Snooping on Facebook: Not just for stalkers any more

I have one of the world’s best points of brand differentiation — I’m the only business blogger you know old enough to have a daughter-blogger! Lauren is entering her senior year as a journalism major and has been having some intriguing social media experiences. When she told me the following story I was frankly a little weirded-out.   Let’s see what you think about using Facebook as an investigation tool after reading my daughter’s guest post …

Since my last post on {grow}, I’m a year older, I’ve aced all my classes, started my own blog and developed a fondness for coconut ice cream.  Hope you have all been doing well.

But my hiatus is beside the point. Today I am here to tell you a story of intrigue and revelation … a story that might forever change the way you think about Facebook.

This summer I’m spending my time as a development intern for a private, non-profit foundation. One day I was asked to research a professional sports player — who was associated with my foundation — as a potential target for donations. Through public information, a little resourcefulness and my best pal Facebook, you may be amazed at what I found …

The hunt begins

To protect the innocent, we’ll call the professional sports player Dijon Shmoogley.  Fundraising is a sophisticated process and my large nonprofit foundation subscribes to many lists, archives and search engines to determine who might have a “potential to give” (i.e.: who’s got property, boats, salary, stock,  etc.) After exhausting my search through these traditional databases, I reached a dead-end. I found no indication of Dijon’s financial status.

Turning to the Internet, I learned that:

  • His brother’s name was Reginald, and he also had played sports in college.
  • His mother and father, Sarah and Frank Shmoogley live in Minneapolis.
  • Dijon was newly-married to a girl name Jenny Smith from Minneapolis, MN
  • His Facebook page is private.

Although I could not pin-down Dijon’s financial status, once I found that he was recently married I immediately began to look for his wife’s assets (isn’t that a vow … “I promise to share my boat, stock portfolio, antique china…”?) as an indication of his economic status.

Facebook takes over


Turning to my best pal …


  1. I searched Facebook for “Jenny Smith”… Ha!  2,000 entries.
  2. I searched Facebook for Reginald, Dijon’s brother. Found him. His Facebook isn’t set to completely private so I can view his friends (Thinking that he would be friends with his sister-in-law). He isn’t friends with any “Jenny Smith” but he is friends with his mom, Sarah Shmoogley who, in her Facebook picture, is next to a blushing bride … I just found a picture of Jenny Smith!
  3. I returned to the search for “Jenny Smith” and quickly find a matching picture of my bride. I opened her profile and it confirmed that her hometown and current city is Minneapolis.

I then went to the online site for the Hennepin County Assessor’s Office (Minneapolis) to search for properties owned by Jenny Smith. (THIS IS COMPLETELY PUBLIC! Go see for yourself!)

There are about 20 Jenny Smiths in Hennepin County who own property, but 16 are registered with spouses who aren’t Dijon Shmoogley. I search the remaining four properties on Google maps and rule out at least three of them for various intuitive reasons. Finally I get down to one rational possibility. But it is a shared homeownership with another woman — Amelia Bedelia.

Hmmm… If the two women are close enough to buy a house together, wouldn’t they be Facebook friends too? I go back to Jenny Smith’s Facebook page and sure enough there’s Amelia Bedelia. I have now confirmed Dijon’s home and am on my way to discovering a significant portion of his net worth.

Game.  Set.  Match.

Even with a name as common as Smith and Facebook’s security settings, I was able to confirm Dijon’s home ownership, value of the home, and other valuable information about the assets of the couple. Social media status updates also can provide other important clues — discussions of vacations at the lake house, promotions, investments and purchases. With this information, I tailored an appropriate fundraising approach and suggested giving level for the Schmoogley Family.

Another fundraising friend of mine grabbed a list of over a thousand new potential donors because a competing charity posted the names of their 1,500 largest donors on a Facebook event page.

I admit this is all a little weird but it’s real and it’s time to wake up. Facebook is not just about social networking. It’s also about social investigating.

Are you feeling a little nervous about this?

Lauren Schaefer is the world’s greatest daughter and will be looking for a job in about six months. I can vouch for her.

