By now it should go without saying: Be careful what you post on social networking sites. For a lot of reasons.
But here's yet another reason to be conscious of your online presence: Insurance companies are beginning to check social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to determine if you are a coverage risk. In fact, you may even have a "social media score" to prove it.
And, just like your credit score, your social media score can impact what you qualify for and affect how much you pay for coverage. Unlike a credit score, it is hard to say exactly what goes into a social media score -- or if existing federal laws provide sufficient oversight.
Companies have always been interested in who their customers are, and the Internet makes it easier to obtain that information. British Airways tries to surprise its passengers with greetings and personal touches based on Googled information; high-end restaurants commonly search their bookings online to see who is coming in.
But it may come as a surprise to learn that insurance companies surf social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to get the scoop on their customers, or pay third-party vendors to snoop for them.
At least one Canadian insurance company, Manulife Financial, has confirmed that it uses Facebook to investigate clients. A notable example involved a Quebec woman on long-term leave who had her benefits cut after her employer's insurance company, Manulife, found potentially contradictory photos posted on Facebook, according to a 2009 article by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Nathalie Blanchard, 29, had been on leave suffering from major depression for a year when her sick-leave benefits were discontinued. When called for an explanation, her insurance agent described several pictures she posted on Facebook -- including ones showing her having a good time at a Chippendales bar, at her birthday party and at the beach.
In response, Ms. Blanchard told CBC News that, on her doctor's advice, she had been trying to have fun as a way to forget her problems. She later initiated legal action to reinstate her benefits.
Such online tracking efforts used to take significant human energy, but not anymore. Today, vendors build online programs to automate this process using sophisticated data-mining tools.
According to a recent report by Novarica, a market research and trends analysis provider, personal information is now readily available on-demand from commercial sources -- at a lower cost than it used to be.
So what exactly goes into a social media score?
Generally, it's made up of what you "like" and the types of activities you engage in. The score can also be based on what you do and say on social media sites, and even pictures from photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Instagram.
Participating in dangerous activities, like skydiving or extreme sports, could affect your score. So could smoking cigarettes -- especially if you claimed to be a nonsmoker in an insurance application. Traveling to war-torn countries could equally have an impact on your score, regardless of why you were there -- vacation, work or as a volunteer.
Even your favorite foods could make the list -- the thought being that someone who "likes" Oreo-brand cookies and fried chicken may not be living as healthy a lifestyle as someone whose Facebook page has them going to the gym every week.
It all paints the picture of who you (really) are.
Unlike credit scores -- which are heavily regulated -- there is no federal law limiting the potential uses of an online profile, and state laws have yet to catch up with this business practice.
But a few issues seem certain to arise, such as: How can one check a social media score? Is the score public? Who would be sent this score? Can you challenge the items in the report? How detailed will it be? Will actual content appear? Who gets to look at it, for how long and for what purposes?
For now, these questions remain unanswered. But as social media grows, these issues will have to be addressed by the legislature and courts.
Jeffrey Rosenthal, a Blank Rome associate attorney, writes a regular cyber law column for The Legal Intelligencer. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.