International Due Diligence – Investigative Due Diligence – Hedge Fund Due Diligence

Henk van Ess has been on my radar for the past few years. He’s a former investigative journalist who’s morphed himself into a social media investigative guru. He’s done work with a bunch of major media outlets and worked as a trainer and contributor to Bellingcat (a group of open source journalist nerds), but these days, he mostly does workshops, which included a whirlwind January tour with media outlets including ProPublica, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.

For me, Henk came into the spotlight in June 2019, when he became the de facto spokesman for the investigative community when he was quoted in several publications regarding Facebook Graph Search changes, which effectively killed the wealth of public information that Facebook could provide to investigators. Since that time, investigators around the world have been scrambling to find a fix.

In the world of open source investigation and techniques, there are a few people who are at the forefront — Michael Bazzell of Intel Techniques and Henk van Ess are two of them — and I listen to whatever they have to say. So any chance I have to meet one of them or learn from them, I am on it.

While most of Henk’s workshops are closed to the public, the last stop on his monthlong tour was an open event in New York City, hosted and sponsored by SkopeNow. I recently had considered flying to Amsterdam to take one of his courses, so this was a pleasant surprise and an easy choice, being right in my backyard.

According to Henk, I was literally the first person to sign up!

In short, the workshop was extraordinarily informative, and I got to meet some really interesting people. When you are learning from somebody who literally trains the most powerful investigative news reporters in the world and has done some really interesting work himself, you listen.

For me, part of this was a validation of things that I already knew. Some of it was an important reminder of how to think. And some of it was brand new.

Becoming a web search expert is no easy task; the landscape is constantly changing.

Although we were packed in like sardines, the interactive nature of the class was difficult with the large class, and teaching a diverse group at different investigative levels was a challenge, all of this got me really excited.

So, here are some fun tips, tricks and quotes I picked up over the two-day course.

If you are interested in getting some training yourself, Henk does private internal training, but he also has a course in March in Amsterdam and is doing a course in Washington, D.C., in June 2020 that you should be on the lookout for.

(You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn to get some news on that.)

Investigative Techniques

Think Like a Child

Funny that Henk mentioned this, because this is something I have written about before; it’s one of the favorite blog posts I have ever written. One of our tasks was to identify the location of a photo that contained a partial sign from a park. One of the keys to finding the sign was to type in the color of the sign. Almost nobody in the class thought to do that because it was so obvious and simple.

Behave Like a Computer

Computers are not human. So if you are looking for a map of something, most “maps” don’t have the word map on them. Computers rely on rules; humans use rules too but can infer from experience as well.

Google Triple Search

Henk coined the term “Google triple search,” which effectively looks for three separate terms, for example: “brian” “willingham” “diligentia”

Using Google triple search will help eliminate false positives. So in this case, using the triple search will identify postings relating only to me, as there are a number of other Brian Willinghams out there, including a former police officer and a California real estate agent.

UPDATE: Turns out I had the “Google triple search” all wrong, as Henk later clarified on Twitter:


The principle of falsification is trying to disprove a theory or information. So, for example, we went through an exercise of trying to show that a profile photo for a purported Russian spy was not, in fact, taken on the day it was purported to have been taken. In this case, we had to prove only that something was untrue.


“For any serious research, I don’t use Google Chrome anymore.” In short, Henk says that Google Chrome skews your results too much; he prefers Firefox.

”It’s important to know that you don’t know everything.”

“To be a great investigator, you need to hop from data to data like Spiderman.”

“Most investigators don’t have time to research research.” So unbelievably true.

“The biggest problem is that you are too experienced. The problem with knowing too much is it’s difficult to detach you from what you already know.”


I’ve been talking about this for a few years, but Yandex has an unbelievable facial recognition engine. While it sounds like Google has all the technology to do the same, they have to worry about privacy and things like the EUs GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). Yandex “doesn’t give a shit about GDPR.” Totally makes sense, given that they are based in Russia.

Lots of investigators have talked about Pipl; frankly, they’re mainly international investigators who don’t have access to the kinds of databases we have here in the U.S. But maybe it’s time for another look.

A lot of investigators have been raving about Maltego for quite some time, and I think it’s time to jump on the bandwagon.

4K Stogram downloads Instagram videos and stories.

Video Downloader professional is a Chrome extension that lets you save any online video from any website.

Image Composite Editor creates “stitched” panoramic photos from a video to create a single photo that you can more easily analyze.


Trying to find a witness or whistleblower on Twitter or other social media platforms? First of all, “Real witnesses don’t use hashtags; they are too busy being a witness,” says Henk. No person will use the word “witness,” but about 75% of them will use personal pronouns like  “I” or “my” or “me.”

Most people know that searching the local country-specific Google website will get you more local results. In times past, you would have to go to, for example, Google.fr (Google France) or sign in through a virtual private network from the specific country to get those results. Now you just need to change the region in the search settings.

