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

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.  

Guide to Hiring a Private Investigator

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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.

Guide to Hiring a Private Investigator

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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.}

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A North Carolina woman called a few weeks ago. She had paid a local investigator $2,500 to do some surveillance on her ex-husband’s new live-in friend. She had also asked the investigator to conduct a background check on the friend to see if he had any criminal history. After meeting the friend on several occasions, she was concerned that he might have a criminal history. After a few days of surveillance, she was disappointed that it didn’t turn up much of anything.

I tried to explain that surveillance is hit or miss; it’s hard to blame an investigator for not finding the kind of information that the woman was hoping to find. Surveillance is almost always a crapshoot. You have to manage with the cards you’re dealt. The timing may not be right. The person may not be very active or doing the things that you think he or she may be doing. And there seems to be this vast disconnect between how difficult surveillance can really be and what the client expects to obtain from it (hint: it’s not like what you see on TV!).

But the woman was particularly vexed by the so-called background check performed by the investigator. The investigator had submitted a report to the woman that was 50+ pages long and filled with a bunch of information that was difficult to read—data that she knew wasn’t all that accurate and didn’t provide any real analysis by the investigator.

It was what I would describe as a data dump: a bunch of raw data from a number of sources including criminal records, address history, property records and the like that was effectively “dumped” into a report.

When the woman forwarded the report to me, I recognized it immediately. It was a “comprehensive report” from one of the main database providers for investigators that cost less than $20. These reports are extremely valuable to an investigator, but they are a mere starting point for conducting a real background check.

The client was convinced that the ex-husband’s new live-in friend had some criminal issues or a deep dark secret in his past, and the client was not confident that the report provided by the investigator was reliable.

“Comprehensive” background check reports may not be so comprehensive

After seeing the report, I confirmed her suspicions. These types of reports are not comprehensive whatsoever. In order to do a thorough criminal background check, research would need to be completed in each county or state that the person has resided. Specifically, the individual had resided in a number of states for which the comprehensive report did not have any mention of criminal coverage whatsoever, such as Illinois, New York and Connecticut.

In order to conduct criminal background searches in those particular places, separate and specific criminal searches would have to be conducted either at the specific court or in specific databases that cover those areas. For example, a New York criminal record search can only be completed with the New York State Office of Court Administration.

At the end of the day, after conducting a thorough criminal search in each of the necessary counties and states, we were unable to find any criminal history. However, the woman was comforted by the fact that we were able to thoroughly check criminal records in all the places where the ex-husband’s new live-in friend had resided.

I’ve talked about this a number of times on this blog (here, here and here): a “background check” to someone else might be a couple of Google searches or running a name through a $10 database. A thorough background check is much more than that; it gives you the confidence that there are no issues that you need to worry about.

The problem is that most people are unwilling to pay the fees to do an exhaustive search.

If you are willing to accept that a cheap background check is really not all that comprehensive and may not find some critical information, you can save yourself some money by going that route.

But if you want any level of confidence in the findings, you are better off paying for a thorough background check, because not doing so may haunt you in the future.

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“How can I become a private investigator?”

I’ve been asked that question literally hundreds of time over the past several years. The truth is that I never had a great answer. Actually, I take that back. I had a decent idea, but it was nothing that I could boil down into a few sentences.

So I enlisted the help of a group of investigators who collectively have hundreds of years of investigative experience.

Together, we came up with a list of skills, traits and tips on how to become a private investigator.

Experience Required?

One thing to keep in mind is that most states require investigative experience in order for a person to obtain a license as a private investigator. Legally, if you are receiving money for “investigative” work, even if it’s only internet research, you need to be licensed in most states. Many states require a minimum of two years’ experience; some states require more than five years’ experience.

That means that you need to work under another investigator’s license in order to gain the required experience before you get your own license. Or that experience can come from related fields, such as conducting investigations for some government agency or the military, and in most cases, prior law enforcement experience counts as your investigative experience.

Learn From Others

Collectively, we all agreed that it is critical that you learn from other investigators. This is not a business that you want to be self-taught. There are a number of states that have absolutely no requirements for investigative experience, and a few states do not have any licensing requirements whatsoever. When you are self-taught, “you don’t know what you don’t know,” one investigator commented.

It’s so true.

Your experience does not even have to come from another private investigator. This experience can come from working at an insurance company, in asset protection within a corporation, as an investigator for district attorneys/public defenders or even as an investigative journalist. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an investigative firm that provides the experience.

Learning from others will provide you with a good overall skill set. One of the things that you will quickly find is that private investigators require a lot of skills, so even though it may not be readily apparent that certain skills will be useful, they may come in handy someday.

Learn to Write

Perhaps the most critical skill to develop is not the power of observation, critical thinking or even interview skills; it’s writing. Writing is a fundamental skill, and being able to write concisely, clearly and thoughtfully is absolutely essential.

Of all of the investigators I have met over the years who have easily and successfully transitioned into being a private investigator are investigative journalists. That is no accident. In fact, several members in the group said that if they had to start over again, they would work as an investigative journalist first, which would give them the writing, interviewing, research skills and tenacity that are required of the job.

