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Litigation Support – White Collar Fraud Investigation – Corporate Fraud Investigation

Two years ago as of April, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across an upset parent in my local community who was claiming that a private investigator in a white SUV had been parked in front of her house all day. The police were called and confirmed that the person was a private investigator and the reason they were there was totally legitimate.

I found this entertaining for a number of reasons. Even though I haven’t done surveillance in more than 15 years, I actually felt sympathy for the investigator. Where they were parked is a tight-knit community with a lot of kids, so doing surveillance in our town is next to impossible.

The more entertaining part was the local Facebook group, which was up in arms about the whole thing. Hundreds of comments poured in, ranging from “they are just doing their job” to “unnerving and invasive” and “what could they possibly be investigating?” The town assemblyman had even been contacted by dozens of concerned parents. People were also pissed that someone posting a picture of the car on a private Facebook page was putting everyone in the neighborhood “in danger.” And exactly zero people were “impressed” with the investigator, since the entire neighborhood knew he was there.

I had lots of opinions about the topic, but, biting my tongue, I said nothing.

The other bizarre thing was that the surveillance investigator was literally parked on the street where I had lived for a few years. Three doors down, to be exact, with the vehicle pointing in the direction of my old house. I had moved into a new house six months prior, but still, it was curious.

For a few days, I gave it almost no thought.

Then some weird things started happening. I started noticing things. Some random guy appeared outside my gym, and I kept seeing the same vehicles over and over again. Mostly a gray Jeep Grand Cherokee, but other cars too. I wasn’t sure if my mind was just playing games with me.

I recall going home one day only to see that same Jeep Grand Cherokee slowly drive by my house. I live off a main road, and my street is a horseshoe with two entrances to the main road. The entire road has fewer than 15 houses, and I live almost exactly in the middle of the horseshoe, so anyone coming around my neighborhood like that is bizarre. At least bizarre enough that I took down the plate number of the vehicle.

Again, I didn’t think much about it. I really have no reason for anyone to be following me.

Sunday Morning “Chase”

On Sunday, April 29, my daughter had a lacrosse tournament in the cold, pouring rain north of us. Like sideways raining. I told my son that he should come and support his sister. He insisted on wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. It’s not easy talking any sense into a 13-year-old, so I let him be.

About eight minutes into the first game, my son declared he was freezing and wanted to go home. Surprising no one, we left and headed home. I dropped him off in the driveway and immediately turned around to head back to the game. From a distance, I could see that same gray Jeep Grand Cherokee coming around the corner. The car slowly drove by my house.

Bizarre, I thought. I quickly followed him, checked the plate I had written down and confirmed it was the same car I had seen a few days earlier.

It was like a giant flood washed over me. These guys had been following me all along! The weird dude at the gym. The cars I had seen over and over again. The private investigators on my former street. (It only took them a week to figure out I wasn’t living there anymore.)

Frankly, it was nothing that had even entered my mind. In general, I really couldn’t care less. They could do surveillance on me all day, and all they would see is me working 13 hours a day, and in my spare time, hanging out with my family. My work doesn’t really bring me to places where I would put myself or my family in danger. Most of my work is covert, meaning that nobody even knows what I am working on.

At this point, I was fucking angry. I mean, I understand looking into my professional life, but a Sunday morning lacrosse game? What in the world are these guys going to ascertain from that? I do this for a living and, for the life of me, couldn’t think of one thing that a Sunday surveillance might actually accomplish.

So I decided to follow the guy. The car proceeded to head north on the highway, conveniently where my daughter’s lacrosse game was anyway. The car proceeded in the right lane of a three-lane highway, doing about 51 mph in a 65 mph zone. Not suspicious at all.

I called my colleague and asked him to run the vehicle plate. Surprise — the guy was a former police officer.

I had no idea what was going to happen, but I decided to follow him for a bit. After about 15 minutes, he pulled onto a one-lane road and proceeded to start speeding excessively along some winding slick roads. Figuring it was not worth risking my life, I let him go.

In my business, that’s what you call “getting made.” It happens to the best of investigators. Doing surveillance is not easy, and for most investigators, getting made usually signals the point when you give up surveillance, as the person you were doing surveillance on would now be on high alert.

I thought that would be the end of it. I was wrong.

I was slightly comforted by the fact that this guy was a former police officer and private investigator, not a crazy stalker. But nevertheless, why in god’s name would any private investigator worth their salt be investigating another investigator AND on a Sunday morning spending time with the kids?

I thought that would be the end of it.

I was wrong.