Quotation marks have a completely different meaning now. While in the past, you were telling Google to “shut up and listen” and only give results based on what’s in the quotes, now Google likes to think it knows what you want.

If you are looking for witnesses/whistleblowers, there are six times more employers on Facebook than there are on LinkedIn.

Magical formula to find interviews: “said Warren Buffett” OR “Buffett says.”

So You Think You Can Google

I once heard an attorney describe a private investigator as an “expensive Google search.” But I am pretty sure that attorney doesn’t know a fraction of the “ninja” Google stuff that can be done.

The term “Google dorks” refers to specific search queries that use Google’s search operators to find specific information. There are dozens of advanced operators and searches you can try, and there are endless combinations of possibilities. 

For example, as I mentioned on LinkedIn last week, if you want to do a quick, down and dirty negative internet string on someone, one of my favorite tricks to see if there is any low-hanging fruit is to run this Google query:

“{person or business name}” (arrest OR assault OR attack OR bribe OR corruption OR criminal OR defraud OR fraud OR illegal OR indict OR investigation OR launder OR misconduct OR misrepresent OR negligence OR violation OR sanction OR terror).

Or if you want to get even nerdier:

“{person or business name}” AROUND(20) (arrest OR assault OR attack OR bribe OR corruption OR criminal OR defraud OR fraud OR illegal OR indict OR investigation OR launder OR misconduct OR misrepresent OR negligence OR violation OR sanction OR terror).

The AROUND(20) represents that the “person or business name” needs to be within 20 characters of the remaining terms. The AROUND must be in capital letters and the 20 can be changed to whatever number you want.

Henk went over a number of really interesting Google dorks; in particular, he showed some interesting ways to use a combination of these tricks. For example, we were looking for the name of a river in Phoenix, Arizona, but when typing “River in Phoenix” in Google you get results for the actor River Phoenix.

But you will get the name of the Salt River if you type: River phoenix -“river phoenix”

When doing research on people, there are at least six ways that you will have to search in order to be thorough: “John Doe” or “John” “Doe” or “Doe, John” or “J. Doe” or “Doe, J.” or “John * Doe” (in case there is a middle name or middle initial)


Last, I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss Skopenow. Although the vast majority of people in attendance were Skopenow attendees, I was not. Nevertheless, they were extremely gracious hosts and kind enough (with a little pressure) to invite me to the group dinner.

Skopenow’s platform is really interesting, focusing on social media intelligence in combination with data from data providers like TLO. It’s a pretty powerful set of tools that is not well covered in other databases that I use.

I have always seen this tool as a way to quickly capture lots of data points, social media profiles and links. For example, I would use it for making a quick assessment of somebody or if you were an insurance firm and need to cull through thousands of social media posts or are doing a risk assessment on a number of people.

Given that much of my work is really manual, deeper and thorough because I am interested in every word, like and link, I haven’t seen a huge need for it. In a typical case, I will spend hours looking through one person’s social media, so having a tool that can cull lots of stuff is an interesting but not necessarily indispensable tool for my work.

But I am interested in giving it a shot to see how it fits into my processes.

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This post was originally posted on March 27, 2014, but was updated on May 3, 2019 with new information.

As private investigators, it’s safe to say that we use thousands of online websites and databases on a monthly basis. While the types of websites that we visit depend on the case that we are working on, below we have outlined some of our “go to” resources.

While there are many sites that offer free access to information, the best sites usually have some sort of fee. In some cases, access is restricted to private investigators, but in most cases, the information is available to the public.

You may notice several New York based links, which is a bit bias, but it’s where we are based and it happens to be the financial capital of the world. You will also notice quite a few links from places like California, Florida, Texas and Illinois, which are some of the most populous states and / or have awesome public record laws (hey Florida!)

Without further ado, here’s our list of 101 research and investigative links for a private investigator (or amateur sleuth), in no particular order:

Professional Investigative Databases

1. Accurint / IRB ($): The reliable veteran of database for investigative professionals which has “billions” of records from numerous public and proprietary sources. Great for identifying historical addresses.

2. TLO ($): The emerging star for investigative databases. They have a user friendly site, with fresh information and is highly recommended. Great for identifying current contact information.

3. IDI ($): The new kid on the block of investigative databases. Still finding its legs, it has proven valuable in identifying contact information not found on IRB or TLO.

4. BellesLink ($): Another new tool in our database arsenal, this site is also great for assisting with mass phone calls and reverse phone number searches.

5. Transparint: Great tool for narrowing down negative news and searching dozens of watchlists.

Court Searches / Public Records

6. LexisNexis CourtLink ($): An oldie-but-still-goodie. Provides docket research and access to one of the largest collections of federal, state, and local court records.

7. LexisNexis ($): The industry standard for public records searches.

8. Westlaw ($): Always the second fiddle to LexisNexis, but make no mistake, they can go toe-to-toe with them.

9. PACER ($): Provides U.S.-based civil, criminal and bankruptcy case and docket information from federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts.

