Monday, 23 January 2017 17:07

Is Anything Private Anymore?

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The invention of the home computer has changed our world. Good or bad, it is dominating our lives. Many of us are addicted. We turn our computer on first thing in the morning. Our screens glow all day and into the night. Change is constant. New programs, new ways to search for information, watch movies, or communicate are invented every day. Do you have questions or want to listen to your favorite music? We can do this on line or just ask our new Google “Home”.

In the mid-1990s, Philip and I discussed getting a home computer but we could not think of any real uses for it. We were not interested in playing computer games and we didn’t have any business uses for one. But look at us today.

Every day, every minute, every second you participate you are being stored up in the “cloud.” I have no idea what that is but I do know that others can often learn all about you from what you have put on your computer.

Do you like that? Most of us don’t. We still think we have “privacy” in our lives. The truth is, we don’t have nearly as much as we used to. Some people use computers for illegal purposes or even to hide, confuse or manipulate their identity. These are the people I am writing this column about today.

Our son, Christopher, and his longtime friend, Ashton Wolfson have founded a company called C & W Group, LLC that searches all available public information on the web. They prepare fast and inexpensive background checks on claimants and provide the results of their investigation to insurance companies and organizations that are the subject of injury claims. The companies who use their services have found that they can save money and time evaluating injury claims.

Ashton and Chris grew up in Napa living across the street from one another. They have kept in touch over the years as their paths took them in different directions.

Ashton Wolfson has a background managing companies that he founded, one of which is a medical evaluation firm focusing on workers compensation insurance claims.

Christopher is a former Marine Security Force veteran, law enforcement officer, and insurance fraud investigator.

Ashton’s father is Dr. Ron Wolfson, an orthopedic surgeon who practiced in Napa for many years and has left the active practice of medicine to do injury evaluations in workers compensation cases.

Chris was raised in a family where his father was a lawyer and judge in Napa for more than 50 years.

After graduating from college, they have come together to form this new company which combines their skills.

They have been promoting their new company around California and across the country. Their clients include school districts, public safety agencies like police and fire departments, insurance companies and large and small private companies, including some in the Napa wine industry.

My husband and I recently learned “it’s a small world” once again, as one prospective client was a major insurance company owned by a wealthy man who is in partnership with one of Philip’s high school chums in Brazil, who is now also an extremely wealthy man. Both men are now among the 20 richest men in the world.

We visited Chris in one of his offices in Roseville last June where he gave us a presentation of his company’s product. My husband was impressed and marveled at how he would have liked to have had that kind of information when he practiced law years ago. We were amazed to see how much information could be found from public records and public Internet sites about people. We were also surprised to see how unguarded and careless some people are in telling their secrets and giving up their privacy. 

Philip told me that lawyers are now searching the Internet, especially social media sites to evaluate potential jurors in court cases. Judges and lawyers around the country are having to learn how to deal with this. So, if you are called as a prospective juror in a big case be prepared to answer questions about some of your Facebook posts or Tweets.

C & W’s main goal is to help their clients evaluate cases. Sometimes they uncover evidence of suspicious activity and sometimes they don’t. When there is no evidence of anything strange or suspicious, the client can focus on evaluating the injuries. If unusual or suspicious things are found, the claim investigators can conduct further investigation into those areas.

While Chris doesn’t discuss details of their work, I have heard some general stories which sound questionable and would curl your hair. This would be especially true if you are sharing anything you would want to keep private.

It is surprising what can be found about us quickly by a powerful search engine and turned into a thorough report in less than 24 hours. Sometimes information is inaccurate, but that will be uncovered by the skillful eye of a trained investigator before the report is submitted to the client.

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Some people change their names, use different Social Security numbers, move to California to hide a past record and now have jobs or side companies they have never reported to their current employer. When these kinds of things are discovered they are an immediate red flag that certainly calls for further investigation and notification to the authorities.

A fireman in another state who claimed disability from a vehicle accident has a backhoe business on the side. One claimant turned out to be working under a fictitious name and had been reported as a “missing person” by his spouse and mother of his children. A woman who worked for a government agency in another state and who was claiming a significant disability, from a work related injury, had just filed articles of incorporation for an “escort service.” These are examples of real cases where strange or suspicious things showed up in a report.

So, the bottom line of this column is be careful what you do on the Internet and social media. Many of us might “drop our guard” when we go online, forgetting how easy it is to read our mail or get information about us from a search on the Internet.

It seems like every day the news carries stories about how our “privacy” is being invaded. Someone is “hacking” someone’s email or invading our computers with virus’ and bugs. The fact is that we really don’t have much privacy anymore where the computer and Internet are concerned.

As an example, the other night we went to dinner at Meadowood. The table captain had apparently “Googled” us. He knew all about my husband’s educational and professional background and that I wrote a column for the Napa Valley Register. We were surprised and a little flattered by the attention. But then, we have always lived in a fishbowl in the Napa Valley. But, we should all get used to these kinds of surprises.

Maybe a good New Year’s resolution would be to limit your time online. Be careful what you email or post on social media. Call your friends on a land phone or meet for lunch. Write your thank-you notes with paper and pen. Send letters to people. Sound old fashioned? I suppose so.

Will I do it? Probably not.

I wish you a happy New Year and good luck.

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