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International Due Diligence – Due Diligence Investigations – Hedge Fund Due Diligence

Even in their most basic form, nearly all background investigations will include some form of identity verification, some criminal history (the depths of which may vary), and watch list research, but there are varying levels of background investigations where you can find information, from a $19.95 online service to a several-hundred-thousand-dollar background investigation such as one done by the FBI.

And there are quite a few in between.

In general, however, background investigations are designed to reveal information in a person’s history that may call their character into question.

On one end of the spectrum is the basic online background investigation. In most cases, online background checks should be able to do a good job of verifying a person’s identity, finding any serious criminal offenses, exposing significant jail time, and identifying registered sex offenders and international terrorists.

In the simplest terms, these types of background investigations should be used to identify the terrorist, the ax-murderer, or the sex offender you wouldn’t allow within three miles of your residence.

While this has been completely oversimplified, this end of the spectrum is what you would typically find in an employment background check, where the main focus is identify verification, criminal records, terrorist watch lists, and sex offender registries. These checks may also confirm the individual’s reported degree and employment history.

What Can Be Revealed in a Background Investigation?

At the other end of the spectrum is the FBI background investigation, where every moment from the time a person is born is scrutinized, vetted, examined, cross-checked, and investigated.

While this kind of deep vetting is saved for extraordinary circumstances like investigating people in high-ranking political positions or people involved in extremely high-stakes litigation, it is between these two extremes that background investigations can be really revealing.

This is where you can identify much more nuanced information that can call a person’s character into question, like connections to unscrupulous organizations, a history of failed businesses, or questionable or inappropriate comments hidden deep in social media accounts.

This is also where financial issues, factual misrepresentations, lies, falsehoods, exaggerations, controversial remarks, contentious behavior, accusations, troublesome conduct, and problematic connections can be revealed; those revelations provide a broad-based picture of a person to help the client make a more informed decision.

For example, attorneys involved in high-stakes litigation may want to know more about a so-called expert or star witness; a private equity firm making a major acquisition may want to dive deep into their new president; the board of a public company may want to closely scrutinize the activities and representations of the incoming CEO/chairman of the board; a corporation may want to examine a competitor who has mysteriously come out of nowhere to steal some high-stakes accounts.

So, can a background investigation reveal whether or not you stole lunch money in the fourth grade, or whether you were jaywalking across Main Street or have a secret tattoo that nobody has ever seen?

Maybe, but I can promise you it’s going to be extraordinarily challenging, time-consuming, resource-intense, expensive, and not easy to find … unless you have some close friends in the FBI. ;)

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In July, we received a call from Ruby, a middle-aged professional in Singapore who’d been in an online relationship with an American man for several months. As their relationship grew, so did her suspicions. Over the next 20 minutes, she told me a dizzying story about Rick Charles Moore, an American oil executive who had been detained in Norway for reasons unclear and needed financial support.

I know, this sounds like a typical romance scam, right?

But there were some interesting twists.

Someone on LinkedIn Viewed Your Profile

In December 2019, Rick Charles Moore invited Ruby to connect on LinkedIn. It was one of those innocuous requests that you get all the time if you’re a LinkedIn member. Although Ruby didn’t share any connections with Rick, his profile seemed legitimate enough. He was based in Kansas, had a degree from the University of Oklahoma, and worked as a project manager at BP. Rick had spent his career in the oil industry, working on oil rigs in the American Midwest before venturing abroad. He had several hundred connections, was active on LinkedIn, sharing photos and quotes, and had several endorsements from fellow LinkedIn members for his engineering and project management skills. Rick’s photo was of a middle-aged man — not too handsome and not too perfect. Just the kind of picture that nobody would think twice about.

The chatter started normally enough — friendly, but professional. After a few weeks, it got more interesting. Soon, Ruby and Rick began chatting on WhatsApp for several hours a day.

And then Rick’s problems began to unfurl.

When Rick and Ruby started messaging, he’d been based on an oil rig off the coast of Norway for a one-year project that paid him more than $240,000 — money he just couldn’t pass up. Also, Rick explained, he needed an extreme change of scenery. His wife had died in a car accident a few years before, and he wanted to explore the world and distract himself from his grief.

By mid-February, Rick was stuck on the rig. Incoming messages described an escalating crisis: After a serious battering by a winter storm, the damaged rig had started disgorging oil into the North Sea and was in “non-compliance.” Rick thought an evacuation was unneccessary, but the company did not concur. The crew was airlifted to shore by helicopter while an emergency team repaired the rig.

After a few weeks on dry land, Rick went back to the rig and spent the last weeks of his contract tying up loose ends and packing his things. His commitment was up in early March, after which he was headed back to the U.S.

In late February, Rick asked Ruby to access his bank account. He was unable to get online access from the rig, he explained.

This made no sense to Ruby, and little sense to me when she was telling the story. Why couldn’t he access the account himself? He was messaging her via the internet, wasn’t he? And who asks someone he’s never laid eyes on to access his banking information?

Rick’s request made Ruby uneasy, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on why. At this point, he hadn’t asked her for anything. All he wanted was for Ruby to access his bank account. That seemed harmless enough. Still, she demurred, and he didn’t mention it again.

An Invitation Is Waiting for Your Response

In early March, Rick was transferred to Edinburgh, Scotland. He told Ruby by phone that he was heading home via London, but before he could leave the country, he had to go to the Environment Agency of UK for some type of clearance.

Which is when things got interesting.

Rick told Ruby that his bank accounts had been “suspended” for some unknown reason, and he needed to come up with the “clearance” fine of £4,500. He only had £1,000 on him and asked Ruby to send the money to the Environment Agency in London. All of this seemed quite suspicious to her, save for the fact that Rick told her to send the money directly to the Environment Agency in London.

Ruby never said outright that she was suspicious. But she also didn’t wire the money. Instead, she hopped a plane to London, arriving on the morning of March 10th, and immediately called Rick, who was supposed to pick her up at Heathrow. The phone rang and rang. Ruby headed to the hotel and waited. She heard not a word from Rick for the next 28 hours.