All posts

  • Mark you are killing me. You are like hot button central. I am a HUGE proponent of privacy. And I crush the anti-privacy efforts of Pete Cashmore of Mashable or Facebook.

    I myself have tried to reduce my web foot print. Not because I have stuff to hide, but because its none of anyone’s business. Click on my Hootsuite account and click Insights. I was mortified.

    Luckily someone with my name won the World Series of Poker! I can go on about privacy. But to make this comment brief. After reading 1] Pete Cashmore’s ridiculous Privacy is dead article on CNN and reading the biggest study on Behavioral Targeting ever where 80% of the US was against, and 50% wanted jail time for managers of businesses that track us on the web without permission, I did some research.

    80%+ of all the foremost Social Media Advocates have their Facebook profiles completely locked down. As your daughter found doesn’t mean their friends don’t share stuff.

  • Jim LeBlanc

    I just have one word. Holy shit. Well, that’s two words. You get the point. Well done Lauren. I hope you get hired by Homeland Security.

  • My clients regularly do this kind of digging on sellers of home they’re interested in or buyers attempting to buy their homes. I’m always amazed at not just how much information they dig up, but how much the people being investigated make public on their FB pages. Things like “Really hope my home sells soon – have to move ASAP for my new job!” Whoops.

  • Mark

    @Howie — I think the interesting thing in this example is that the “target” had nearly a zero digital footprint. All this information came out about him through associations. It’s like getting hit by a drunk driver. No matter how careful you are, other people can seemingly take you out on the Internet, just like in real life.

    @Jim — I think Lauren has a number of career options and she will kick-ass wherever she goes. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

    @Suzy — Ouch. Yeah, that’s pretty common place! So nice to have you comment Suzy! Thanks!

  • @Lauren
    The fact you discovered this valuable info doesn’t surprise me; however, it’s great to have a case study and gain insight into how charities are working these days. It’s a long way from the traditional flyer that used to be mailed out.

    Did the agency plan to contact the guy via social media or in person ?

  • Great to meet you, Lauren! This is a fantastic post. I worked at a non-profit once upon a time and we would have loved this kind of intel. Unfortunately, Facebook didn’t exist outside of the college community when I worked in fundraising.

    I’m not at all surprised at what’s available online. My husband, an attorney, routinely turns to facebook to hunt down his clients or gather information about the divorce case he’s working on. It’s amazing what you can find – even if you are careful yourself.

    While we might all agree that privacy is important, I think Pete Cashmore is right – privacy is dead, or is at least dying on the vine. Society’s expectations are changing. I think people want more and more information online, but shy away from it when it involves their OWN in formation. Let’s be honest, wouldn’t we, as marketers, all LOVE this information that Lauren digged up? Yet, if we are the one being snooped on, we all freak out.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think this kind of research is becoming the rule, not the exception.

    Kudos, Lauren! And, best of luck with your job search!

  • It is amazing what’s out there. It’s a different world from the one I grew up in to say the least. I was just reading that the President of Google said that young people might have to change their names in order to run from their misspent online youth. Did Orwell even see this one coming?

  • Lauren

    @Jon I wouldn’t say that ALL charities are working that way these days. Just the ones that decide to employ creative young ladies! I attended a nonprofit workshop where we spoke about different research techniques and about half the room didn’t know how to sign on to Facebook. Many are still sending out those flyers. Slowly but surely though, they are all catching on.

    Since my project was specifically research based for an upcoming event, they will not be contacting him via social media. But we do have a social media presence and are trying to capture younger donors that way. Thanks!

    @Laura- Social investigating is becoming bigger! (Even though I just defined the term) Just since I wrote this post there has been news about a social investigating incident- Did you hear about the woman who found out her husband was married to another woman via Facebook? Lawyers are having a field day with that one…

    Based on my experience and what my research led me too- I have to agree privacy is dead. With the combination of public knowledge, social media outlets, and databases, there is no where to run. I just like to think of it as society making everyone extroverts. Thanks!

    @Brad At this point, I think we are beyond even changing our names. Because somewhere, someone could find the legal document in which you changed your name, or the surveillance video of you going into the building to change your name, or your Facebook status announcing your name change… there is no hiding.
    So really, you just should just make sure you have nothing to hide!

