Are you the target of anonymous internet defamation, online harassment, or other internet privacy-related matters and you want to identify who is behind the unlawful behavior? If so, you may be contemplating hiring legal representation and wondering how much online investigation services cost (and rightly so).
Every online investigation is unique. At Minc Law, online investigation services cost, on average, anywhere from $7,000 to $12,000. However there are a variety of factors that may affect the cost for internet defamation, online harassment, and internet privacy-related issues. These include:
- Where (and the number of platforms) the online harassment and attacks are located,
- Whether the defendant is easily identifiable (and where they live),
- Whether a court order is necessary to remove damaging or defamatory content,
- Whether you need to utilize local counsel to assist with your claim, and
- Whether litigation is necessary to achieve your goals (e.g. obtain compensation for the harm caused) and, if so, the number of legal claims you wish to pursue,
- Whether time is of the essence or not, and
- Whether you need digital risk protection services to monitor your online reputation for subsequent attacks.
At Minc Law, we have represented over 2,500 victims of online defamation, blackmail, and online harassment and have extensive experience tracking down anonymous perpetrators to hold them accountable for their unlawful behavior.
In this guide, we will discuss the types of online investigation services you might need if you are facing defamation, harassment, or blackmail as well as how much these services typically cost.
Types of Online Investigations Services
The type of online investigation services you need will differ depending on whether you are dealing with internet defamation, online harassment, extortion or sextortion, revenge porn, or a privacy breach.
What Are the Different Types of Online Investigation Services?
Internet defamation often takes the form of fake consumer reviews and complaints, posts on public shaming sites and cheater websites, and false allegations of misconduct on social media platforms (such as social media defamation or false allegations of sexual assault on Twitter). The unique nature of each of these matters may impact the type – and the associated cost – of online investigation services.
Other forms of online attacks – such as cyberstalking, extortion, revenge porn, and similar invasions of privacy or harassment (e.g. online impersonation) – can be addressed through the use of online investigation services, but the approach to take in such situations is even more nuanced.
Tactics & Strategies Used in Online Investigations
Some of the most common investigative tactics for internet defamation, harassment, and invasion of privacy include:
- John Doe lawsuits – to undercover the identity of anonymous attackers via requests (subpoenas) for internet service providers (ISPs) and online platforms to provide information about specific users, and
- Deep web advanced search tools – WHOIS and DNS lookups to discover who is behind a particular website.
John Doe Lawsuits
A John Doe lawsuit is a type of lawsuit filed by a plaintiff when they do not know the identity of the defendant, but believe that they can make such identification through the legal process.
Video: The John Doe Lawsuit – How to Identify Internet Users Behind Anonymous Harassment & Defamation
Filing a John Doe lawsuit, also commonly known as a ‘fictitious defendant suit’, accomplishes two key objectives:
- Gets your legal claim filed within the requisite statute of limitations, and
- Initiates the discovery process so that you can subpoena internet platforms and service providers to identify the anonymous perpetrator.
A subpoena is a written order that compels an individual or entity to do something.
Subpoenas are commonly used in online investigation services to compel an online platform to produce personally identifying information about a perpetrator, such as their name, email address, or other personal data used to create an account on the platform. Subpoenas can also be used to obtain subscriber data for an IP address.
Filing a John Doe lawsuit will not guarantee the extension of the statute of limitations in all jurisdictions, so it is important to consult an experienced internet attorney to advise on your best course of action.
After identifying the anonymous perpetrator, you can typically amend your lawsuit to substitute the actual perpetrator, by name, and proceed as you would in an ordinary lawsuit against a known defendant.
Even if you are unable to identify the defendant, despite exercising due diligence, the court may be willing to issue an order requiring removal of the content.
Deep Web Advanced Search Tools
At Minc Law, we use domain lookup tools like InfoSniper to find out who registered a domain name and track the IP address associated with a domain. This can help us uncover the identity of an anonymous attacker or determine who to serve with a subpoena to gather more information about attacks on a specific website.
We also use Whois, another domain lookup tool that lets you research the history of a certain IP address, domain ownership information, and other data pertinent to the investigation at hand. If this method fails, we can use email and social media IP traps to catch the perpetrator and uncover their IP address.