10. BRB Publications, Inc.: BRB’s has more than 3,500 vendors who maintain, search or retrieve public records in local counties.

11.  The United States Tax Court: If the IRS has determined that an individual has a tax deficiency, the taxpayer can dispute the deficiency in US Tax Court.

12. Alacourt – Alabama Court Records ($):  Access To Alabama State Trial Court Records

13. Alaska Court View: Access to District Court records for Alaska

14. Arizona Judicial Branch: Access to Justice, Municipal and Superior Court records in Arizona

15. Connecticut Courts: Access to Superior Court records for Connecticut dating back 10 years.

16. Court PC of CT ($): Third-party resource for Connecticut Court records dating back to the 1980s

17. Virginia Courts: Access to General District and Circuit Court records for Virginia

18. Los Angeles Superior Court ($): An index of defendants in criminal cases in the Los Angeles Superior Court.

19. Wisconsin Courts: Access to public records of the Wisconsin Circuit Courts

20. Maryland Courts: Maryland judiciary case search

21. Missouri Courts: Case management system for Missouri state courts

22. Indiana – mycase: Case management system for Indiana state courts

23. Iowa Courts Online ($): Case management system for Iowa state courts

24. Michigan Courts:  Case management system for Michigan state courts

25. Delaware – State of Delaware Courts: Case management system for Delaware state courts

26. Texas Secretary of State ($): Texas corporate records and UCC filings

27. Georgia Property Records ($): Property records throughout the State of Georgia

28. Search Systems Criminal Record Search ($): Searches more than 450 million criminal records in the U.S.

29. California Secretary of State: California corporate records and UCC filings

Search Engines

30. Google: Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and it is a pretty good place to start any research inquiry.

31. Bing: Not ever search engine is created equally. Bing provides alternative search results so be sure to search here.

32. DuckDuckGo: For anonymous searches and unique search results. DuckDuckGo is a great source.

33. Google Search Operators: Because typing a straight search string is not enough.

34. Yandex Image Search: This image-based search engine is another recent addition to our arsenal.

Employment / Degree Verification

35. National Student Clearinghouse ($): National Student Clearinghouse provides a service to verify students majors, degrees, dates of attendance, and dates of graduation.

36. The Work Number ($): Need to verify employment history? This is a good place to start.

Financial and Government Regulatory

37. Investment Adviser Search: Information about current and certain former Investment Adviser Representatives, Investment Adviser firms registered with the SEC and/or state securities regulators.

38. FINRA Broker Check: Provides information on the background of registered investment professionals.

39. FINRA Arbitration & Mediation: Records on arbitration and mediation awards for FINRA Cases.

40. North American Securities Administrators Association: Links to all 50 state securities regulators

41. National Futures Association: Self-regulatory body for the U.S. Futures Industry

42. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: Regulatory body for investment industry protecting individuals interests

43. Governmentattic: Provides electronic copies of thousands of interesting Federal Government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

44. U.S. Department of Treasury: Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List

45. Bureau of Industry and Security – U.S. Department of Commerce: Denied persons list

46. System for Award Management: Access to information for federal government awarded contracts and contractors, among other things.

Political Contributions

47. Open Secrets: Third-party resource for federal political contributions.

48. Federal Election Commission: Federal political contribution records directly from the source.

49. Follow The Money: Search state political contributions records.

New York Specific Links

50. New York City Department of Finance – Office of the City Register: Property records for the five boroughs of New York City.

51. New York City Property: Provides up to date tax information for properties in the five boroughs of New York City.

52. New York State – Department of State Division of Corporations, State Records and UCC: Search for New York State business and not-for-profit corporations, limited partnerships, limited liability companies and limited liability partnerships, as well as other miscellaneous businesses.

53. New York State Campaign Financial Disclosure: New York State political contribution records.

54. The New York City Campaign Finance Board: New York City campaign contribution records.

55. The New York Unified Court System (UCS): Access to eCourts, which provides access to information on future court appearances in New York and limited historical cases.

56. Westchester County Clerk ($): Access to legal records and land records for the Westchester County, New York.

57. New York Attorney Search: Verify the license of a New York attorney

58. New York Professional License Search: Search for professional licenses in the State of New York, like doctors, accountants and architects.

59. New York Department of State, Division of Licensing Services: Search for other professional licenses including notary public, security guard and private investigator.

60. New York Inmate Locator: Searches New York State Department of Correction records.

International Investigators

61. Council of International Investigators : For over 50 years, this established and well respected international association of over 300 professional private investigators and private detective meets strict membership criteria maintaining the highest quality professionals within the private investigation business.

62. World Association of Detectives: Started in 1921 and was formed as a joint venture by the combined membership of the World Association of Detectives and the International Secret Service Association.