The Investigation

I spent the next few days digging through all the information on Facebook, talking to some of my old neighbors and digging up information on the guy who was following me. I was also racking my brain about why on earth anyone would be doing surveillance on me. I had some suspicions, but nothing concrete.

I also bought a slew of outdoor surveillance cameras so I could track people going up and down my street.

I got a copy of the police report, which listed the name of two other individuals who were doing surveillance on my old street. They told the police that they had been in the area for a week and that they were going to be there for several more days. So while I had pity for these guys when I first read about it on the local community page, now I was literally laughing that they were on the wrong street for more than a week. I had moved six months earlier. If they had half a clue, they should have figured that out pretty quickly.

At this point, while I was still on high alert, I felt better that I knew who the guys were, that they were licensed, former NYPD officers and that, hopefully, they weren’t doing anything too stupid. Nevertheless, I took precautions.

I was excited, not only for my niece’s graduation, but I was hoping and praying that these guys would follow me.

At this point, my wife knew what was going on, but my kids didn’t have a clue. I didn’t want to worry them. Although I was pretty sure it was nothing and it was probably over, it wasn’t worth the worry for them.

That week, although we didn’t see the same Jeep Grand Cherokee, other cars were slowly going by the house. At one point, my daughter, who still didn’t have a clue what was going on, noticed a car pass by our house several times and mentioned it to my wife.

Crossing the Line

Friday, May 4, we were getting ready for a 10-hour drive to Virginia. I was excited, not only for my niece’s graduation, but I was hoping and praying that these guys would follow me. Causing someone to pay a few surveillance guys thousands of dollars to follow me to Virginia to watch my niece’s graduation would be a bit of sweet revenge. I had even gone as far as planning on stopping for gas every 250 miles and staying in the slow lane to make sure that they stayed close and didn’t run out of gas.

But it didn’t happen. We got back Sunday night, and as our entire family was sitting in our sunroom, an SUV slowly rolled past our house. My daughter said, “That’s the car that has been stalking us!”

Now I was pissed again. I ran outside as the guy was sitting in the driveway across the street. The house was vacant, so someone sitting in the driveway wasn’t fooling anyone. I snapped a few pictures, and the guy left the area.

I went back to my daughter, who explained that she had seen that car many times, including at her school! That’s a line you don’t cross. I don’t care what the reason is.

Over the next week or two, the same creepy car would roll through our neighborhood. Usually once a day. The person had a very distinct car, too — a customized Honda Ridgeline with chrome all over the place. I guessed they replaced the former NYPD investigators with amateurs. Having a distinct car is a surveillance 101 no-no. The car would drive slowly enough to be noticed, but quickly enough that you couldn’t really do anything about it.

I spoke to the local police, but they couldn’t do anything about it. They weren’t harassing us. Although my kids were freaked out, the investigators weren’t crossing the proverbial line and had not made any contact with us. I had thought about sitting at home for days and following them around, but I didn’t. It wasn’t worth the effort.

Slowly, but surely, the drive-bys stopped, and it all went away.

The Aftermath

Although I had strong suspicions about who was behind this, I ultimately figured out who the investigators were working for. But it really didn’t matter.

What I don’t know is what they were trying to figure out. Or what they could possibly ascertain from surveilling me and my family on a Sunday morning. Or what justification in the world these investigators had for doing surveillance on me.

I just imagined someone calling me to do the same. I can’t think of many good reasons I would take a job doing surveillance on another investigator. It makes me wonder why people in our profession would do something like this.

Ultimately, they gave me and my family a good scare. So if that was their goal, they did a pretty good job.

I take solace in the fact that the person who did this paid thousands upon thousands of dollars for nothing.

I hope it was worth it.

For me, at least I got an 1,800-word blog post out of it.

And a lifetime of stories at cocktail parties.

That’s priceless.

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We have written extensively about the benefits of hiring a private investigator, but there are some inherent risks you may have never thought about.

1Getting Caught

If you are trying to conduct a discreet investigation, such as doing surveillance, there is always a chance that the investigator will get caught red-handed. Similarly, if you are making discreet inquiries, word can always get back to the person you are investigating. Even with the most diligent of planning, it can happen to the best of investigators.

2Unclear Outcome

When you hire an accountant to do your taxes, you expect your taxes to be completed once he is done. But you may spend hundreds or even thousands on a private investigator and you will still be in the same place as you started—with a lack of clarity.

3No Value

You don’t give a bartender $7 and hope she brings you a drink back. But you may have to pay a $1,000 retainer to an investigator and get nothing of value in return.