Once we know an attacker’s IP address, we use online tools like Whatismyipaddress.com to trace an IP address back to its internet service provider. This information may also reveal the city, region, and country where the attacker made the damaging posts.
Advanced tools like metadata tracing and website forensics can reveal even more information, like the platforms and/or apps the perpetrator interacted with and if there are specific patterns in their online activity.
Finally, we turn to private investigators if we need additional information to pursue claims against a stealthy defendant.
For further information on free tools to identify anonymous online users, we recommend reading our comprehensive resource ‘22 Free Tools & Tips to Identify an Anonymous Online Defamer‘.
Benefits of Online Investigation Services
One of the primary benefits of online investigation services is that they can be used to put an end to online defamation, harassment, and attacks. Once an internet perpetrator is “outed” and knows that you know who they are, many are reluctant to continue with their unlawful behavior and even voluntarily remove offending content.
When coupled with the threat of a potential monetary judgment, the perpetrator may also be willing to enter into a settlement agreement, publicly retract their harmful statements, and/or contractually limit their speech or conduct in the future.
If you decide to file a lawsuit against the perpetrator of online attacks, investigation services and the information obtained can help strengthen (and provide evidence) of unlawful activity.
What Are the Benefits of Online Investigation Services?
In the world of internet law, there are many benefits of online investigation services. The main benefits of online investigation for our clients include:
- The ability to determine the identity of an anonymous online attacker,
- The means to put an end to online attacks,
- Acquiring the information necessary to obtain a court order – which can be used to get harmful content removed from the internet,
- The capacity to prevent future attacks from the perpetrator with injunctive relief, and
- The prospect of damages (monetary compensation) if you successfully litigate your claims.
How Can Online Investigations Secure Court-Ordered Internet Content Removals & Defamatory Content Removal?
With an online investigation, you can secure the information necessary to identify someone who is harassing or defaming you on the internet. To obtain a court order or secure the removal of the harmful content, you often need to establish the identity of the perpetrator, or, at minimum, show the court that you have made all reasonable and necessary attempts to do so.
Again, even if the advanced procedures used to identify the perpetrator does not return data allowing you to make a concrete identification, a court may still issue an order requiring a platform (e.g. Facebook or Google) to remove harmful content on the basis that it is, for example, defamatory as a matter of law.
Of course, online investigators can be useful for situations other than internet defamation. If someone is attempting to extort you online (a serious crime), you may be able to conduct an online investigation to bring them to justice. You may even need to work with both law enforcement and a private detective agency to stop the criminal in their tracks.
What Information Can Online Investigation Services Reveal?
Online investigative tools can reveal a plethora of information needed to hold an online attacker accountable, such as:
- The perpetrator’s identity,
- The relevant jurisdiction to pursue claims against them, and
- Other important personal information.
Platform & ISP Subpoenas
If you are being attacked on a platform like Facebook, Twitter, or another website (or application) by an anonymous or fake account, experienced internet attorneys will file a lawsuit enabling them to serve the platform with a subpoena and secure valuable data.
A subpoena can reveal the name of an account holder or subscriber, as well as the email address they use for the service, and their IP data. Using IP data, one can typically unmask the location of the online attacker and, further, obtain valuable subscriber data from the ISP servicing the IP address.
Personal Information From IP Data
Once you secure an attacker’s IP data, you can often use this information to conduct further discovery and, ultimately, secure personal, identifying information like their:
- Date of birth,
- Location or primary residence,
- Court and public records,
- Images, videos, and other online content
- Phone numbers,
- Business registration ID and information,
- Intellectual property ownership,
- Place of employment, and
- Timestamped online activities.
What Are the Limitations of Online Investigations?
Some tech-savvy cybercriminals manage to evade discovery with high-level concealment techniques. In these situations, the success of an online investigation may be limited.
Online Investigations May Be Limited by Encryption Tools & Proxy Servers
For instance, some perpetrators use proxy servers or the TOR Network to serve as an intermediary between their IP address and the internet. Simply put, a proxy server or the TOR Network both act as a disguise for the user’s original IP address.
