internet searches on prospective employees. In this case, do you think an employer would like what he or she is bound to find?

It’s probably been said before, by people more eloquent than me, but it bears repeating: Think before you sue.

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