4Liable for Illegal Actions

There are dozens of examples out there of investigators providing illegal information to their clients, which ultimately got them burned. A few years back, a Massachusetts woman who hired a Virginia private investigator to find hidden assets had her case thrown out because the “evidence” that the private investigator provided on some offshore bank accounts “did not exist and was ‘created’ to turn a profit.”

5Lack of Expertise

Lots of investigators like to be all things to all people, touting their expertise in everything from executive protection to bomb-sniffing dogs to cyber investigations and computer forensics to lie detection and interviewing skills. It’s impossible to be great at everything.

6Lack of Evidence

You may need evidence that your ex is hiding money or that your legal opponent was conspiring with your competition or that certain testimony was false. But sometimes, you have to deal with bad facts, like your ex isn’t hiding money, the competition was conspiring against you, and the testimony was truthful. Unlike the movies, these things don’t always have a happy ending.

7Not Dependable

Investigators are not known as the most reliable group. I know because I have worked with lots of them who aren’t.

8Trust in Methods

There is an inherent trust that you put in an investigator about their methods of conducting an investigation. After all, you can’t be breathing down their neck.

9Secret Sources

Secret sources sound intriguing, but they introduce reliability problems into an investigation. If the secret source can’t be independently vetted or verified, it’s impossible to determine if the information was obtained illegally, through shady methods, or if it’s just a figment of someone’s imagination.

10Faulty Strategy

Part of hiring a good private investigator is coming up with a strategy that aligns with your goals. Having a faulty strategy can doom the case from the start.

11Confidentiality

If a person is hiring a private investigator directly (not through an attorney), your emails, text messages, reports, surveillance tapes, and memos are not privileged. Hiring a private investigator through an attorney establishes protections via attorney–client privilege and attorney work product. 

12No Support from Attorney

I’ve seen some clients over the years take matters into their own hands and hire a private investigator without support from an attorney. If your attorney is not on board, it’s very likely that you are wasting your time.

13Hiring the Wrong Private Investigator

Having the right tool is imperative to successful completion of the task at hand. Too many problem-solving efforts go awry because you are using the wrong tool for the job. Don’t use the wrong tool.

14Pay for What You Get

Like most professional services, you pay for what you get. So if you are looking for the low-cost option, you are probably going to get a low-cost result.

15Lack of Scope

When I ask clients who are considering doing a background investigation, “What are you looking to find?” and they answer, “Everything!” I know we may have a problem on our hands, in part because finding out “everything” may cost about $150,000. Having a defined scope of work at the outset of an investigation is key to keeping things on track and avoiding surprises down the road.

16Unlicensed

Are you hiring an investigator who is licensed in your state? Or someone just advertising that they are an investigator? (Check your local states.) Why should you care? Well, you may end up hiring this guy, who was not only running an unlicensed private investigation service but also operating a prostitution ring on the side.

17No Guarantees

When you hire a contractor to fix your roof, you expect it to not leak anymore. But if you hire an investigator, the end result is not guaranteed and you may be back in the same place you were when you started. 

18Specialty Bias

Every investigator has a bias to recommend work that they are good at. So a private investigator who specializes in surveillance may naturally be biased to recommending surveillance, while the task may be best suited for a forensic accountant or an open-source intelligence specialist.

19Telling You What You Want to Hear

I’ve spoken to dozens of potential clients over the years whom I have literally talked out of hiring a private investigator because whatever they were asking us to do was a waste of time and resources. Not every private investigator you talk to is going to talk themselves out of work, though; just be cautious before proceeding. Some will feed you what you want to hear, knowing full well that it’s not going to have a happy ending.

20Negative Publicity

Uber hired private investigators a few years back as part of a “dirt-digging investigation.” Frankly, many big firms do the same every day. The investigation firm Uber hired ended up using some pretty shady tactics. It’s not clear if Uber actually knew what the firm was doing, but nevertheless, the damage had already been done. Hewlett-Packard never recovered from the fallout after they famously hired an investigator who used questionable methods (obtaining telephone records) to spy on its own directors.

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In the era of the internet, finding a long-lost friend or relative often can be done easily and at a low cost. But to locate people who are flying under the digital radar, you may need to use some advanced methods to track them down.

As a last resort, you may need to hire a professional who has the tools, resources and know-how to track down friends or relatives who are more difficult to find.

Before you go down the professional route, here are some tips from someone who has been doing this for 20 years (that’s me!).

Things to Keep in Mind

Here are a few things you should keep in mind.