Online Investigations May Be Limited By the Use of a Public Computer
They may also use a public computer to post harassing or defamatory content – so an online investigation might not reveal their name but will reveal the public space they are using for their attacks. In this case, it can still be possible to discover the person behind the attacks, but it may take a few more steps, like hiring a private detective.
Online Investigations May Be Limited By the Lack of International Cybercrime Laws
Internet investigators are further limited by the lack of uniform international standards for cybercrime. Say, you are the target of a Philippines sextortion scam while you reside in the United States. Generally speaking, the extortionist is subject to the laws of the Philippines and their desire (or lack thereof) to work with U.S. officials to prosecute the crime.
While it can be difficult to obtain justice in some foreign jurisdictions, it is not impossible. To increase your chances of success identifying a cybercrime perpetrator in a foreign country, it is imperative to work with an experienced legal representative that is well-versed in this area. An experienced legal professional can ensure that your case and claims are properly advanced and compile the necessary evidence and documentation so that the matter can be more effectively prosecuted.
Even within the United States, each state has different applicable laws and law enforcement agencies are limited in the investigations they can conduct for cybercrime. You might say our criminal justice system has yet to catch up with sophisticated cybercriminals.
Online Investigations May Be Limited By “Stale” Data & Content
Finally, it can be exceptionally difficult to conduct an online investigation if the harmful content is “old”. What is considered “old” depends upon what entity – platform or ISP – from which you are seeking information. However, as a general matter, if you did not discover the unwanted content for years, the ISP may no longer have the data available to respond to a subpoena.
Further, if, for example, you wish to commence a legal action to obtain data based upon a defamatory comment posted over two years ago, you will likely run into procedural issues as the statute of limitations for your claim will have expired. Even if the subject of your subpoena has valuable data that could be used to make an identification, they may resist responding to the subpoena because your claim is not legally viable.
When to Consider Utilizing Online Investigations Services
Any time you are the target of anonymous online harassment, defamation, or privacy-related issues, it is worth exploring retaining an attorney to conduct online investigation services.
Of course, if you are facing one negative online comment or review, the time and expense involved with securing online investigation services, you might ultimately decide that the time and expense of securing these services does not make sense for you or is not a priority.
Who Might Need to Use Online Investigations Services?
When online attacks start to disrupt your life, you might need to investigate who is behind the activity to put it to an end. You can benefit from online investigation services if you are the target of anonymous:
- Internet defamation,
- Online harassment,
- Revenge porn,
- Extortion or blackmail, or
- Internet privacy attacks (e.g. doxxing).
Targets of Internet Defamation
Online defamation, commonly referred to as ‘defamation of character’, often involves fake consumer reviews and complaints, false posts on public shaming websites, and false allegations of misconduct on social media – each of which has the potential to turn your life upside down.
If an anonymous poster has defamed you or your business on a shaming, consumer review, or scam reporting site and it is impacting your personal or professional reputation, it is worth investigating.
Targets of Online Harassment
Online harassment, like cyberstalking, is nothing to take lightly. Some perpetrators can be truly dangerous and, feeling secure in their anonymity, may even escalate their activities because they have little fear of being identified. Harassment of this nature can pose a threat to your safety, your personal reputation, and your livelihood.
It is prudent to take affirmative steps to identify an online harasser before they take things too far.
Targets of Extortion or Blackmail
In most states and countries, extortion is a serious crime punishable by imprisonment and fines. Extortion crimes have proliferated online partially due to internet users’ ability to appear anonymous. Cybercriminals commonly use social media platforms and websites to take extortion online.
If someone is attempting to extort or blackmail you online, you will likely need to employ investigators to uncover the identity of the perpetrator and hold them accountable for their crimes.
Targets of Revenge Porn
When someone you once trusted distributes your intimate images without consent, it can seriously disrupt your personal and professional reputation. Revenge porn may be used by a former spouse or partner to damage your reputation.
The longer a perpetrator remains anonymous, the greater the chance they will continue their unlawful activity. An online investigation can reveal their identity so they can be prevented from committing additional attacks or distributing intimate media. Once identified, they can also be held accountable for the emotional damage they have caused and be forced to compensate their victims for those harms.