  • Mark

    Note: After much consideration, I have removed a comment immediately preceding this one (from another “Mark”) due to a threatening tone and inappropriate language. The arguments “Mark” made about privacy concerns are valid but, based on feedback from several people, decided that the tone was inappropriate for this forum. So, after nearly 5,000 comments on {grow}, I pulled the plug on my first comment. The responses to “Mark” below have remained intact as a vital part of the privacy dialogue.

    @Mark — Papa Bear here. The point of this post is to point out an issue with privacy that is becoming ubiquitous, systemic and institutionalized whether you actively participate in the social web or not. You’re naive to think your privacy is not being invaded every day.

    Moreover, the problem is getting much, much worse. What Lauren did manually is becoming part of increasingly-sophisticated algorithms that are tracking your every word, status update, purchase and inquiry on the Internet. And now, thanks to Foursquare and its ilk, your location and behaviors are being fed into the machine.

    The issue of privacy is not new but the invasions will be getting worse, driven by the red-hot competition of our capitalist society and a de-sensitized population willing to feed personal information into the machine to become the fake mayor of a donut shop.

    In fact, I don’t believe there is any solution at all to the growing problem until there is a privacy breach so egregious and shocking that the government intervenes and takes strong actions to regulate the Internet.

    I’m an optimistic person but I don’t see an alternative ending to this issue.

  • Taking emotion and personal accusations out of the equation ~ I think Mark (the one above Papa Bear)speaks to an underlying issue that seems to root many online ‘discussions’; and that is the powerful influence of Motivation and Intent.

    If one is not crystal clear on the true Intent of certain actions and behaviours, then it’s easy to get lost in a role or the acquisition of a goal and completely lose sight of a bigger picture.

    Honesty, Awareness, Responsibility ~ these three factors could bring about an alternative ending to this issue.

    Honesty about what we do and why we’re doing it would prevent us from pleading ignorance to harm we may inflict upon others while navigating to our desired goal.

    Awareness about the choices we are making to accomplish something we’ve deemed important and an honest acceptance of the realistic outcomes of each choice would keep us open to more creative approaches and methods that might render the path most often travelled obsolete.

    And accepting Responsibility for the choices we have honestly made with full awareness of outcomes and impact to others would see us speak to the reasons we chose to do what we did, why we felt them worthy and how it provides significance (or not) overall.

    My two teen daughters call me a ‘Creeper’. Piecing together information I see posted in my Facebook Newsfeed with conversations I hear while in their proximity and coupled with recall of previous conversations we’ve shared ~ I know much more about their lives than they think they’ve shared.

    Like Lauren, I access information that is available and public to those who desire to see it.

    My Intent is to ensure the ongoing creation and nurturing of socially responsible citizens capable of making responsible choices within the boundaries of Safety, Maturity-Appropriateness, and overall Respect for Others.

    I’m motivated by a desire to eventually work myself out of this job in the knowing that I’m no longer needed in this capacity.

    When challenged – I have no problem speaking to why I do what I do, how I do what I do and the significance of my actions to a mutually beneficial big picture. I’m operating on the platform of Honesty, Awareness and Responsibility.

    Whether we’re discussing Facebook snooping, Ghost Blogging, Online Noise vs True Person to Person Connection ~ getting clear about your true Intentions and the real Motivations that drive you will better position you to make choices you’re able to stand behind with Integrity if ever they’re challenged. It also opens the door to new and creative approaches that can make the world a better place as a result of an expanded view.

  • Lauren

    @Mark I knew that I would have a reaction to this. FIRST- Let’s clear this up. My nonprofit did NOT make me search the way I did. They are a wonderful organization and are no way in the wrong. Does that mean that they and other organizations don’t use Facebook? No. But they have never taken it to the level I did, because they didn’t know how. I was the creative creeper one here.

    And I did not stalk. I want to clarify too that Dijon is a professional athlete. He is in the spotlight. All information about him and his family was online and available to anyone that searched his name. His wife is well known as well and they have a history of previous giving- so they are important to the livelihood of my organization.