The more common the person’s name, the more additional information you are going to need in order to locate the person. The proverbial John Smith is going to be much more difficult to find than Kamren Fernsby. While you might be able to find Kamren Fernsby with a few Google searches, finding John Smith with a few Google searches is going to need an act of God.

I frequently see people getting hung up on the spelling of names, where they thought they had a high degree of certainty about the spelling only to be proven wrong. In fact, we are working with a client as I write this who has been trying to find a middle school friend but has been searching for a misspelled name all these years. Don’t be that person. You are human, and people get things wrong all the time. Be conscious of searching under multiple spellings. Also, there’s a chance that the name that you knew the person by may not be the official name (e.g., John Doe might actually be William John Doe) and/or he or she may have changed the name (e.g., through marriage).

This is not going to be easy. You are here reading this blog post for a reason. If it were easy, you probably would have found the person already. I am here to tell you not to give up. It’s 2020 and everyone thinks you should be able to find anyone in a few minutes. That’s just not always the case. If this is really important to you, you are going to have to grind through the process.

Send some emails. Make phone calls. Connect with friends or relatives on social media. The worst that can happen is that you will be no further along than you were at the start.

Last, some people are really hard to find, and locating them will take an enormous amount of time and resources or some professional help.

First Step: Gather Your Facts

Before you begin your search, you need to gather as much information as possible on the subject: full name, middle name, day/month/year of birth, approximate age, schools attended, relatives’ names, profession, addresses, names of friends, jobs held, former employers, etc.

While other information, like physical features, tattoos or shoe size, may come in handy, it isn’t going to be terribly helpful in this phase.

So You Think You Can Google?

You’ve probably heard of Google before ;-), but most searchers don’t really know how to use Google. There are dozens of advanced operators and searches you can try, and there are endless combinations of possibilities for search terms. For the purposes of searching for people, here are some tips: 

“John Doe” – Otherwise known as the exact search, this tells Google to search the exact phrase. It’s critical that you use quotes when searching for exact names or phrases in order to eliminate Google’s guesswork, as Google likes to take a guess at your intent and then gives you results that are not always directly related to your search request if you don’t use quotes.  

“John” “Doe” – This may seem repetitive of the above search, but the above results won’t provide results with John William Doe or John W. Doe. Searching with each word in quotes will return any results containing the two quoted phrases.

“Doe, John” – Many public records, including things like voter rolls, can be listed last name first.

“J. Doe” or “Doe, J.” – Use this just in case the first initial is used instead of the full name. 

“John * Doe” – When you use an asterisk in a search term on Google search, it will leave a placeholder that may be automatically filled by the search engine later. So in this case, you may come up with John Smith Doe or John Kamren Doe.

There are dozens of advanced operators and searches you can try, and there are endless possible combinations. Try using the details collected in the first step along with the name.

Bonus Tip

If you are not finding anything on Google, set up a Google Alert to notify you when something new related to your search is published on the internet.

Bonus Bonus Tip

If you know that the person went to the University of Pennsylvania, you may be able to get a digital copy of the yearbook through the school website. Also, you can do a site-specific search to look for specific mentions of the person you are looking for on the University of Pennsylvania website: site:upenn.edu “john doe”

Google Alternatives

Google is the 800-pound gorilla and still the king of the hill, but there are dozens of other really good search engines, like Bing and DuckDuckGo, and country-specific search engines like Yandex, which is great for Russian-language searches. 

There are also some alternative and specialized search engines, like Runnaroo, which integrates dozens of deep search sources to provide more relevant search results.

Bonus Tip

I love using search engines like millionshort.com, which lets you remove any results from the top one million websites, so you can get some really deep search results that normally wouldn’t show up until page 167 on Google.

Bonus Bonus Tip

If you have an old photo, try uploading it to the Yandex Image search engine. They have a shockingly good facial recognition search engine. It’s a real long shot, but it might be worth a try if you have a photo of the person as a young adult.

Social Media

There were about 3.5 billion social network users in the world and about 2.3 billion users on Facebook as of 2019, so there is a pretty good chance the person you are looking for is on one of the various social media platforms, and the best place to start is probably going to be Facebook.

Virtually all social media sites, including Facebook, have some type of search functionality to search for a person’s name. You also typically can search by phone number, email address and username to varying degrees on each of the platforms. But keep in mind that Facebook users can restrict their names from showing up on public searches. It’s also smart to keep in mind that many people will use a different username or alternative name on their forward-facing profiles.