State Criminal Record Checks

63. Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Computerized Criminal History (CCH) ($)

64. Connecticut Department of Public Safety ($)

65. Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Criminal History  ($)

66. Georgia Felon Search ($)

67. Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center ($)

68. Idaho State Police Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) ($)

69. Illinois State Police ($)

70. Indiana State Police Limited Criminal History Search ($)

71. Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Criminal History Record Check ($)

72. Kentucky Court of Justice, Administrative Office of the courts ($)

73. Maine Criminal History Record ($)

74. Massachusetts Department of Criminal Justice Information Services (DCJIS), Criminal Offender Record Information (iCori) ($)

75. Michigan State Police Internet Criminal History Access Tool (ICHAT) ($)

76. Missouri Automated Criminal History Site (MACHS) ($)

77. Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation ($)

78. Nebraska State Patrol Criminal Identification Division (CID) ($)

79. New York State Office of Court Administration criminal record search ($)

80. Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation ($)

81. Oregon Open Records ($)

82. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), Citizens Access to Criminal Histories (CATCH) ($)

83. Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Open Records Information Services (TORIS) ($)

84. Texas Department of Public Safety Computerized Criminal History System (CCH) ($)

85. Vermont Criminal Information Center Department of Public Safety Division of Criminal Justice Services ($)

86. Washington Access To Criminal History ($)


87. Internet Archive: An investigator’s playground. Like a paper library, the Internet Archive is building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form.

88. Domain Tools ($): DomainTools offers an excellent searchable database of current and historical domain name registration and hosting data.

89. The U.S. Department of Justice: National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW): National source of sex offender data

90. Federal Inmate Locator: U.S. Bureau of Prisons inmate locator

91. State of Delaware – Department of State Division of Corporations: More than half of the Fortune 500 is incorporated in Delaware and so are many financial related firms.  

92. Guidestar ($): Records relating to non-profit organizations

93. Tape Recording Laws: Tape recording laws for all 50 states

94. Ancestry.com ($): There are hordes of genealogical sites out there, but Ancestry.com has the most robust database.

95. TheOnion: Because we all need a good laugh once in awhile

96. SpyDialer: SpyDialer lets you find out who is behind a cell phone number by stealthily capturing a voicemail recording.

97. Newspapers.com ($): Millions of historical newspapers dating back to the 1700s

98. Historical Military Records: Verify historical military records

99. Active Military Status: Verify active military status with the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) Website

100. Open Corporates: The largest open database of companies in the world.

101. Indeed: Massive open source resume database using their advanced resume search.

Social Media

102. (Bonus) IntelTechniques: Last but certainly not least and probably the top 3 most valuable links on this entire list. Dozens of tools for mining social media activity by username and / or URL as well as other sources for open source and public record investigations.

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I was struck today by the story of Steven Zoernack, who suckered 40 investors out of $5.6 million, all while hiding the fact that he had two felony fraud convictions (he appears to have been on probation during the time he was soliciting investors for his new scam) and a bankruptcy as well as money judgments and liens.

As a private investigator, I always wonder to myself, “Why would anyone invest with someone like Zoernack?”

As a natural skeptic, I am always miffed that people will provide their hard-earned money to people like this. Literally 10 minutes of digging around on the Internet would have shown that this guy had some serious issues.

Which got me thinking: If I wanted to make millions by perpetrating a fraud, what would I do?

With just a few minutes of consideration, I was able to come up with a slew of ideas.

I don’t know if Zoernack did all of these things, but after following a number of investment scams over the years, including Mouli Cohen’s, I have come up with the ultimate plan to make millions.

Pick an Investment Strategy That Is Insanely Complicated

The first thing you need is an investment strategy. You don’t want to pick something that people can easily invest in somewhere else. It needs to be complicated. The more complicated the investment strategy, the better.

You might be the only one who understands your investment strategy, but that’s OK. Amazingly, people will invest in things that they have no idea about.

Within reason, of course, the more complicated something is, the more people will think you are absolutely brilliant. But you need to be able to explain the strategy in simplistic terms so that the people you are soliciting have some clue. And you need to have a good story with it. A loophole or “secret” helps too.

Look the Part

This is probably the easiest part. After all, you can’t expect to solicit millions of dollars driving around in an old jalopy and wearing a fake Patek Philippe.

You need the latest-model Mercedes, or better yet, several late-model luxury cars. Armani suits and nice jewelry are an added bonus, but you can even get away with nice-looking track suits. Whatever situation you are in, you’ve got to dress the part. And you are better off overdressing, not underdressing.

You will also need a beautiful companion who loves the life of luxury. Your companion doesn’t need to know what you are up to, but he or she needs to love being showered with gifts, dressing in designer wear and being seen at all the exclusive local events.

Waterfront homes, yachts and large philanthropic contributions don’t hurt either.