Finally, a WhatsApp message appeared from Rick. He had been detained after reporting to the Environment Agency and was now being transported to Bergen, on the west coast of Norway. The reasons for his detention and removal to Norway were not totally clear.

The story was getting ever more convoluted and less believable. But for an instant, Ruby entertained an impulse to board a train for the 13-hour ride to Bergen.

And then she came to her senses, booked the next flight to Singapore, and went home.

That’s where the story should have ended.

But it didn’t.

Congratulate Rick for Starting a New Position

A week after Ruby flew home, an email from Rick’s attorney landed in her inbox. To be honest, this is the part of the story where I got a little bit lost. At this point, I was so certain that Rick was a complete fraud, which may have caused my mind to wander. But in short, the attorney told her that Rick was stuck in Norway because he couldn’t pay his fine. His bank account was still suspended, and the law firm needed Ruby’s help to transfer money between Rick’s accounts so that Rick could pay the fine from his own account.

Ruby obliged, transferring sums of $30,000 per day in various transactions, none of which came out of her own account.

I still can’t really figure out the end game here. Money laundering? Was this a trust building exercise? Or was Ruby involved in something much deeper that she didn’t want to admit to?

Nevertheless, by the beginning of July, Ruby was getting fed up. Rick was still being detained in Norway, for reasons that remained murky. She hadn’t been in direct touch with him for weeks. And the Pennsylvania attorney had chastised her by email, claiming that something she did had forced the bank to close Rick’s account. Ruby was frustrated and confused; all she’d done was follow the lawyer’s instructions.

And then Rick’s attorney asked Ruby to send the money in Bitcoin.

That’s when she contacted us.

Start a Conversation with Your New Connection

Despite the strange twists of Rick’s story and the attorney’s fishy request to send money in Bitcoin, Ruby sounded hopeful on the phone with me; some part of her still wanted to believe. She told me she’d hoped to go to Norway in person instead of sending the Bitcoin. To her mind, she had been cautious, and had done a lot of things right. She asked tons of questions. She kept documents, official-looking ones. She asked for intimate details and made careful notes.

Ruby struck me as a sensible, educated person with a good nose for the not-quite-right. If someone like her could get scammed, I figured, almost anyone could. She had logged months of mundane, hours-long chatter. She found Rick’s backstory and “perfect” American accent to be imminently believable. And in all, she was out a few thousand dollars in miscellaneous transfer fees. Rick never really got much from her.

Seemed like a lot of work for very little payoff.

The sheer volume of information that Ruby had collected about Rick made her think that he was legitimate. She had Rick’s birthdate, home address in the United States, Social Security number, U.S. phone numbers, and photos. She knew his grandmother’s name, the nursing home where Rick’s mother lived, his height and blood type. She even knew about his wife Karen’s fatal car accident on the first Friday of February, 2016. To her, all these details came together to create a robust fact infrastructure that looked like a real person’s life. And even the red flags didn’t point in any specific direction: Where was the big ask? Why hadn’t he disappeared when she refused to wire funds?

At this point, Ruby suspected that she was being scammed, but she wanted to know a few things: Was Rick a real person? Did this law firm exist?

Notifications

I get calls like this all the time. Usually, they tell a story similar to Ruby’s — and then comes a request like, “All I need to know is if Rick’s blood type is really O+” or “If you can determine that Rick’s mother is really not in that nursing home, I will walk away.” As if the blood type or nursing home lie were some final wound that would sever the fraying thread of trust for good and offer a clean break. It’s usually some ridiculous, arbitrary, and nearly impossible detail they want me to verify or disprove.

But Ruby was reasonable. She had tons of information and needed a simple answer: Was her relationship with Rick real or a sham? Had her confidence been betrayed?

Given the sheer amount of information Ruby had on Rick, I thought this would be pretty easy  — which scared the hell out of me. Because I’ve seen this film enough to know that the easier the job seems at the outset, the more difficult it usually is.

I told Ruby that I would do a bit of digging on my end and get back to her with some recommendations.

I hung up the phone and couldn’t wait to dig in.

A Message About Your New Connection

Within 30 minutes, I’d done some preliminary research and set up a time to talk with Ruby again.

We spoke the next day.

Rick wasn’t real, I told her. Turns out that Rick’s web of lies wasn’t so easy to untangle.

There was no Rick Thomas Moore living at the address she had given me. It was a real house, but nobody by that name or surname ever lived at the address.

There was nobody by the name Rick Thomas Moore with the date of birth she gave me in the entire United States. And the Social Security number wasn’t real either.

The law firm was fake too. The domain name that the attorneys were using? It was set up the day before they emailed Ruby. And the attorney name she had didn’t exist either.

The final nail in the coffin were the photos of Rick. I put the photos she sent through some facial recognition tools, and what do you know? Rick was actually a Russian activist who had fled the country and was living in Spain. Every single one of the photos she sent me were on his Facebook profile.

Ruby took the news with equanimity. Her voice betrayed a mix of relief and disquiet: How could someone do this? And why? “There are many wicked people out there hurting others emotionally and financially,” she later wrote to me.

Ruby insisted on paying me, but I told her no. The only thing I wanted was for her to stop communicating with “Rick” and anyone affiliated with him.

She agreed to my terms.

Ruby also agreed to let me share her story, to help others who are navigating online relationships and wondering how much to trust, and how much to verify.

So here are some of my tips to protect yourself from master deceivers — or, at least, to mitigate the damage if you get caught up in a scam.