Bonus Tip

In addition to using the using the built-in search functionality of the biggest social media platforms, you can get some additional results using a site search.

site:facebook.com “John Doe”

site:twitter.com “John Doe”

site:instagram.com “John Doe”

Bonus Bonus Tip

Everyone has heard of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. But don’t forget sites like LinkedIn (professional networking), country-specific social media platforms like VK (Russia) or WeChat (China), popular messaging apps (Telegram, Skype and WhatsApp), niche sites popular with younger generations (TikTok and Snapchat) or one of the dozens of niche social media platforms.

It’s also helpful to remember that not everyone is on social media. While 3.5 billion sounds like a lot, that’s only about 45% of the population, and while 68% are reportedly on Facebook, not all of them can be found on public search engines, and some may be using a different name.

Paid Databases

In the United States, there are a number of available commercial investigative databases that are good at tracking down people IF you have enough information to find them. In fact, we did a review of some of the most popular databases out there (Intelius vs. Spokeo vs. BeenVerified).

Many of these sites make bold claims about how much information they can obtain and their accuracy. Personally, I think it’s a lot of marketing speak and they don’t have a lot to back it up. I say that because I use professional investigative databases that I pay thousands of dollars a month to access, and they have huge holes as well. For example, phone numbers and email addresses are often inaccurate, and address history is really difficult to nail down with any real degree of accuracy without other data to back it up.

That being said, these databases also can be really helpful. If you do end up shelling out some money for these databases, don’t let it go to waste. If they give you 17 different phone numbers, email addresses and physical addresses, write or call each and every one of them. Take notes on the responses to each.

Nobody said it was going to be easy.

Other “Free” and Paid Sites

There are literally hundreds of free sites that could be useful, but here are some sites I have found to be the most valuable resources (paid sites are marked with $):

  • Alumni Networks/Yearbooks – Most schools have some type of alumni network that can help you connect with a former classmate. Many colleges and universities post old yearbooks on their respective websites. Archive.org also has a massive collection of old yearbooks.
  • Archive.org – Do you know, for example, that in 2002, the person you are looking for was the owner or an executive of a small business or the owner of a website? While the website and the business might be long gone, you can check Archive.org, for any pages captured back during that time period that might help provide some details about the person’s background. 
  • SearchSystems.net – This is a guide to over 70,000 public record databases across the country, including county clerk websites, criminal repositories, civil litigation searches and real-property records. 
  • Ancestry.com ($) – This site can assist you with finding historical records like marriage records, census records, old phone directories, military records and the like. Much of the information on Ancestry is more than 30 years old. 
  • Newspapers.com ($) – This is a great source of old newspaper clippings.

Last Resort

Even with all of these resources, there’s a chance that you may not find the person you are looking for. We’ve had cases in which we spent weeks tracking down a homeless man in New York City and another in which we ultimately found a birth mother living off the grid in a trailer in Oregon. While these results are more the exception rather than the rule, they do happen.

If you are at the end of your rope, you may be ready to hire a professional. Certain cases are just best suited for a professional, someone who does this on a daily basis and can give you an honest assessment of what can be done.

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Last week, the San Francisco 49ers played the Cleveland Browns in Monday Night Football. It was a pretty unremarkable game (the 49ers won 31 to 3).

But what happened after the game was more interesting.

Richard Sherman, the outspoken cornerback of the 49ers, called out the Browns’ controversial quarterback for his “bush league” act before the game. In a postgame interview, Sherman said that Mayfield snubbed him during Monday’s pregame handshake.

“What’s amazing—and annoying—was him not shaking hands at the beginning,” Sherman said Monday night, according to NFL.com. “That’s some college s—. It’s ridiculous. We’re all trying to get psyched up, but shaking hands with your opponent—that’s NFL etiquette. And when you pull bush league stuff, that’s disrespectful to the game. And believe me, that’s gonna get us fired up.”

The snub obviously fueled Sherman, who had an interception, and the 49ers defense in holding the Browns to three points.

But the next day, video surfaced that showed Mayfield slapping hands with Sherman before the coin toss, then running to his sideline after the referee picked up the coin.

The following day, Sherman said he would apologize, saying that “sometimes you remember things a little differently than it happened” but “obviously, it still motivated me the same way.”

I don’t think Sherman was lying when he originally recounted the snub. After all, millions of people watch Monday Night Football, and cameras would have been sure to catch the snub. And it was only a few hours after the incident, so time was certainly not a factor for his memory to have gone sideways.

But Sherman clearly had a bias and an agenda (to get motivated) and misremembered the story to get himself fired up.