Move to the Right Place

Colleagues of mine always joke that every financial scam has some sort of connection to Florida. And this is backed up by real data too. I don’t know what’s in the water, but Floridians are the most susceptible group to fraudsters who I have ever seen. The best example is Bernard Madoff, who had a connection to Palm Beach, where a number of victims invested.  Scott Rothstein, Gary Gauthier and Lou Pearlman come to mind too. Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach would be good places to start.

Whatever the plan is, don’t do it in your own backyard. Move somewhere new. You will need to take some time to establish yourself and lay the groundwork, and you don’t want anything from your past coming back to haunt you. The best way to do that is to go to a different part of the world.

Besides, people love the new guy in town.

Get in with the Right Crowd

This one’s a bit trickier. There have been a number of successful frauds that prey upon low-income people. But that’s a lot of people who you need to convince. There’s just too much risk of getting caught with all those people.

You can always prey upon members of an identifiable group, such as those in religious and ethnic communities, which is more commonly referred to as an affinity scam. Bernie Madoff preyed on Jewish victims. If you are not part of a strongly identifiable religious or ethnic group, you can always prey on the elderly. They are quite the gullible group.

But the best thing to do is to find a wealthy enclave of people, but preferably not in a big town like New York City. Mid-size towns work best.

And besides, part of the way that fraudsters justify their actions is by saying that their schemes  are victimless crimes. “Nobody dies,” one might say. And rich people don’t need their money. Or so the fraudsters say.

Go to the Most Exclusive Places

In addition to dressing the part and acting the part, you need to be at the right places — the gala events, charity balls and society parties. Make sure that you have your picture taken with the movers and shakers too. You can really leverage a picture with a politician, celebrity or successful businessman. And make sure you prominently display that photo.

Start a Charity

Even if the tide starts to turn against you, you will always have the charity to fall back on. People will say, “Yes, he may be a fraud, but he does all of that great work for charity.” You really don’t have to do all that much for a charity, but you need to make it as real as possible.

Trust me, it works. Literally, every single investment fraud I have ever done research on has some sort of charitable component. I have found that the charity is best when it’s for a group that everyone can relate to, like children or people with cancer. 

Hire a Firm to Manipulate Online Search Results

If you meet someone, what is the first thing you will do?

If you said “Google them,” you are like 94.6 percent of the rest of the population (I just made that number up, but it’s probably pretty accurate).

If it hasn’t happened already, and you don’t have some sort of criminal past, at some point there will be some complaints about you. After all, you will be screwing some people over at some point.

Jack the Ripper once said, “The best place to hide a dead body is page 2 of Google search results.”

So you need to get ahead of the game and hire a firm to manipulate the search results. That’s so that all the stuff that you don’t want people to see gets buried on page 2 of Google.

Release a bunch of fancy-sounding press releases. Register domains with your name to make sure that they show up high on search results. Sign up for every social media profile that you can, using your real name. Make sure you have great pictures of yourself and be sure to update all of these profiles often.

This is so that you can have a beautifully crafted persona at the top of the results, while all the bad stuff gets buried on page 2 of the Google results. After all, as Jack the Ripper once said, “The best place to hide a dead body is page 2 of Google search results.”

Zoernack paid an Internet-based search engine manipulator $10,000 to make negative information about him appear less prominently in search engine results. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the millions that you will pull in.

Don’t Register Funds with the SEC or Any State Regulators

Why would you ever want to have yourself scrutinized by the SEC or any of the state regulators? Even though you are supposed to do so, they won’t catch on for quite some time. It’s probable that you will eventually get caught, but there is no need to speed up the process. It took them 25+ years to catch up with Madoff. Zoernack wasn’t registered at all and it took the SEC years to finally catch up with him.

Make Things Up That Nobody Can Verify

Zoernack’s employment history, according to LinkedIn, included a bunch of defunct firms like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. Good luck trying to verify that. Mouli Cohen issued multiple press releases claiming that he “was awarded the first-ever ‘Millionaire Residency’ with full citizenship status by President George H. Bush.” Unfortunately for Mr. Cohen, as far as we can tell, there is no such thing as a Millionaire Residency status.

Another good one is fake military service, preferably with some secret special forces unit. It’s probably not a good idea to fake a “normal” military service, as that’s pretty easily verifiable. The best thing to do is to have a history in some secret unit. Therefore, when someone questions it, you can easily say, “Nobody knew who I was. Nobody was allowed to know who I was.” This has worked for many, including Wayne Simmons, who purported to be a former CIA operative.

Create a Fake Work History

The fancier the work history, the better. Most companies will only verify your employment information with a signed release, so you don’t need to worry about someone checking up on it. Just make sure that you can’t verify it through some other means, like regulatory records, historical media or press releases. And if you have a bunch of gaps in your employment history, you can make up stuff to fill them in. Nobody is likely to check anyway.

Fake Your Degree

If you have an Ivy League degree, you get a certain amount of respect. Don’t worry, if you don’t actually have a degree from an Ivy League school, you can just make that up too.