I can teach people how to conduct research, interviews and send a FOIA request; teaching someone how to write is next to impossible.

“Major in whatever the hell you want, but learn to write, succinctly and well,” one investigator told me.

I couldn’t agree more.

You Don’t Need Law Enforcement Experience

Although there are a lot of former law enforcement officers who transition into the private investigation business (51 percent of private investigators have former law enforcement experience, according to PInow.com), it is absolutely not a requirement. I’ve written about this before, but I have seen former law enforcement officers have a challenging time transitioning to the private sector for a variety of reasons.

You will absolutely learn skills that can be carried over into private practice, and you will make some great contacts along the way that can be invaluable, but depending on the type of work that you do, coming from law enforcement can actually be a hindrance.

Patience

Patience is kind of a lost art in today’s I-want-it-now world of Uber, Amazon, Netflix, Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. Despite what you may think about the investigative business, it’s rarely glamorous and often requires grinding through difficult and sometimes tedious times. One investigator who has been in the business more than 20 years illustrated this point perfectly.

I was at the Library of Congress earlier this week looking up an article from “TV Guide” from the 1980s to be used in an upcoming case where I’m looking at trying to debunk an expert witness. I realized that I’ve been threading microfilm and trying to make copies from a big unwieldy box since at least the 1970s at my local public library, which I was doing for fun, never realizing it would later be my career. I think having that quality of enjoying the hunt, and being tenacious to scroll through documents [are] still the most important [skills]. I fear the generation of people coming into our business only think to “Google” something, and need to learn that the best answers usually come from exhibits in court filings, archived newspaper stories, which aren’t online, decades-old crisscross directories, etc.

Learn to Listen

You are born with two ears and one mouth for a good reason. Listening has quickly become a lost art, but if you know the difference between listening and hearing, you are on the right path. Effective listening is one of the most important skills a budding investigator can have.

Whom should you work for?

Several of the investigators I reached out to suggested that you join a large investigative firm so that you can navigate all the facets of the trade, such as interviewing, surveillance, databases, social media research, forensics, etc. In part, so that you can see what interests you most and figure out which field best fits your skill set.

It’s also important to learn about the ins and outs of the business, such as the type of work that is typically requested, billable rates and working with subcontractors.

“Nosy” and “Curious”

At a cocktail party, inevitably someone will tell me that they would be a good private investigator because they are nosy or curious. My typical response would include the ancient proverb “Curiosity killed the cat.”

The truth is, that’s probably the last person I want as a private investigator. If you’re a “research adrenaline junkie” or “curious by nature” or “a problem solver,” then there are a bunch of professions where that’ll be helpful.

The main difference between a private investigator and a curious person, journalist or law enforcement officer is that you are researching something only because someone is paying you to do so. You have to have laserlike focus on the task at hand for what the client wants for the budget they are willing to pay. Anything less, and you will fail as a private investigator.

Curious and nosy people have this persistent desire to know. While this can be a great trait, it typically doesn’t mix well with budgets and deadlines.

Get Some Basic Skills

Whether that’s taking some courses at a local college, teaching yourself how to mine social media, practicing interviewing and writing by starting a blog or taking an online course, the more skills that you have going into the business, the more attractive you look as a candidate.

Acquire a Skill

Getting an internship or a job in this business is not easy. It’s not a high-growth business that is hiring all the time. A couple of the larger firms I know have some good internship opportunities, but they are few and far between. You can easily separate yourself from others by having a skill. If you can speak a language, have a strong financial background or know how to code, you can definitely separate yourself from others.

Some Skills Can’t Be Taught

Tenacity and the willingness to put in lots of hours; those are two things that can’t be taught, both of which are absolutely necessary in this business. You can be taught a lot of things, but if you give up easily and are not willing to put in some long hours, including some overnights, this might not be the right job for you.

“The good investigators use investigative resources to help them solve problems and find answers; the so-so ones use them because it’s their job,” one investigator said.  

It’s Rarely Glamorous

You will notice that some of the things we discussed here – patience, long hours, tenacity, listening, writing – don’t include anything about Ferraris, car chases, cheating spouses or anything remotely close to what you may have learned from Magnum PI, Sherlock Holmes, Columbo or the esteemed members of Scooby-Doo’s Bloodhound Gang.

If you are an adrenaline junky looking for a bit of glamour, I’m afraid that this may be the wrong business.

Is private investigator the right job for you?

Who knows? That’s about as honest an answer as you can get.

There are no crystal balls. If you don’t have some of the personality traits or skills we have discussed here, maybe this is not the profession for you. Maybe you can learn some of these traits.

But here are some indicators that you might be cut out to be a private investigator:

  • You ask questions, twice.
  • You enjoy listening to others.
  • You look at boxes of documents and get excited.
  • You love the hunt.
  • You are willing to work the midnight oil to find that nugget
  • You love taking notes, and when necessary, you take notes on a cocktail napkin or an airplane vomit bag.
  • You understand the need for privacy laws and have a healthy respect for the law.
  • You know that no question is too stupid.
  • You believe in intuition.
  • You understand that there are at least three ways to catch a fox. If at first you don’t succeed, knock and knock again.

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