    When I started this research, I thought it was weird and very invasive. But that is how it is done today and there is no way around it. People don’t donate if they don’t know your organization is in need or even exists. If organizations don’t research, don’t look for people who might be able to give or who might be interested, they don’t last as organizations for long.

    And think of my research as a favor to you, because of research, there are less nonprofits bugging you at home at 6PM via phone asking for donations.

    Using the word “finagle” makes me cringe. These donors give. We don’t finagle anything. They give and feel good about giving and it is something that people do because they want to.

    Now the real purpose of this article, was to point out an issue with privacy. I don’t particularly like that I can find that all out about someone. I wish I couldn’t. Which is why I am writing about it.

    And don’t just think this is the nonprofit world. There is a reason that I decided to write this on a blog focused towards business issues — not to creep or pry, but to be able to leverage your business. You can be savvy about what and how you use Facebook to get your business to the right people — and you don’t even need to be creepy about it.

    Thanks for your input and thoughts on the matter.

  • Jennie Campbell

    I want to talk to her when she starts job hunting! What a resourceful intern!

  • Lauren, bravo. What a great job. Both in the research, the articulation and the rebuttal when challenged. Brains and class. Those attributes will take you far. Not, of course, that I expected anything less of Mark’s progeny. He sets the bar high, even if he is kind of dorky.

    Mark, I beat you. I have not one but TWO daughters, both of whom are older than Lauren, both of whom are bloggers. So don’t go calling yourself the “only business blogger” or any darn thing like that without first doing your homework. I win.

    Great post all the way around. I tend to agree with Cashmore. Privacy is dead. Figure it out. Do something else if you want to hide. Municipalities are using Google Earth these days to see who has pools and cross referencing that against who has paid “pool taxes” …. and this is only the beginning.

    Be who you say you are. Protect what you can in an intelligent way. Listen to people like @burgessct who knows a lot about protecting yourself online and writes on the subject often, and use your noggin. Oh, and don’t do (or say) anything you wouldn’t be proud to have associated with you and your brand.

    Okay. I think that about covers it.

    Great job, hat tip Lauren, double hat tip to Mark for producing such a beauty. When you need a job, sistah, you’ll have no trouble finding one.

  • Kat

    Hi Lauren,

    As a former national NPO fundraiser, I once got the blueprint floor plans to a Central Park West townhouse owned by a donor prospect. He’d had a plumbing remodel done on the home and his plumber had to file the floor plans with NYC, who made them public! This is a very wealthy man with a family and I found his home’s layout and all of the spec details online.

    It is truly frightening what is available with a little creative Internet sleuthing.

  • What I like MOST about this post is the NAMES. Thank you, daughter, for the comic relief on a very tense issue.

    Although I have a personal grudge at this point against Mark Zuckerberg, I can’t kick the habit, and I find it very useful to see the many “backdoors” that exist into my social sanctuary.

    I warn my FB friends all the time that they’re being watched.

  • What Lauren describes here is what my Recruiter and HR colleagues have been doing for years.

    I do a lot of job search and related sessions and always ask, plead might be a better word, attendees to Google themselves.

    Then I send them to do a search on

    This way they can know ahead of time what someone may find out about them.

  • I know from my time in the non-profit world, that use of all public access information is fair game. If the non-profit is not doing it inhouse, then mailing list aggregators have been, and they sell that info. The most intriguing thing about it is how accurate it is.

    Privacy is a choice, if you don’t want someone snooping in your business, stay off the sites. Harsh, yes.

    In my days as a researcher/broker in Commercial Real Estate, we would spend hours combing records to gain an edge for our clients, either buyer or seller. Information, makes for intelligent decisions.

    Is it all true? Of course not. But you go with what you have.

    My credo is, don’t put anything out there that you wouldn’t show your mother.

    Lauren that was great work!

  • Hey Paul,

    I have seen lots of mothers (those 35+) post stupid stuff on profiles.

    The high school and college kides have been warned about this a lot. All the time.

    It’s the “older” folks who have not been told about this and no, common sense does not always come with age.