Most schools these days use an outside service called National Student Clearinghouse to verify degree information. And most schools, even if you call them (or even beg them, as I have done many times), will not verify the information any other way.

Why does this matter?

In order verify a degree in the National Student Clearinghouse’s database, which covers most of the schools in the United States, it requires that the student “has applied for or received products, services or employment that depend upon verification of degree and/or enrollment.”

Even if you have a signed release, they won’t verify the information since it doesn’t fit one of those categories. This is despite the fact that FERPA considers degree verification information “directory information” that schools may disclose without consent. It’s totally bogus, but I am not the one making up the rules. 

Nevertheless, make sure you claim to have graduated from a college that will not release degree information through any other way besides the National Student Clearinghouse, since they are the guardian of millions of degree records.

Fake Your Investment Performance

This is pretty obvious. Since you are probably going to be terrible at whatever investment you make (and considering you are probably going to be taking money from investors), you will need to provide some documents that fake your investment performance. It’s preferable if you have some sort of “audited” statements from an accounting firm, but that’s not totally necessary. People tend to believe what they see in any glossy presentation.

But don’t get too greedy. You can’t have some ridiculous investment performance that nobody will believe. You just need to show some strong, consistent returns, especially in a down market.

Don’t Fake Everything

Even with your fake degree, fake work history and fake investment performance, you don’t want to fake your entire life. It’s good to mix in a bit of real life with the fake stuff. You do have to have a little bit of authenticity (just not too much). If your real-life story is completely boring, it’s OK to embellish it a bit. Just make sure you stick with the same story; you don’t want to get caught telling a lie.

Promise Exclusivity

Everyone knows that exclusivity creates demand. A lot of scammers like Madoff have done this. You need to know someone to be part of the exclusive club. Don’t take any new investors unless they are part of this exclusive club. And make sure you talk it up.

“Normally, I don’t do this, but I will allow you to invest; however, you need to invest at least $250,000.”

Or only accept investors who have been vouched for by another investor.

I’ve seen both of these strategies work perfectly before.


One would think that in the information age, it would be easier to avoid these kinds of frauds. But the complete opposite seems to be true. Turns out that more than 12 percent of Ponzi-type schemes were carried out by perpetrators who had a prior history of fraud. That number just boggles my mind.

So how do you avoid all of this?

Of course, you could hire a professional. 

But it turns out that we have written quite a bit about this very topic. Here are a few tips gathered from our blog and around the web to help you out:

Guide to Hiring a Private Investigator

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A few weeks ago, I was asked the following question via email: “I am wondering if you would be able to get a person’s education history and degrees, etc., with just their name and date of birth?”

Like all good questions, the answer is maybe.

First, there is no simple database in which you can type in a person’s name and date of birth to reveal their education-related history or degree information. It just simply doesn’t exist.

If an investigator, or anyone else for that matter, is trying to determine where someone went to school, there are a couple of places that they should look:

Social Media

People say the darndest things on social media, including where they went to school. And even if they don’t specifically disclose their education history, they may like, tweet or follow their favorite school(s), which might offer you a pretty good clue.

Self-Reported Biographies

Business websites, nonprofit agencies and even personal websites can be a gold mine of education-related history. Even if the business/personal/nonprofit site is no longer operational, you may find it stashed away on the Wayback Machine.

Newspaper Articles

Once upon a time, companies would issue a press release anytime a new executive position was filled, with the details of the new executive’s work and education history. Today, that’s usually reserved for really high-level positions with larger companies, but you can still find job announcements, profile pieces or college graduation announcements in newspaper archives.


Nearly everyone has a resume or a curriculum vitae, but it may not be so easy to find. For example, I have one, but it hasn’t been updated in more than six years and is not available on the Web. Many people use LinkedIn as their resume these days, so that’s a good place to start (here are some tips to search LinkedIn like a pro).

Indeed.com, one of the largest repositories of resume and job information, has a free resume search. Other massive repositories of resumes, including Monster.com and Dice.com, require a subscription in order to access their resume database.


It’s always worth doing a quick Google search for the person’s name, along with the words “resume,” “CV” and “curriculum vitae.” You might be surprised by what you find.

I would also do some Google searches with the words “alumni,” “university” or “college”—you just may get lucky and find an old alumni magazine or posting on Classmates.com.

If All Else Fails

If all else fails, one final trick I would use is to identify the subject’s address history from when the person was in their late teens and early twenties, which will often give a clue as to where the person went to school, especially if it’s in some remote town far away from where they grew up.

Verifying the Degree

Of course, since all of this information is self-reported, this doesn’t confirm that the student actually attended or graduated from the school. For that, you will need to contact the school directly. Most schools in the United States outsource the degree verification process through the National Student Clearinghouse.

Even though the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) considers the degree and dates of attendance “directory information” that may be disclosed to the public, National Student Clearinghouse will only release the information for specific purposes, such as employment or self-verification. I have found the some schools are sympathetic and are willing to provide the verification over the phone.