That’s totally cool, but it’s just a good reminder that you can’t always rely on one person’s word.

Especially when it can be confirmed or denied through other sources.

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This week, Ronan Farrow, the investigative reporter, published a three-part series (read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here) on the Israel-based “intelligence firm” Black Cube, whom Farrow had some run-ins with while exposing Harvey Weinstein.

It’s a pretty captivating story if you are into espionage, spies, surveillance, intrigue, counterintelligence, spooks, and snooping—or if you just have a pulse. ;)  

This has been a huge personal interest story for me over the years that Farrow and others have been writing about Black Cube in part because of their shady tactics and Hollywood-style bravado. [I’d bet my life there will be a movie about them in a few years.]

Another point of interest is that I have personally spoken to Black Cube. While my discussions with them were completely cordial and above-board, I can recall pretty vividly how suspect I was of the firm, even from a few brief emails and telephone calls. In addition, I have had contact with a few other people mentioned in the story.

As a private investigator for nearly 20 years, I was at times shocked, partly saddened, but mostly captivated by the stories in the articles. I’ve already preordered Farrow’s book (you can order Catch and Kill here), as I am sure that will bring more shock and awe.

So, here are some observations.

“That Only Happens on TV”

Private investigators suffer from a perception problem (Hint: 95 percent of the people we polled think that private investigators break the law and are “shady.”) Despite discussing openly all of the things that our firm won’t do under any circumstances, we constantly get inquiries about those same things. We’ve been asked to break into an apartment and steal tax returns. We get asked frequently to hack into emails and get telephone records or the location of a cell phone.

Most of the time, I answer these inquiries with some form of “you have been watching too much TV. That’s just not reality.”

But then, Black Cube went and ruined that.

They used ruses, fake websites, false identities, cell phone tracking, and disguises. I get that this stuff happens in the high stakes game of world politics. Or arms dealing. Or drug lords.

But really? This happens in our industry?

But here is the reality.

I have worked with dozens of other firms in the industry. Some of the best and the brightest that this business has to offer. I’ve worked on cases that have been front cover of major newspapers.

Exactly zero of them would have used any of the tactics described in these articles.

So does one bad apple spoil the bunch? Sure.

But this is not an isolated incident…

An Industry in Desperate Need of Some Sunshine

There is an enormous amount of skepticism about the investigation industry. Frankly, it’s a reputation well-deserved.

I just posted a blog last week about three separate front-page news stories involving private investigators who use sketchy tactics. And there are a lot more stories of private investigators being sentenced for making false pretext calls to get personal banking information, a private investigator having sex with a prisoner, and scrutiny about private investigators receiving DMV data.

That was just in the month of September.

Our industry can use a whole hell of a lot of sunshine.

@drowsyGeek

Back in May 2019, a former TV personality private investigator was jailed for promoting prostitution and unlawful surveillance for enticing a man into having sex with prostitutes at a Sunset Park hotel—and then surreptitiously recording the sex acts.

You just can’t make this stuff up.

As Cath (@drowsygeek) said on Twitter, our industry can use a whole hell of a lot of sunshine.

Yes, we can use a who lot of sunshine…and rainbows, butterflies and unicorns too.

Results-oriented Business

If you hire a contractor to build you a house, at the end of the day, you expect a house to be built.

If you hire an accountant to help you file your tax return, you expect your taxes to be completed.

Or if you hire a software engineer to help you produce a piece of software, one would expect a piece of working software at the end.

But if you hire a private investigator to, for example, follow someone that you believe is meeting with some people that you might have an interest in, and you need to follow that person in a city of millions of people under difficult circumstances without being caught, lots of things can go wrong.

The surveillance investigator might lose the person they are following or get caught, or the target might go into a place where they can’t be followed, or simply not meet up with the people they are suspected of meeting. And what you might have thought would cost a few thousand dollars, ends up costing tens of thousands of dollars to do properly. And even done properly, everything might go to hell.

Each of those scenarios brings disappointment to the client.

So what do some investigators do to mitigate their failing results?

They might cheat by resorting to not-so-savory tactics. They might start putting GPS devices on the cars they are following (see stories here, here and here). Track cell phones. Try to hack a computer.

I’ve heard of surveillance investigators letting the air out of the tires of those collecting disability to see if they can change a tire.

There are private investigators who will pretext a bank by providing a Social Security number, date of birth, and other personally identifiable information to a bank to convince them that they are a particular individual in order to get their bank account information.

Investigators get judged by their results, not their efforts. But we don’t always have control over the results of our investigations.