  • Scammers like to shower you with details that are tough to verify, like the fact that they ran a 4:10 mile in high school, or that they were the first person to ever eat a bowl of cereal in under 10 seconds. Random details like these “feel” true but prove nothing. Try getting data you can check out, like birthdates, copies of official documents, family names, etc.
  • Not only should you try to casually squeeze verifiable details out of the person, but you should write these details down — they have a funny way of changing over time. So things like: ✓ Date of birth. ✓ Social Security number. ✓ Addresses. ✓ Parents’ names. ✓ Siblings’ names. ✓Co-workers’ names.
  • Ruby was confident that Rick was an American because of his accent. But asking for a video call might have changed everything. Would the person on video have matched the photos he sent and the accent she knew from the phone calls? I seriously doubt it.
  • Don’t take photos someone sends you at face value. Typically, scammers keep a treasure trove of images they found online — it’s relatively easy to skim dozens or even hundreds of snapshots of someone from social media feeds or blogs. So first, I would suggest using one of the many tools to do reverse image searches, like Google Images, Bing Images or Yandex. Then, how about asking for a photo of your new friend at the location they claim to be messaging you from right now? Does the picture resemble your person? Does the background look like the west coast of Norway in February?
  • Talk to an independent third party and get their honest take. As Ruby told the story to me, she said out loud on a few occasions, “This sounds ridiculous.” Within a few minutes of talking to her, I was sure this was a scam, and I think talking to me helped her see that, too. I don’t think she’d ever told her story to anyone — in part, out of embarrassment. But when you hear yourself explain the whole story, it may sound crazy enough that it will help you change your mindset and admit the truth to yourself.
  • An argument I’ve heard again and again is: “But they never really asked for anything!” I’ve worked on dozens of these cases over the years. Sometimes the fraudster doesn’t want anything. Sometimes they are playing the long con, building it up for the big ask later on. Sometimes, it’s just about having some companionship, or the thrill of getting away with something. You really can’t imagine what motivates some people. All you can do is learn to protect yourself from getting hurt.
  • Remember that no one is immune, no matter their intelligence, education, or street-savvy. Anybody can get scammed, including billionaire investors, Nobel laureates, Harvard Law professors, and former U.S. Secretaries of State. Just knowing this can help inoculate you, to a degree, against the shame and denial that too often prevent people from taking timely action to defend themselves.
  • Self-awareness helps. What are your vulnerabilities, insecurities, or pressure points? Be brutally honest with yourself. Romance scammers are brilliant at exploiting desire: People want to feel lovable, attractive, generous, open-minded, compassionate, powerful, selfless or smart, so the scammer finds ways to fill that craving. But they can only fool you if you first lie to yourself.

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In this post, we are going to discuss how to search court records, specifically relating to civil lawsuits.

(If you are interested in reading more about how to conduct a criminal background check like an expert, check out our previous post.)

I consider court records one of the most important and underutilized resources in an investigator’s arsenal. They are open source (anyone can access them), they are based on factual data, they can provide an intimate picture of an individual or a business and there are millions of data points (millions of cases are filed each year).

As recently as 15 years ago, the only way to search court records was by physically going to each court and searching the records either on a computer terminal or in bound books. Since the late 1990s, however, records have been computerized with increasing regularity, and the individual courts are putting their records on the Internet.

This is not true for every court, unfortunately. Many courts (probably most courts) in the United States cannot be publicly accessed on the Internet and, in some cases, still require a trip down to the court (yes, this is 2019).

This post is meant to give you a broad overview of how to do court research, but there are hundreds of exceptions here. With more than 4,000 state, local and federal courts in the United States, it’s just not possible to cover everything.

Before we get into the meat of the post, let’s discuss some general terms about what a civil lawsuit is, types of cases that are filed and some general terminology.

What Is a Civil Lawsuit?

In general terms, a civil lawsuit is a case in which an individual or a business files a dispute against another individual or business, seeking some form of damages or compensation.

Some common types of civil lawsuits are related to marital matters, personal injuries, contract disputes, discrimination, copyright infringement, medical malpractice, and evictions or unpaid rent, all of which are handled by the civil courts.

There are a number of specialized courts as well, such as the U.S. Tax Court, the U.S. Court of Claims and the U.S. Court of International Trade, which are separate entities and have their own rules regarding access.

As noted above, finding criminal cases, although similar, is a whole different ball of wax.

State Courts versus Federal Courts

There are two different kinds of courts in the United States — state courts and federal courts. In the most basic terms, federal courts handle cases involving a violation of federal laws (e.g., discrimination, copyright), the Constitution, cases involving the United States as a party or cases involving citizens of different states.

State courts involve cases concerning state or local laws. The most common cases are marital cases, personal injury cases or contract disputes.

For comparison purposes, about 271,000 federal court cases are filed per year, compared with more than 16,000,000 cases filed in state courts per year.

Jurisdiction

For the most part, civil court cases are filed in the county or jurisdiction in which a person lives, works or conducts business (in the case of corporations).

It’s critical to understand which jurisdictions (specifically the counties) are relevant before you get started. If a person has lived and worked in Westchester County, New York, you need to make sure that you are searching state-level lawsuits in Westchester and federal-level lawsuits in New York.

While most cases are filed in the county or jurisdiction in which the plaintiff lived, worked or conducted business, there are always exceptions. For example, a person may be involved in a vehicle accident in a county neighboring where he or she always has lived. In large suburban areas like New York City, many people live outside the city in which they work.

In some instances, the case may be filed in the state in which a business was incorporated. For example, many large corporations are incorporated in tax-friendly states such as Delaware or Nevada; even if they do not conduct business in that particular state, a case may still be filed there.

Overview of State/County/Local Courts

Most state-level courts are split up by county. There is usually one “main” court in the county (typically called the Supreme, District, Circuit or Superior Court), with various smaller courts. In most instances, this main court will handle the more-significant cases, such as lawsuits involving more than $5,000.

If you are interested in being very thorough, you will need to make sure you cover both the main court and the smaller, outlying courts. In most cases, the smaller courts handle less-significant matters, such as small claims and eviction cases, which may not be all that relevant to what you are doing.

In many states, there are separate courts that handle matters such as family issues (e.g., divorce and child custody) as well as courts that handle probate matters such as wills and estates. In most cases, this requires a separate search because these courts are usually not directly wired to each other.

In summary, each county typically has one main court that handles the most-significant cases and many smaller courts for less-significant matters in terms of damages or other matters altogether.