In Summary…

So, there you have it. There is no simple database that will reveal someone’s education history by using just their name and date of birth, but there are indeed ways to identify a person’s education history with a little ingenuity and know-how.

Guide to Hiring a Private Investigator

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Anyone can request their own driver abstract record or “lifetime abstract” in New York by submitting Form MV-15 to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, but for individuals seeking to obtain someone else’s record, there are privacy protections in place.

New York State driving records are protected by the Federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act and by sections 87 and 89 of the NYS Public Officer’s Law. In short, records that pertain to a license or motor vehicle registration are protected, unless you must have a permissible purpose that applies for the record that you are requesting. If you have a permissible purpose, you will be provided with a driving abstract from the proceeding four years.

Although some records, such as alcohol related offenses, remain on the abstract for more than four years, in some cases, a lifetime abstract may be needed, which provides all information in the Department of Motor Vehicles possession, with some exceptions:

A “lifetime” driving record contains all the license information DMV has available about a driver. The “lifetime” driving record will display all information still in DMV’s possession regardless of the data retention requirements found in Vehicle and Traffic Law.

A “standard” driver license abstract only contains information that DMV is still required to keep. For example, most suspensions and revocations are only shown on the standard driving record abstract for 4 years from the date the suspension or revocation ended. A “lifetime” driving record will show suspensions and revocations that are older than 4 years.

In order to obtain a lifetime abstract for someone other than yourself, you will need to fill out form MV-15 in order to request the record and submit a notarized copy of form MV-15GC which gives the drivers permission to obtain the record. The fee is $10.

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As a private investigator conducting web-based research on a daily basis, one of the biggest challenges is to separate wheat from the chaff.

Navigating between the waves of useless information on classmates.com, mylife.com and manta.com and sifting through the top search results on Google serves as a challenge when conducting investigative research on the web.

Additionally, no matter what type of investigation you are working on, there are certain sets of websites which are always good to search, regardless of what type of case you are doing.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

In order to avoid to separate some of the wheat from the chaff, we have created our own Custom Google Search Engine to specifically search more than 75 government agency websites. This Custom Google Search Engine is designed specifically to focus on governmental agencies, financial regulatory agencies as well as the 50 attorneys general websites.

This is not a search of all the more than 1,000 government departments and agencies. This list has been curated over the years to identify potential issues relating to individuals and businesses.

We have been utilizing this custom search engine for some time, but wanted to release it to the public for other fraud investigators, analysts, researchers or interested parties to use.

Just think – a few years ago, all of these sites had to be searched individually, or you had to hire an expensive programmer to do some custom coding.

Here is the link to our Custom Google Search Engine for U.S. Government and Regulatory Agencies:

Here is a listing of the 82 websites included with this custom search engine:

Federal Regulatory Agencies

1. Federal Bureau of Investigations
2. U.S. Department of State
3. United States Department of Labor
4. United States Department of Health & Human Services
5. U.S. Department of the Interior
6. United States Department of Commerce
7. United States Department of Civil Rights Division
8. Farm Credit Administration
9. Internal Revenue Service
10. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (The FED)
11. National Credit Union Administration
12. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency
13. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
14. Federal Trade Commission
15. United States Department of Justice
16. National Association of Attorney Generals
17. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)
18. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
19. U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission
20. National Futures Association
21. U.S. Department of Treasury
22. Main Justice
23. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
24. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
25. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
26. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
27. Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
28. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
29. Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC)
30. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
31. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
32. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

U.S. Attorneys General

33. Alabama Attorney General
34. State of Alaska Department of Law
35. Arizona Attorney General
36. Arkansas Attorney General
37. Office of California Department of Justice Office of the Attorney General
38. Attorney General Colorado Department of Law
39. State of Connecticut Office of the Attorney General
40. Attorney General – State of Delaware
41. Florida Office of the Attorney General
42. Attorney General of Georgia
43. State of Hawaii Department of the Attorney General
44. Illinois Attorney General
45. Office of the Indiana Attorney General
46. Iowa Department of Justice Office of the Attorney General
47. Office of the Attorney General State of Idaho
48. Attorney General of Kansas
49. Office of the Attorney General of K1ntucky
50. Office of the Attorney General State of Louisiana
51. Office of the Maine Attorney General
52. Maryland Attorney General
53. Attorney General of Massachusetts
54. State of Michigan Attorney General
55. Office of Minnesota Attorney
56. Office of the Attorney General State of Mississippi
57. Missouri Attorney General
58. Montana Department of Justice – Attorney General
59. Nebraska Attorney General
60. Nevada Attorney General
61. New Hampshire Department of Justice Office of the Attorney General
62. State of New Jersey Department of Law & Public Safety Office the Attorney General
63. Office of New Mexico Attorney General
64. New York State Office of the Attorney General
65. North Carolina Department of Justice
66. North Dakota Attorney General
67. Ohio Attorney General
68. Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General
69. Oregon Department of Justice
70. Pennsylvania Attorney General
71. State of Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General
72. South Carolina Attorney General
73. South Dakota Office of the Attorney General
74. Tennessee Attorney General
75. Attorney General of Texas
76. Office of the Attorney General State of Utah
77. Attorney General of Vermont
78. Attorney General of Virginia
79. Washington State Office of the Attorney General
80. Office of the West Virginia Attorney General
81. Wisconsin Department of Justice
82. Wyoming Attorney General

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“Due diligence investigation” is a phrase that varies in meaning among different business organizations and industries.