    I have been saying “don’t put anything out there that you wouldn’t show your Grandma” and I hope we never have to worry about them.

  • Lauren

    @ Jennie Thank you for your kind remarks!

    @Shelly- On behalf of my father, I apologize- he obviously wasn’t checking YOUR Facebook before he stated his remarks!

    @Kat- Thank you for your experience. It is nice to have more proof that this is happening!

    @TheJIllianSays- THANK YOU! I was a little disappointed that I had yet to win an award for those names! Those took a lot of time…

    @ Paul DeBettignies- Wow. That sight is great/crazy. Upon searching myself I immediately deleted my Myspace page from middle school that showed up. The first thing I want future employers to see is me with braces and a Shania Twain T-shirt! Even those of us who know how deep searches can go even forget about certain things! Another great site to search is:

    And for both Pauls— I think common sense is lacking at all ages. While the “older” folk haven’t been told (and boy does my friend’s mom put up some embarrassing stuff!), the younger generation has been told but isn’t listening (and boy does my friend put up some embarrassing stuff!)

  • Though this was a great article none of this bothers me at all. One, I am a top notch skip tracer and can find out more about you than one would probably like, much in the same manner as Lauren did on said subject (I’ve located over 100K people with 100% accuracy). Second, I firmly believe in the saying “those who have nothing to hide hide nothing”. I haven’t done anything wrong pretty much ever (not saying I’m perfect by any means) so there isn’t anything for anyone to find out about me that would be the least bit bad. People may care, but I really don’t care if someone finds out who my siblings, relatives, friends, or business associates are. The truth is you can find out anything you want about a person if you know where to look and put a little brain power behind it.

  • Imagine the information a team with millions of dollars behind them could dig up…

    Great wake-up call, Mark and Lauren. Thank you.

  • Hi,
    A post caught my eye a little while ago.
    I’ll point to it here. I haven’t had time to really go through it myself, just FYI,

    “How To Steal Your Competitor’s Customers On Facebook”

    The reason I point this out is that I , as a small business, have noticed the wealth of inter-relationships which are open and public now.

    For a while we ran a ‘group” site on a NING network as our front-facing STORE — where we sold antiques to the public.
    One back-end worry we always had was the fact that our membership was a known public commodity.
    Since it allowed for direct private email messages (not passed through admin, or even possible to monitor), it always left the possibility open that our actual “customer” list was public and poachable at any time. Worse, they could be contacted directly by our competitors very easily.

    Among other reasons, that is actually how we came to decide to backtrack towards a more “unpublic” realm within a WordPress blog based site where control WAS a little more possible.

    As per the article I quote above, this “poaching” will become a more prevalent phenomena soon, and businesses should be aware of the dangers.

    There is very little in the way of protection for one’s business in the open social web, the same as for personal information.

    I wonder how long before even the charities poach each other’s contributor lists same way.
    Could it be that our tools will outstrip our ethics?

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  • Great article! It’s very fascinating to see that even if you want to hide and think you’re safe, a little effort could crack that defense.

    But on the other hand, it’s great if you want to be found 🙂

  • I’m a student at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, member of the 4th graduating class, and I can tell you that what Lauren does in her research is being taught to journalism students now. Our professors stress convergence, and we all learn the ins and outs of social media. The head of research at the NY Times gave my class a presentation on using Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and people search sites to find sources.

    Certain information has always been public, but now instead of going to a courthouse to search, you can go online. The debate we should be having is not “is it ethical to ‘stalk’ people online for information in order to solicit them for money, or confirm a story, or come babysit your kids?” but “HOW can we do this ethically?” It’s already happening, and as long as people put information out there, journalists will dig for it. That’s kind of our job.

    (Also, a great way to self-monitor is to actually become Facebook friends with your mother. You’ll learn very quickly!)

  • James Adams

    That truly is scary, if utilized by the wrong person this kind of investigating can get out of control! This reminds me of the recent Jessi Slaughter case, where cyber bullies were easily able to draw up the young girl’s personal data and harass her.
    All in all, it’s best to be prudent with your information, and let your friends and family know too.