Overview of Federal Courts

Federal courts are a little less complicated. In total, there are 94 U.S. district courts. Some states, such as Alaska, have a single judicial district, while others, such as California, have multiple judicial districts.

There are also appeals courts, where an unsuccessful party can file an appeal to have the decision reviewed. For the purposes of this post, we are discussing only originating cases, not cases on appeal.

How to Search Court Records


So now that you have a better understanding of the state and federal court systems, how do you go about searching court records?

Before conducting your search, there are few things you should keep in mind.

There is no central database.

There is no central database for searching all the courts. Despite the “millions” of records that you might find on some online site, I can assure you that they are neither complete nor comprehensive.

Databases can be quirky.

Searching databases can be quirky, so make sure you follow the directions. For example, in some instances, the full name and correct spelling are mandatory, while other databases will return names with similar spellings. Also, names may be misspelled or entered incorrectly, so be very wary of that.

In addition, some databases require you to enter a date range to search by, some have a preset date range and some will automatically search as far back as their records go. It is important to understand the scope of each online search. Sometimes a phone call to the court is necessary to confirm the scope of records available in the online database.

Last, many databases can be searched by plaintiff (the party filing the lawsuit) or defendant (the party who is being sued); make sure you search both.

Official repositories are always best.

If you are deciding which database to use, the “official repository” is always the best. Official repositories include state and federal government repositories where you can access information directly through the source — for example, PACER, the Cook County Circuit Court or the Palm Beach County Court.

The benefit, of course, is that you are using an official repository that is run by the state or federal government. It is important to remember that these repositories are only as good as the information they contain.

Of course… there are always exceptions.

The biggest exception is right here in my home state of New York. I’ve heard that many people use some combination of ecourts, SCROLL (Supreme Court Records On-Line Library) and NYSCEF – New York State Courts Electronic Filing as their only source for New York civil lawsuits.

I can tell you with 100% certainty that all three of those sites are totally incomplete. Take my word for it. 

Use multiple sources.

It is always recommended that you use multiple sources for searching records, even if you are using the “official” repository. After using one database, always try another — and don’t be surprised when you find different results.

Numerous times throughout my career, I have found records in one database and not another. Even “official” county-sanctioned databases have their issues.

The other nice thing about multiple sources is that you may be able to use more powerful searching capabilities. For example, PACER allows you to search only by first name and last name, while Bloomberg Law, LexisNexis and Westlaw allow you to search under name variations and allow you to search individual documents or docket sheets for references to someone’s name.

Civil cases don’t have identifying information.

Unlike criminal cases, which typically list some type of identifying information such as a date of birth or a middle name, civil cases do not. So, if you find a case filed against John Smith, it could be one of hundreds of John Smiths. While in some cases you may be able to determine within the court documents that the case is related to a specific person, the truth is that you may never know whether the case is related to that person.

That’s for another blog post, though.

Sources to Find State-Level Civil Cases


Online

For many counties, you can access the court records through the web. More often than not, those court records cover only the highest court in the county and not the smaller courts, but each county is different. Also, the depth of the information varies. Connecticut’s case lookup displays records for only 10 years, but at the local court, you can get records beyond that. (Insider tip: Court PC of Connecticut has been collecting records since the 1980s and is a fantastic source for historical records in Connecticut.)

Local retriever

There are thousands of local retrievers throughout the country who can search the local courts in person. They are a great source of information, too, as they know the ins and outs of their local court system. You can find a local retriever through the Public Record Retriever Network.

Third-party database aggregators

There are a number of third-party commercial database aggregators that have been collecting civil court case information for years, including LexisNexis, Westlaw, Bloomberg Law and CourtLink (which is owned by LexisNexis).

There are other third-party databases that collect information from a particular jurisdiction, such as Court PC of Connecticut , which collects Connecticut court records, and CourtTrax, which collects records from Washington and a number of other Western states.

Call the court

As a last resort, you can call the court directly (yes, using a telephone). In many small counties, you can actually call the court and they will do a search for you while you are on the phone. Or in some instances, they will ask you to submit a request by snail mail (yes, using the post office). Just a few weeks back, I spoke to a clerk in Hall County, Utah, who was able to look up a case for me while we were on the phone and email me the records.

Please don’t try calling the New York County Supreme Court, though; they will probably laugh in your face.

Or if you do call, don’t mention my name! ;-)

Sources to Find Federal-Level Civil Cases


PACER

PACER is a national locator index for federal district courts. The site is maintained by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and is updated daily. You can search by party name, case number or nature of suit. You can search the entire database (nationwide), or you can search by a specific region or state.

Third-party database

Just like the state-level lawsuits, there are third-party commercial databases that also collect information on federal court cases, including LexisNexis, Westlaw and CourtLink.

Why is this recommended?

As described above, over the years, I have found many instances where cases showed up in one database and not in another for no explicable reason whatsoever. And for reasons that I cannot really explain, PACER has taken it upon themselves to remove loads of historical information.

Summary

I hope you have found this a useful guide on how to search court records. With over 17 million cases filed per year, that’s a lot of information to go through, but I hope that you now have a better sense as to how to find them.

Of course, if you have any questions or feedback, feel free to leave a comment below.

References

The Differences between Federal, State, and Local Laws

Federal vs. State Courts – Key Differences

Court Statistics Project

USCourts.gov

National Center for State Courts

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1Someone who seems too good to be true 

2People who have absolutely no social network profiles (it’s 2019 people!)

3Insecure people

4People who describe himself or herself as “the only person to …” or “recognized as a world-class leader …” or “the first person to be awarded …” or “the youngest person ever to …” or “a pioneer in …”?

5People who likes to talk about themselves … endlessly

6People who don’t give you their real name

7Super-secretive people

8Those who have a “brilliant idea” every other week

9Anyone who posts anything on CraigsList

10Passive aggressive people

11People who don’t have a lot of friends (since they’ve likely pissed them all off)

12People who enjoy running

13Anyone who has tried to get you involved with something that sounds too good to be true

14Name droppers; especially the ones that drop names of people with little or no relevance to the topic at hand to impress others

15People who are constantly telling little white lies.