It’s frustrating. Exhausting. Dispiriting.

Which brings out the cheaters.

Leave the Bonus Fees to Wall Street

One of the striking stories that came out of these articles was bonus fees tied to certain objectives. First, in New York, where we are licensed, “success fees” and bonuses are not allowed.

Success fees and bonuses encourage bias and behaviors that may not be aboveboard.

Imagine paying an investigator when he was able to come up with evidence that helped support his client.

What kind of biases and/or moral, ethical, and legal behavior do you think that would encourage?

If you ever hear of paying a private investigator suggesting a bonus, run.

Whistleblowers

There has been quite a bit of talk about whistleblowers over the past few years, and particularly recently.

This story would not have even been a story if it weren’t for at least two whistleblowers. One appears to be a Black Cube employee who was fed up with Black Cube’s “false and devious ways of obtaining material illegally” that the whistleblower, as a woman, was “ashamed for participating” in the acts by helping Harvey Weinstein.

The other is a New York private investigator who feared he was on the wrong side of the law.

These whistleblowers were motivated by professional ethics and faith in humanity. The reality is that whistleblowers shed light on pressing issues that directly affect all of us. Some call them leakers. Some believe they are disloyal, disgruntled, or even traitorous. Some question their motives.

To me, however, someone who is willing to risk everything to expose something so blatantly wrong is a freaking hero.

Hopefully it will shed some light on this business too.

Final Thoughts

Maybe I am naïve to think that this stuff doesn’t happen all the time.

Maybe I live in some idyllic world where the truth will always come out.

Or that reasonable people will always act ethically, morally, and within the law.

And maybe Black Cube is just eating up every bit of this press, since there are businesses who believe that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

As for me, I hope that this story gives all of us in this industry a chance to take a hard look in the mirror.

Before it all crumbles around us.

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This has been a bad couple of weeks for private investigators.

First, there was the story of Credit Suisse, which hired private investigators to follow a former top executive whom the bank thought was trying to poach employees and clients. But the former executive got into a confrontation with the investigator hired to tail him. The investigator is facing a criminal probe, and the consultant who helped Credit Suisse hire the investigators to trail the executive committed suicide just this week. Now Credit Suisse is reeling from the controversy, saying that the surveillance on the former executive was “wrong,” which ultimately led to the resignation of the COO, who authorized the surveillance.

ext, there was the story of Neil Gerrard, a partner from the white-collar law firm Dechert, who was suing an investigative firm for spying on him after they placed a camouflaged camera on his property to try to gain access to a private Caribbean island where he was vacationing. Operatives were questioned by police after claiming that they were the nephews of the Gerrards. Police found a “large amount of electronic equipment, including a camera adjusted for night vision use” on one operative, who was denied entry to the island; and at least two operatives have been interviewed by British Police.

The investigative firm doing the work, Diligence of London, was allegedly doing work for ENRC, which Gerrard formerly represented. ENRC is being investigated by the UK Serious Fraud Office amid allegations of fraud, bribery and corruption, and is currently involved in litigation against Dechert and Gerrard, accusing them of breach of contract and overcharging for Dechert’s services.

Then yesterday, the Wall Street Journal posted a story about Greg Lindberg, who is facing criminal charges in what has been described as potentially “one of the biggest U.S. life-insurance insolvencies in recent decades.” Lindberg reportedly hired dozens of surveillance operatives to spy on “actual and prospective romantic partners, assembling dossiers on the way.” According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Lindberg paid for dozens of surveillance operatives to tail the women up to 24 hours a day, taking surreptitious photos and sometimes putting GPS trackers on their vehicles.”

The firm that was doing the work? Apex International, a North Carolina firm that happened to be owned by Lindberg. (Funny how you can’t even find a website for the company.) It is interesting to note that GPS trackers are illegal in Apex’s home state of North Carolina without the permission of the owner of the vehicle.

Lindberg also spied on one woman by having someone secretly enroll in the school she attended, and tracked another woman by having one of his agents rent an apartment across the hall from where she lived to keep tabs on her. Investigators were told that the woman had “agreed to the surveillance,” but suspected that it was not true when one investigator said, “I realized what I was doing was horrible” when “I was putting fear in a woman in a certain situation.”

What can investigators and businesses learn from this?

Think Before You Hire an Investigator

Most of the casework that we do never gets to court, but every time we need to make an ethical or moral decision that may cross the proverbial gray line, I ask myself, “What would a jury of reasonable people think?” If there is even a hint of unscrupulous behavior, I won’t do it. It’s not worth risking my reputation, license or standing in the investigative community, no matter how much money it will make us.