Victims of Other Anonymous Internet Privacy Attacks
It is nearly impossible to list every form of internet privacy-related attack. From online impersonation to doxxing, to identity theft, internet criminals are adept at finding new ways to breach others’ privacy.
If you find your personal information online, it can be used for identity theft, or worse. It may be necessary to uncover the identity of your privacy hacker either to hold them responsible for identity theft or prevent them from sharing any additional private information.
When Should You Consider Using Online Investigations Services?
If you are the victim of anonymous online attacks, whether it is someone spreading vicious lies about your business or sharing intimate photos of you, online investigation services can put a stop to the harm, hold the perpetrator accountable, and bring you peace of mind.
How Often Can You Determine the Identity of an Anonymous Online Perpetrator?
At Minc Law, we can usually identify anonymous individuals 9 times out of 10, as long as the data is relatively recent and the perpetrator is not employing advanced digital cloaking methods.
However, even if we are not able to identify the specific individual responsible for the harm through due diligence, we may still be able to provide relief to our clients. For example, if we can show the court that we have taken all necessary steps to identify an anonymous defamer on an internet platform, but were still unable to do so, the court may still issue an order requiring the platform to take the content down.
Average Cost of Online Investigation Services
While we can provide estimates of average costs for online investigation services, it is worth noting that there is no such thing as an “average” case. Every online attack is different, and different factors will determine the overall costs of investigation services.
What Factors Can Drive Up the Cost of Online Investigation Services?
Several factors can contribute to increased costs for online investigation services, including:
- Where the online attacks are located and the number of platforms involved,
- Whether the defendant is easily identifiable and where they live,
- Whether a court order is necessary to remove damaging content,
- If time is of the essence,
- Whether litigation is necessary,
- The number of legal claims you wish to pursue,
- Whether there is a need for local counsel, and
- Whether you need digital risk protection services to monitor for subsequent online mentions and attacks.
Keep in mind that the above is not an exhaustive list and that every online investigation matter is unique.
Where the Online Attacks Are Located & the Number of Platforms Involved
Simply put, some platforms are more cooperative than others. There are certain notoriously difficult platforms that are reluctant to produce data regardless of whether you have complied with all substantive and procedural requirements. With these platforms, there are often additional hurdles inherent in the subpoena process that can increase the cost.
It also matters how many platforms you are dealing with. If you are facing an attacker who is posting to multiple social media platforms and other websites, you will need to subpoena each platform or website and fulfill procedural requirements to ensure the production of data. Even if each platform or website is generally cooperative, the subpoena process and correspondence necessary to secure the data can drive up the cost.
Likewise, it can be more time-consuming to track down multiple perpetrators if you are dealing with more than one attacker and numerous ISP providers.
Whether the Defendant is Easily Identifiable & Where They Live
Identifying an unknown attacker or anonymous poster may involve serving several internet site owners, hosts, and online organizations with subpoenas to discover the real identities of anonymous posters. In certain circumstances, tech-savvy private detectives must be brought in as well. Naturally, these extra steps (and more professionals) will raise the costs of an online investigation.
Location factors into this issue as well, because it may be more difficult to track down defendants in a remote location (say, someone using a public computer in the Philippines) than one who lives in the United States and is subject to the relevant laws of the jurisdiction where the claim is asserted.
Whether a Court Order is Necessary to Remove Damaging Content
In some cases, websites have policies that require a court order before they will reveal user information or respond to a request to remove unwanted content.
If an ISP requires a court order to turn over information about its users, that can add costs to your case. Court orders are sometimes simple to acquire, while other times they are not. Depending on how long (and how much effort) it takes to obtain your court order to remove content, you could see investigative costs rise steeply.
If Time is of the Essence
Some situations call for urgent action. If you are approaching the statute of limitations for a defamation claim, or are experiencing extreme personal distress due to extortion, your investigative team will need to move quickly. As you might imagine, urgency can lead to higher costs.
Whether Litigation is Necessary
If you are ready to proceed with a lawsuit – seeking damages or compensatory relief – against your online attacker, you should expect to see greater costs than someone who merely needs investigative services.