16People who are left-handed

17Anyone who has ever said, “Do you know who I am?”

18People who expect something in return for a good deed

19People who don’t listen

20That weird “friend” that “likes” everything you put on Facebook

21People who are desperate to be your friend

22People whose name is something like Jason Paul Smith, but goes by “Chip”

23People who constantly change their phone number

24People who don’t want you to see where they live

25Those who like to brag about themselves all the time

26Anyone who can’t hold a job for more than a few months at a time

27When you can’t explain what you do for a living

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I frequently get asked about commercially available investigative databases such as Intelius, Spokeo, and BeenVerified. The truth is that I have never used them, so I could never really give an intelligent answer. The professional databases that I rely on that are most comparable to Intelius, Spokeo, and BeenVerified can only be accessed by licensed private investigators, so I never had the need to review these other sites.

Until now.

Disclosure: In case this is not abundantly clear, I was not paid to write this article and do not earn a cent by using any of these services. I paid $264.43 out of my own pocket to run all of the searches described below.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty details, there were a few things that I was hoping to learn, and there are a few things to keep in mind as you read this review.

First, from my own personal experiences, I know that there are hundreds of databases out there. These three are some of the most popular, and therefore the only three that I decided to spend my money on. 

Many of these websites make boastful claims about how much information they can obtain and how accurate they are. They brag about having nationwide access to information such as  criminal records, marriage records, death records, address history, etc. For the most part, they are full of hot air. I know this because I have been in this business for almost 20 years and know that there is an abundance of information that is not digitized — “620 million court records searched” is worth almost nothing if you consider that there are billions of criminal cases out there. And the addresses and phone numbers identified for these individuals are not always accurate either, even in the professional-grade databases.

Second, I was not looking to use the cheapest services. As a private investigator, I value completeness and accuracy far more than price considerations. If you are looking for the cheapest database, this is not the place for you. Price, of course, is always a factor; I don’t want to get ripped off, but this did not affect my decision-making. Considering I spent close to $300 of my own money just to write this blog post, I hope that will sink in a bit.

Lastly, I was looking for transparency. Many databases make outrageous claims about “national criminal checks” (which do not exist), “100% accuracy,” or “guaranteed results.” Or they just bury disclaimers. I’ve been doing this a long time, and there is no such thing as 100% accuracy or guaranteed results. And there are so many limitations to databases too numerous to count. So I was looking for a database that was clear about what and where they search, and the information they have.

In order to determine the best of these databases, I did a few things: I ran a “comprehensive” database search on two different people to determine whether they had accurate information about addresses, criminal history, etc. One of those people was yours truly, Brian Willingham, and the other was a known convict who currently lives in New York and has a criminal history that includes a DWI, sexual abuse, endangering the welfare of a child, criminal possession of a controlled substance, and misdemeanor loitering.

Not someone you would want to hang around with.

Each of these databases was reviewed for transparency, accuracy, and ease of use, among other things.

Keep in mind that this is a very small sample size, so your results may vary.

Intelius

This one got off to a bad start.

First, they offered a $39.95 “background check” (discounted from $49.95), which was for their “Premium Plus” report. This was the only option I had to purchase a background check report, and gave me a voucher for one background check report.

After digging around the website, however, I learned that this also signed me up for monthly access. After futzing around with the website for 10 minutes, I was finally able to cancel the monthly membership. According to the email I received, I will be charged a $7.95 fee regardless. Nothing is more frustrating than being pegged with a bunch of fine-print fees.

Either way, this is off to a terrible start.

After that frustrating start, I got down to business and ordered a background check report on myself, which included, among other things: contact information, state criminal check, and “marriage & divorce.” I also purchased the add-on records for “current phone & address check,” federal criminal records check, nationwide criminal records check, and nationwide civil court records check for an additional $64.80, bringing my total bill to $104.75.

The accuracy results of the report were mixed. The “confirmed address” they had for me was for somewhere that I haven’t lived since 2002. All four of the phone numbers they had for me were associated with me at one point, and two of them are current and active. Interestingly, one of the numbers was from when I was a kid, and it was a number I haven’t used since 1992. They had my wife, brother, and father as relatives, and even had photos of my father and wife from Facebook. They also found no criminal records, judgments, liens, or bankruptcies, which is correct, as I do not have any of these. They did find a few federal criminal records in Texas, but I’ve never lived there.

Here’s where I got a bit frustrated. This report has tons of disclaimers about how it includes the “most comprehensive online results possible.” None of that was really made apparent on the initial search screen. From my personal experience, I know it’s true that in most states, marriage and divorce records are not publicly available. In the report they state that marriage and divorce records are provided online for California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, and Utah. I’ve never lived in any one of those states, so that was pretty useless. I’m sure in the fine print on the original search page there was some information relating to the fact that 39 of the 50 states have no records, but does anyone actually read the disclaimers?

They also found no civil court records in searching over “80 million court records,” and no criminal records searching over “250 million criminal records.” I know for a fact that there are other people named Brian Willingham in other states who have been sued dozens of times and have criminal charges. But this report claims there were “no records found.”

I then did a comprehensive background report on a known criminal who has a lengthy criminal history in New York. In New York, they had no records found. No felonies found. No misdemeanors found. In essence: 250 million criminal records and nothing found for a known convict.

They also found no civil records for the known criminal, despite his  being involved in several civil cases as well.

Spokeo

Spokeo got off to a much smoother start. Signing up and searching the website was much more fluid and transparent. The charge would be $0.95 cents upfront, with a seven-day trial, and $19.95 after that. On a side note, I find it ridiculous that all of these sites rope you into a monthly fee. They just hope you forget that you signed up and charge you a fee in perpetuity. But at least for this site, it’s not buried in some fine print like it was with Intelius. And I didn’t need to spend 10 minutes searching around to cancel the trial subscription like I did with Intelius either.

After purchasing the results, I also paid $19.95 to “unlock” personal and historical records (e.g., marriage, divorce, and census) as well as court records, for a total of $39.90. The final report was much cleaner and simpler to read than the Intelius report was, and they even offered a downloadable PDF version that looks clean and simple. They did, however, charge an extra $0.50 for that service, which seems a bit petty.