From the perspective of a venture capitalist or a private equity investment manager, it’s about assessing the business model, conducting market research and talking to the market.

For an accountant, it may be analyzing the books and records.

From an investigator’s perspective, a due diligence investigation is utilized to assess the character, integrity and reputation of potential business partner(s) or key player(s) in a venture before the client enters into a substantial financial relationship.

What is a due diligence investigation?

A due diligence investigation is conducted to assess the qualifications and track records of the people involved in the deal, to identify potential inconsistencies, misrepresentations, omissions or controversies in their backgrounds.

When is a due diligence investigation performed?

These investigations are commonly performed prior to transactions such as a merger or acquisition, formation of a business partnership or strategic partnership, or a significant investment or financing arrangement.

Who requests a due diligence investigation?

Due diligence investigations are typically conducted on behalf of small and medium-size businesses, large corporations, investment banks, private equity firms or other investors. In many cases, the investigation is initiated by a legal team involved with the deal in order to protect the integrity of the information.

What is included in a due diligence investigation?

Information that is typically covered in a due diligence investigation includes the following:

  • Personal and professional history, which includes work history, board memberships and nonprofit affiliations
  • Historical news media research on the individuals and businesses with which they have been affiliated
  • Details of civil litigation and criminal case history, including on-site court research and retrieval, where applicable
  • Regulatory records, professional licenses and government compliance checks
  • Financial history, which includes personal assets, judgments, liens, bankruptcies and U.S. Tax Court cases
  • Corporate affiliations, sex offender registries, driving history records and political contribution records
  • Credit history (with consent)

In addition to the above, a due diligence investigation can include interviews with references, sources or relevant parties.

What kind of information is found in a due diligence investigation?

Some of the more common issues that are revealed in a due diligence investigation include the following:

  • Misrepresentations of employment history or falsified degree information
  • Financial troubles, including bankruptcies, tax liens and foreclosures
  • Accusations in lawsuits, such as harassment or fraud
  • Regulatory issues
  • Past criminal trouble, including drunk driving
  • History of litigiousness
  • Undisclosed corporate affiliations, government scrutiny or a trail of failed companies

Why conduct a due diligence investigation?

In today’s business world, information is power. In the end, the purpose of conducting a due diligence investigation is to gather as much intelligence and information as possible to help you make a more informed decision.

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This post originally appeared on ACFE Insights, a blog run by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.

As an investigator, my job is to collect information and gather facts.

There is never enough information. The more, the better.

But in my own experience, one of the most powerful sources of information for a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) frequently gets overlooked. Everyone has access to it, and most of what is housed in it can be accessed from the comfort of your computer. Oh yeah, and the information found there is completely free.

What am I talking about? Public records.

A stack of bank records, telephone records or a hard drive of information is the kind of information that I can only dream about.

I have been a private investigator for more than 10 years. In the work that I do, I rarely have access to financial statements, internal documents, emails or employee files. No one is obligated to talk to me, release key documents or hand over their computer. Obtaining a stack of bank records, telephone records or a hard drive of information is the kind of information that I can only dream about.

I spend most my time scouring for bits of information through public records, court records, divorce filings, probate records, state criminal repositories, property records, files in assessors’ offices, news articles, blogs, regulatory filings, court clerk records, social networks, message boards, UCC filings, corporate documents and genealogy records.

I’ve been known to spend countless hours in government offices, basements of libraries and the darkest corners of courthouses.

I’ve also been known to stare at creepy message boards for days on end.

Many people take public records for granted.

What I have come to learn is that many people take public records for granted. Because they are “public,” people assume that they can’t be all that valuable. (I bet if we called them “secret records,” everyone would be clamoring for them.)

Our vast system of public records in the U.S. is one of the most unique investigative assets we have. When it comes to public records, we are hands down the most open country in the world. Just the other day, an investigator in Spain told me that you cannot verify that a doctor in Spain has a license or has not been sanctioned—incredible as that may seem. Meanwhile, anyone in the U.S. can do that, but I doubt many people have.

Most people don’t realize how public records can serve as resources to help connect the dots; develop a complete picture; fill in the blanks; and find supporting documentation, hidden clues or just plain old dirt.

As an investigator, my job is to collect information and facts.

And if part of collecting information doesn’t include using the vast resources found in public records, you are definitely missing out.


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