Many people attempt to uncover the identity of anonymous online attackers so they can sue for damages or injunctive relief (e.g. removal of the unwanted content). Just as suing for damages increases the cost of most civil lawsuits, litigating leads to higher online investigation costs.
The Number of Legal Claims You Wish to Pursue
Every situation is unique, and you may have more than one available claim to pursue. For instance, it is possible to have claims for online defamation, harassment, and cyberbullying all at once. The number of claims available will vary according to the facts, as well as the jurisdiction of your case.
Of course, it is up to you to determine exactly how many claims you wish to pursue. While pursuing fewer claims may be more affordable, it may also reduce your chances of legal success.
Whether There is a Need for Local Counsel
If you find out that your attacker is located in a different state or country, you may need to work with more than one attorney. An attorney in a different state may represent you for most internet privacy-related claims, but you will still need to work with local counsel to pursue a lawsuit in the appropriate jurisdiction.
For example, say you live in Pennsylvania, the defendant is located in New York, you want to file a defamation lawsuit in New York, and you hired an Ohio defamation of character lawyer. You can work with an Ohio lawyer, but you will still need to work with an attorney licensed in New York to file the lawsuit. Two attorneys working together, while beneficial, can be costly.
For further reading on the matter, we recommend checking out our comprehensive resource by attorney Brinton Resto answering ‘Can an out of state attorney represent me?’.
Whether You Need Digital Risk Protection Services
Finally, some situations call for ongoing reputation monitoring or digital risk protection (DRP) services. If your private information has been released online, for instance, you may need to enlist the assistance of a DRP service to monitor for future leaks, mentions, and attacks.
At Minc Law, we offer digital risk protection services for individuals and businesses that want to protect and monitor their online reputations. In today’s digital age, we generally recommend that anyone with a tangible or pervasive online presence ensure that their reputation is actively monitored so that you can respond to digital threats in real-time and eliminate damaging content before it causes irreparable damage.
For further reading on DRP and its benefits, make sure to read our comprehensive resource answering the most frequently asked questions about digital risk protection services.
How Much Online Investigation Services Cost at Minc Law
At Minc Law, online investigation services are generally part of our litigation practice and commence with the filing of a lawsuit.
Our litigation matters require a retainer fee to get started. Cases where we must identify an anonymous defendant generally involves two phases:
- Filing the lawsuit and identifying the defendant through discovery, and
- Obtaining the desired relief once the identification is made.
Video: Attorney Retainer Agreement: What is it & How Does It Work?
The cost of each phase can vary based upon the numerous factors set out above. However, it is often helpful to provide cost estimates based upon whether or not the case is contested.
At Minc Law, the average cost of online investigation services is typically $7,000 to $12,000. Most online investigation service matters are uncontested by the defendant.
However, in cases where the case is contested, such as where platforms or defendants push back during either the first phase – i.e. resist the production of data pursuant to subpoenas – or the second phase – i.e. disclaim that their actions render them liable under the law – costs will generally run higher.
For further reading on estimated costs for your Minc Law matter, make sure to read our comprehensive ‘Pricing Page‘.
What Do You Do After You Identify the Anonymous Perpetrator?
After you identify the anonymous perpetrator behind the unlawful online conduct, you have several options, including attempting to settle or suing for damages. If you choose to sue for damages, then standard litigation matter costs will apply.
At Minc Law, standard litigation matters require a retainer of $7,500, and, on average, cost $15,000. However, pricing may be affected by the countless factors listed above.
Get Started With Online Investigation Services
At Minc Law, we know what it takes to identify anonymous internet perpetrators to put an end to abusive and malicious online attacks.
“Christina Williams was great to work with and was very professional in helping us a deal with a very difficult situation that my son got himself into. I hope we never have to call on her again, but I’m glad we have her number just in case. Thank you!”
MT, Aug 31, 2021
If you are the target of anonymous internet defamation, online harassment, or other internet-related privacy matters and want to put an end to it today, you can reach out to schedule your initial consultation by calling (216) 373-7706, speaking with a Chat representative, or filling out our online contact form.