The accuracy results, similar to Intelius, were mixed. They got my current address right (Intelius did not); they had my month and year of birth right (Intelius had the entire birthdate); and they picked out who my wife is pretty easily. They also had some details about my house, which was not in the Intelius report.

The report, however, found no social networks for me (I’m pretty prominent on social media; just Google my name), no information on my work data (Intelius had my current and former employer); and its “620 million court records” found no records under my name. As noted above, there are plenty of Brian Willinghams who have both civil and criminal records, and for many of them, there is no way of knowing whether they are me without physically going to the court and reviewing the records. Therefore, it is pretty inconceivable to not have found anything.

I ended up clicking through to my wife’s report as well (which didn’t cost me anything additional). Her report had a number of other historical addresses and other information, including my personal email address, through which more than a dozen social media profiles were identified for me, including my LinkedIn and Twitter accounts as well as my business’ Facebook page.

I then did a comprehensive background report on a known criminal. They found no records in New York, in Nassau County (where all of the known criminal cases were filed), or nationwide. In essence: 620 million court records and nothing found. This made me wonder where they were looking in New York and Nassau County.

You have to access the relevant information in order to get the relevant results.

BeenVerified

As far as website transparency and usability, BeenVerified, right off the bat, was the most robust. It’s much better than the 2000s-looking Intelius or the scant Spokeo home page, which didn’t provide much in the way of details.

After entering in all of the information, the website brought me through numerous prompts. All in all, it took about five minutes to compile the report scanning social media, court records, etc. I think it was a bit of a dog-and-pony show, but they did end up giving some tidbits of information that were useful about what they were searching. It was only when that was completed that they told you about the $26.89 per-month membership fee for “unlimited background reports” and “unlimited contact information,” among other things. I had to pay another approximately $14 to unlock premium data, including criminal records.

Overall, the report was pretty robust, easy to read, and surprisingly transparent. They did not have my full date of birth or any current phone numbers, but they did have all of my family members, including some distant step-family members linked to me, my current address, some historical addresses that were not on any of the other reports, three photos of me, and email addresses linked to me, with the date that they were linked to my name.

I deeply appreciate their transparency with regard to things such as criminal records, educational background, and marriage records.

For criminal records, they found no records, but added the caveat that “records may exist that cannot be accessed digitally.” This was the first website that really nailed this. The reality is that most criminal records in the United States are NOT available digitally.

While Intelius just said “no records available for education,” BeenVerified couldn’t find any either, but provided a thoughtful explanation.

The reality is that you can easily find this information on my LinkedIn profile, but they at least provided some explanation as to what they did.

The same thing occurred for marriage and divorce records. They didn’t find any records, but they took the time to provide a detailed explanation that not all records are available and that you may be able to find these records using alternative methods. The truth is that you will never find my marriage record, because those records are not public in the state that I got married in.

BeenVerified also found a few things that no other report found. They had a record of a private investigator license in California, which I had many moons ago, and it also linked me to corporate records in New York for Diligentia Group. These are both publicly available records, but neither of the other two reports referenced them.

The report also said I was a licensed lawyer in New York, which is not the case.

I also appreciate the fact that you can easily run searches not just by a person’s name, but also by their username, phone, address, or email. You might be able to do that on Spokeo and Intelius, but it was not nearly as prominent. I utilize these types of searches on a daily basis for my work and they could certainly come in handy for others.

After running my report, BeenVerified was the clear favorite.

I then tried to run a search on the known New York criminal. His name was not even in the database. They found no records of him. Poof. Like a ghost.

Which brings me to another fascinating thing that most people don’t know: you can personally opt out of these websites. BeenVerified offers a pretty simple way to remove yourself from the database. So in this case, the known criminal likely did not want anyone to see that he had an extensive criminal history, and had himself removed.

The fact of the matter is, however, that it’s pretty easy to find the criminal history; it is public record, after all. You just need to know where to look.

***UPDATE: On June 2, 2019, I was charged a $26.89 fee from BeenVerified. I thought I done this, but it turns out that I didn’t cancel my membership. It took me about 10 minutes of messing around on the website to determine that you had to call during business hours or email them to cancel. Nothing like making it easy to cancel. 👎🏻👎🏻👎🏻

Final Verdict

Overall, none of them were perfect, though I liked BeenVerified the best out of the three. It got some things wrong and didn’t have any phone numbers for me, but this resource was the most transparent of the three, and had the most robust data. It was also reasonably valued compared to the others (Intelius cost more than twice as much).

If you were looking only for contact information, Intelius was much better than the other two for phone numbers.

Spokeo had the prettiest report, if that is the sort of thing that makes you happy.

Keep in mind, however, that all of these databases access only information that is digitally stored in whatever database they are searching. So it doesn’t matter if they are searching 620 million criminal records; if the criminal records from New York (where the person has lived) are not in their database, they are worth absolutely zilch.

Speaking of that, none of the reports included the criminal records for the known criminal from New York.

That’s a huge concern.

Frankly, I was not surprised at all, since all of these websites make all kinds of lofty promises with huge disclaimers in fine print. The reason that they didn’t find the records is that New York criminal records check can only be done through the New York Office of Court Administration. Unlike some states, where criminal data is widely distributed, it’s not in New York. It costs $95 to run the search.

But none of these websites made any mention of that little detail. So, unless you are a professional who actually knows what he or she is doing, you may have been totally duped into thinking that this person had no criminal history.

The bottom line is that these websites absolutely do have a place if you want to do a bit of poking around, but they are NOT comprehensive, NOT 100% accurate, and can’t really be relied upon entirely.

So, if you have something serious you are investigating, call a professional.

You can thank me later.  

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According to recently published report in the The Detroit News, the newly hired coach of the Detroit Lions, Matt Patricia, was arrested for aggravated assault in 1996. Patricia was on spring break in South Padre Island, when Patricia and another fraternity brother “burst” into an upscale hotel room and sexually assaulted a woman. Patricia and his fraternity brother were arrested and later indicted for aggravated sexual assault, but the two men never stood trial and the case was later dismissed.

