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The health info you post online could be used against you. Dislike!

By Jessica Girdwain

When you log on to Facebook, what do you post? Pics of you laughing with friends or frolicking on vacay? That’s what Nathalie Blanchard, a 30-year-old IBM technician from Granby, Quebec, did – and soon after, her disability insurance cut her off.

Diagnosed with depression, Blanchard had gone on disability leave. Her doctor, she says, had actually recommended trips and nights out to help overcome her crisis. But her insurer, Manulife, saw it differently after checking her Facebook page – they used what they found as justification to hire a private investigator to follow and film her, says Blanchard’s lawyer, Tom Lavin. he says Manulife gave the materials to a psychiatrist who decided Blanchard was healthy enough to work and should no longer receive benefits. Blanchard is back on the job and has filed suit against Manulife and IBM; her trial is pending.

It’s a shocking practice and not necessarily rare. “I expect that insurance companies comb social sites all the time,” says Phil Malone, director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School. “It’s easy for them to misinterpret what’s there, but they could use it to deny claims anyway.”

The lesson: Be careful about revealing health woes online. “People think companies can’t use Facebook this way. But courts have said they can, as long as you shared the information with others online,” Malone says. In a 2008 case involving two teens with eating disorders, a judge said the girls’ families had to turn over online posts they’d shared with others as evidence in a dispute with their insurer over whether their issues were “biological” (and thus covered) or emotion (not covered). And it’s not only your insurance that’s at risk: Half of employers admit to screening job candidates via social networking sites, a CareerBuilder survey reveals. Because many of us are “at will” employees, we can be fired without legal recourse for almost any reason, including posting about drinking or missing too much work for migraines or in vitro fertilization.

The hard truth is that employers and insurers feel it’s irresponsible not to check you out, says David Harlow, a health care lawyer in Newton, Massachusetts. “They’re focused on protecting themselves financially, so using social media to do research is doing their due diligence,” he says. Ideally, insurance companies would consider all aspects of a patient’s health situation before denying claims, Harlow says: “After all, depressed people smile.” (A Manulife spokeswoman says the company “wouldn’t terminate coverage solely based on information found on Facebook.”)

A spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national health insurance association, said the group wasn’t aware of companies in the United States that investigate using social media. There’s no way to be sure, though – you can’t tell who’s been looking at your profile.

Still thinking you’re secure? Remember, ever-changing Facebook privacy defaults have made profiles more Internet-searchable and previously hidden photos suddenly visible. And Facebook reports that only half of its more than 500 million users employ tools designed to safeguard their info. “Depending on your privacy settings,” Malone notes, “maybe a handful of people, maybe 1,000 people, or maybe 100,000, can see what you post. Privacy protection works only if you use it and use it carefully.” Have fun with your friends, but choose wisely what you share with them.

Social (network) security

  1. Under the Account tab on your Facebook page, click Privacy Settings to find out what “Everyone,” “Friends of Friends,” and “Friends Only” can see.
  2. Change the settings so that no one but “Friends Only” can view anything but the basics. Keep photos, updates and other personal info private.
  3. Google yourself. Does your Facebook profile pop up? Hide yourself from search engines on the Apps and Websites page within Privacy Settings.
  4. Under Account, click Account Settings, then Account Security. Click Change to set up alerts for strange activity on your account.

(This article has been reproduced from the April 2011 issue of Self Magazine and was written by Jessica Girdwain.)

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