    Good investigation technique though!

  • Mark

    @Jordache — I had to look up “skip tracer.” Sounds like you’re a Blade runner or something : ) Actually very interesting and your success rate is impressive! Thanks for contributing your view!

    @Danny — Thanks! Always an honor to have you stop by!

    @Vince — Thanks for the amazing comment! I also run a small business and it has got to the point where I am starting to pull back on some of my public offerings too. As many bloggers know, it is common to see your exact post cut and paste into somebody else’s blog — without attribution! I also think your comment about the tools out-stripping ethics is a a very wise insight. People are be de-sensitized to what is even common courtesy, let alone ethical standards!

  • Mark

    @Josip — What a great common-sense observation : ) Thanks!

    @Megan – Outstanding contribution to the discussion. That must have been a fascinating presentation! Thanks for taking the time to share with us.

    @James – Where corruption can occur, corruption will occur, unfortunately.

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  • Lauren – you are spot-on – Social Media Networks are for collaboration and investigation.
    Investigation for the service provider – your data is their commodity (the advertisments we see on the side of our facebook page for example.
    Investigation of the individual -your case in point – the individual in their daily interaction provide sufficient clues to allow you to determine the company they keep, their interests, and now with Location Based Services their location at any given time.
    Investigation from the competitive perspective – who, what & where are your competitors
    Investigative from the darker side – those who use the info to target offices/residences for theft; those who use the info to identify vulnerable individuals for exploitation; etc.

    Thanks for a great piece, as a parent – you’ve made your father very proud.
    All the very best,

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  • This is nothing knew, anything posted on the web is open for all to see. If if you mark things private it’s very easy to get to it. Just commenting on someones post opens you up to the world because it has your name, website and depending on your commenting software a lot more info.

    In the end, it’s not just a “Facebook” thing so people should really stop saying it’s just Facebook, it’s the web as a whole. There’s even more info out there if you know where to look/stumble

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  • I know from first hand experience that you will find that these gaps are exploited on a regular basis by political campaigns. I have fond quite a bit of information on various people, for various reasons while working for campaigns.

  • Meredith P. Goins

    Excellent post Lauren. I used to do this (prospect research) for a living at a major university. I even wrote an article for the local newspaper detailing how to find biz information online for free in the late 90’s. While in fundraising, I agreed to a code of ethics approved by the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA).

    I must confess that not all my resources were from the web. A call to a county assessor’s office can give you property values. Reading proxies and other info requested from the SEC can give you ideas on the salaries, bonuses and stock holdings of company executives. Experience has shown me that making a telephone call can be much more productive than searching the web. Was I stalking? No, I was doing my job.

    Later on, I earned my master’s in information sciences and served in public, medical and business libraries. In each position, I have fought for information privacy for the user, including protesting the Patriot Act. (Does the government really need to know what you’ve checked out from the library?) I keep a button at my desk that says “Another Hysteric Librarian for Freedom” (See:

    Libraries also celebrate the other side of privacy – intellectual freedom – or the right of individuals to believe what they want. Ever celebrated Banned Books Week? Join me and librarians all over the world in celebrating the Freedom to Read Sept 25-Oct 2, 2010. Even further back in 1939, the American Library Association (ALA) passed the Library Bill of Rights (see: allowing libraries to be forums for ALL information and ideas…

    Librarians find it imperative to teach students, parents and the general public about what is out there. But we’re not afraid to find the information for others if asked. Again, it’s our job.

    I do urge people to be extremely cautious with their online presence. However, I’ll still be able to find you (and all your details)if and when I want. The joys of subscribing to multiple highly expensive databases…

  • Lauren

    @Christopher Burgess- Thanks for your insightful comment!

    @Jay Philips- You’re right and that’s what I found with the County Assessor’s page, the whole internet is out there and available!

    @Brian Ellis- Political campaigns and social media should be a class. They are always at the forefront and could be quite the case study! Just look at the last presidential debate! Questions from YouTube!

    @Meredith P. Goins- Thanks for your insight! Nice to hear the opinion of a once prospect researcher!

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