As an investigator who has conducted thousands of “deep dive” investigations of high-profile individuals, this particular case caught my eye for a number of reasons.

How could the Lions not be aware of this? Was this criminal record readily available in public records or was this information brought to the attention of The Detroit News by a source? What can be done to prevent publicly embarrassing things such as this in the future?

Let’s tackle these questions.

Why weren’t the Lions aware of this?

When initially contacted by The Detroit News to comment on Patricia’s arrest, the team president said, “I don’t know anything about this.”

How is it possible that a multimillion-dollar business, with seemingly unlimited resources, could not know about this? Was the arrest something that was buried so deep that it would be nearly impossible to find? Or was this a failure to do any type of meaningful background check?

The Lions told The Detroit News the arrest “eluded them during a background check that only searched for criminal convictions.”

“We did a complete background check,” said Wood, the Lions’ president. “Our background check was limited to employment matters only and does not disclose any criminal matters that don’t result in a conviction or a plea agreement.”

There are a couple of things going on here that need some additional explanation.

For one, I searched for Patricia’s name in a national criminal record database that many investigators use, and easily found the record. It took me all of two seconds to find that a record existed and another two minutes to pull up some docket information on the Cameron County website.

Matt Patricia Criminal Record

While there are cases in which indiscretions are buried so deep they are nearly impossible to find without some sort of whistleblower or source, this is not one of those cases.

I won’t bore you with the details, but the vast majority of readily available criminal record databases and court records searches are for convictions only. To the layman, that means that criminal record databases typically only include records that resulted in some sort of verdict.

So, for example, if you were arrested but not charged or arrested, or indicted but the case was thrown out, those records will not be part of the criminal court records and cannot be easily identified in a background check. The only way to potentially get that record would be to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to the police department.

In this case, Patricia was not convicted. In a typical situation, this record would not be easily available. But in this case, it was. I don’t have a good explanation for this other than to say that this record happened to be digitized (many records over 20 years old are buried in a court card catalog), and it happened to be in a place where they report non-convictions.

In summary, there are certain states that also provide information on arrests and charges that do not result in a conviction. So, for example, if this were to have happened in New York, it would have been significantly more difficult to find, if not impossible. An investigator would have probably had to file a Freedom of Information Act request in every city that Patricia has ever been known to live in or visit; even then, it might not have been found. In this case, the arrest was across the country.

So how could the Lions not have known about this if they did a “complete background check”?

Technically, the Lions’ “background check” primarily includes criminal convictions, because most records are for conviction only. But even though this case did not result in a conviction, whoever was doing this background check should have been able to catch this arrest since it was in a widely used national criminal database ( “national” criminal records are a bit of a misnomer).

Let’s just forget the fact that the firm the Lions hired to do a background check did a shitty background investigation. Should the firm have known about this?

If you are hiring someone who is going to be publicly scrutinized, you have to ask difficult questions. Or make them fill out some type of questionnaire or form that asks them difficult questions. Anything that may come up that would publicly embarrass the organization. Or could potentially impede his ability to do his work properly.

It may not need to be at the level of the 127-page questionnaire for national security positions, but anything is better than nothing.

What’s particularly interesting about this case is that these types of indiscretions, arrests, etc., may not be found, even in a “complete” background investigation. While it’s pretty clear that the background check should have found something in Patricia’s case, there are other situations where such an event may not come up, since non-conviction records are hard to come by. Also, criminal record searches are filed county-by-county and typically focus on the counties where a person has lived or worked. Makes sense, right?

But in this case, Patricia was arrested in a place he was just visiting. Unless you knew that he spent some time there, you wouldn’t necessarily search in that county.

So were the Lions just following the letter of the law?

The Lions’ president seemed to be alluding to state and federal laws in the article when he said:

“We did a complete background check. Our background check was limited to employment matters only and does not disclose any criminal matters that don’t result in a conviction or a plea agreement.”

Let’s break this down.

So, if they did a “complete background check,” how was this missed? I guess complete means different things to different people. I’ve spent hundreds of hours doing background investigations on some folks, which included one-on-one conversations with past elementary school classmates. If that was “complete,” this hardly qualifies.

Granted, the Lions or other firms may not think it’s necessary to spend tens of thousands of dollars scrutinizing somebody’s background. In many cases, they are probably right. But you have to do enough poking around so something embarrassing like this doesn’t happen.

But it’s the second part of that quote that bothers me, that the background check was “limited to employment matters” and did “not disclose any criminal matters that don’t result in a conviction or a plea agreement.”

So they wouldn’t care if he was robbing banks as long as he could craft a good defensive scheme against Aaron Rodgers?

In fairness, state labor laws (which vary from state to state) and federal labor laws protect employers from making hiring decisions based solely on criminal records. According to the article:

Michigan employers are allowed by law to ask prospective employees about arrests for felonies, but not misdemeanors. In Massachusetts, where Patricia worked for the Patriots from 2004 until earlier this year, state law bars employers from asking about arrests that did not end in a conviction.

You will have to ask someone much smarter than me, but does this really apply to someone like Patricia? They’re hiring someone who is the public face of a very public organization and will be scrutinized to death, but they can’t ask prospective employees about past indiscretions?

I think you can make a very good argument that it doesn’t make sense.

How to prevent this in the future

First, I am a private investigator, not a labor attorney, so do not take this as any sort of legal advice. These suggestions are about high-level public positions or executive-level hires; they do not apply for your average employee hire.

1) Do a “complete” background check.

That does not necessarily mean sending a written request to every police department across the country to find out if there are any criminal arrests. Or flying around the country interviewing everyone that the person has ever met. But it does mean doing comprehensive criminal record research and civil record searches as well as deep public record research and open source research.

2) Develop a background check questionnaire.

Work with your attorney to develop a background check questionnaire. The 127-page National Security Position questionnaire may be a bit of an overkill, but it’s a start. At the very least, you should be asking about basic history, whether or not they have had any criminal past, civil litigation, bankruptcies or arrests.

3) Conduct interviews!

Any type of “complete” background check should include some form of human intelligence, or interviews. Public record searches, open source searches and a review of social media can tell you a lot, but interviews with adversaries, friends or former subordinates might be illuminating.

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Black death? Influenza? There’s a new, much more dangerous plague affecting a small group of Americans. A fast-spreading disease has affected the private investigation industry called SBI, short for Shitty Background Investigation.

To the best of my knowledge this has not affected our firm, but I know it exists because I have seen it with my own eyes.

And it’s frightening.

On February 10, 2018, at zero eight hundred hours, I came across four reports that suffered from SBI. These were provided by a law firm that had been recently retained by a prominent Florida businessman. The Florida businessman, working with another law firm, had retained an investigative firm to conduct a comprehensive, exhaustive public record and open record background investigation on some opponents in a high-stakes legal battle. These people were unaware that they were the subject of an inquiry against them, and overt investigation — such as surveillance and interviews — was out of the question at this point.

The Florida businessman was not expecting to find a serial killer among the ranks of the opponent, but he wanted to know everything he could about them before figuring out how he wanted to proceed. Money was not really an object; there were hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

Weeks later, the Florida businessman received copies of the background check reports. The reports, ranging from 47 to 96 pages in length, contained dozens of pages of what they would describe as “useless information,” such as the “target’s” phone numbers, neighbors, and addresses.

The Florida businessman immediately knew that something was wrong, but he could not pinpoint the issue. Although he had paid a few thousand dollars for the reports, he wanted more. For example, the reports pointed out dozens of lawsuits, some of which appeared to include some pretty serious issues, but they did not contain an iota of detail.

The reports also pointed out that one of the “targets” had thousands of tweets and Instagram pictures, but not a single word about the content of those tweets or photos. Was he doing bong hits? Or posting explicit photos? Or was he talking about his kids?

Neither the Florida man nor his attorney knew it, but they had hired a firm that had contracted SBI. What they received was a report that lacked depth and not a single piece of analysis. Not a single source document was included. In addition to pages of useless information, there was duplicative and factually incorrect information, and the report also suffered from a case of DTRS (Difficult-to-Read Syndrome).

“Education and awareness are going to be the keys to stopping this dreaded disease from spreading.”

Until the Florida man’s new attorney had contacted us, they did not know what they were looking at, but I was immediately able to diagnose the problem — there was no doubt that the firm had suffered from SBI.

How did these firms contract SBI? Scientists, doctors, and other investigative firms have been baffled by this. But just the fact that people are now openly talking about it is a step in the right direction.

“Education and awareness are going to be the keys to stopping this dreaded disease from spreading,” said one sufferer of SBI, who wanted to remain anonymous.

If you or someone you know is suffering from SBI, or you have received a report from someone who is suffering from SBI, please give us a call.

We can help.

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Investigators often debate the value of online research, and their opinions are varied, ranging from the it’s a “disgusting and unethical practice” to “applause” from a newer generation of investigators who think that any investigation can be solved with a few clicks.

The truth lies somewhere in between, but I am here to tell you that conducting online research is absolutely crucial to being a successful investigator.

Why is online research so valuable?

And what do investigators need to master it?

Accessible

Over the years, I have worked with a number of wealthy clients and investment firms that were interested in getting some information about a person for a possible investment, business partnership or joint venture. In each case, the client’s goal was not necessarily to dig up the proverbial skeleton hiding in the closet; rather, the client was interested in getting an understanding of who the target was and what he or she “was about,” including details about their personal life, business and educational background, financial status, or any significant controversies that they’d been involved with.

In 2017, I can spend a few hours searching the Internet, public records, open sources and social media and get a pretty good read on someone’s personal and professional life. This type of resources barely existed in 2002. Today, there are hundreds of sources that you can utilize. The key, however, is knowing the “go to” sources.

Covert

You can learn a lot about someone if you talk to the right people. It’s hard to dispute the value of making in-person inquiries with friends, families, neighbors and colleagues, former business partners, or local law enforcement.

Surveillance can also be an enormously valuable resource if you are interested in learning about someone’s activities. There is a host of information that can be obtained from “boots on the ground” inquiries that you just can’t obtain by sitting in front of your computer.

The problem, however, is that these overt inquiries may ultimately get back to the target of the investigation, which could cause a whole host of problems. And surveillance operatives can get burned.

There may be cases where your overtness may not really matter, but in many cases, it does. As long as you use some smart business practices in conducting online research – like using a VPN (I use Private Internet Access {affiliate link}) or “friending” the person you are investigating – there is very little chance that you will ever be burned by doing online research.

Cost-efficient

Investigators typically charge by the hour, which means that every moment working on a case gets billed to the client. Travel time, sitting-around-and-waiting time or waiting-for-something-to-happen time all get billed to the client. This can be great for the investigator’s bank account, but is not always so great for the client who has to foot the bill.

The simple reality is that any type of boots-on-the-ground investigation takes time and effort, and the hours spent doing this can add up quickly. A few hours of investigative time trying to get around the metro New York area will barely get me 30 miles and back.

Give me a few hours of online investigative time and I can tell you a lot about a person’s financial wherewithal as well as his or her personal and professional lives. I can tell you whether they have had any recent financial difficulties, whether they have been involved in any significant controversies, whether they have any serious criminal history or whether they have been the subject of multiple lawsuits.

How do you become a master of online research?

Do. The. Work. It is the simplest way of becoming great at something. Practice your craft until you are blue in the face. Repeat.

I’ve also put together a few other tips about bringing your investigative game to the next level.

I am doing a free webinar, September 28th at 2pm EST with Hal Humphreys of PI Education to discuss or open source intelligence.

Or you can take my course, Gathering, Analyzing and Interpreting Open Sources and Public Records, which is available at 50 percent off for the next 48 hours! {Ends Friday, September 29, 2017 at midnight.}

open-sources-and-public-records-master-class-cta

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