If you are conducting corporate “espionage,” you should be asking, “How is this going to look when I read about it in the Wall Street Journal?”

If you think that placing a surveillance camera on someone’s private property to monitor the comings of goings might not look so good, don’t do it.

If you think that the CEO of a billion-dollar company using company funds to create dossiers on his prospective romantic partners might not result in favorable media coverage, don’t do it.

Or if you think surveillance of a former executive that could result in a confrontation might lead to weeks of bad public relations, don’t do it.

It might seem like overkill, but it might also save you from some serious embarrassment, like ending up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

The More Sensitive, the More Caution

If we get near that proverbial gray area, we typically won’t do the work. But if there is a really touchy case, which is either a sensitive topic (e.g., sexual harassment), politically motivated or dealing with powerful people, we advise you to proceed with extreme caution.

That means following the letter of the law to a T; using the most experienced, trustworthy investigators that you can find; and taking riskier steps only when you have exhausted every other possibility.

If you want to do surveillance on a former executive because you think he might be violating the terms of your agreement, go for it. But don’t skimp by hiring only a few operatives, who might get caught. And at the first sign of any issue, the surveillance should be broken off completely.

If you are going to do surveillance on a partner of a white-collar law firm, it’s probably not a good idea to trespass on private property.

On a personal note, I was personally surveilled by another investigative firm recently. These guys were all over the local Facebook page of my local community, surveilling the wrong house until they found me. And when they finally did find me, they had only one guy trying to follow me.

Spoiler alert! That didn’t end very well for them.

A Little KYC (Know Your Customer) Goes a Long Way

Businesses need to know who they are getting involved with.

Investigo GmbH, who carried out the surveillance for Credit Suisse, has Google reviews ranging from “Very unfriendly staff” and “Only fixated on money” to “Bad experience, not to be recommended, rude and stubborn,” resulting in 1.4 out of five stars.

All that took was a five-second Google search to learn.

Likewise, as an investigator, you need to know who you are working for, their motives, and whether or not they are going to push you into some unscrupulous behavior.

Would I track down an address for an attorney to serve a lawsuit? Absolutely.

But tracking down the lover of my client’s ex-husband in order to “deliver some boxes she left behind”? Nope.

Who You Hire Is a Reflection of You

The three cases I described above have one thing in common: an element of surveillance or on-the-ground work.

It’s clear that, at least in a few of these cases, the investigators were either breaking the law (e.g., going onto private property, attaching GPS trackers to unsuspecting vehicles) or at the very least skirting it in a really gray ethical area. 

It’s clear that there will be a lot of questioning of the judgment of those who hired the investigators.

Rightfully so.

Another Notch in the Belt for Open Source Intelligence

Over the past few years, there has been an explosion of information available to investigators through open source intelligence (OSINT) and public records. With the right training and access, there are millions of points of data available at an investigator’s fingertips, sources ranging from social media, historical domains and deep web research to historic newspapers, litigation filings and credit header information. There is an entire cottage industry of people who only do covert research, which, if done properly, is nearly impossible to detect.

At the end of the day it is hard to dispute the value of making in-person inquiries with friends, families, neighbors and colleagues, former business partners, or local law enforcement. Or doing surveillance.

But those inquiries have risks, namely that it may get back to the target of the investigation. There are, of course, times when only surveillance, interviews and on-the-ground work can get the answers you are looking for.

But you have to ask yourself if it’s worth the risk if someone finds out?

I guess you will have to ask Credit Suisse, Greg Lindberg and ENRC.

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This week, we received a pretty routine request from a client: track down the address and phone number of a former employee of a company. The client wanted to interview this person in relation to an ongoing lawsuit. Another employee had provided the person’s name, believing that he had some insightful information that would help our client’s case.

The name seemed rather uncommon, and although the person worked for a large multinational conglomerate, it was believed that he worked in a relatively small town in the Midwest.

Seemed pretty straightforward.

We did a couple of initial searches through a few of our investigative databases, which found that there was exactly one person in the country with that spelling of his name.

But on first glance, it looked like this person had been in New Hampshire for the past 20 years.

Stumped, we went back to the client to get more information, just to make sure we didn’t end up on a wild goose chase. The client didn’t have anything else, unfortunately, but acknowledged that the spelling of the last name might not be accurate.

The client also said in no uncertain terms that it was essential that we find this person.

Challenge. Accepted.

So we went back to the drawing board, and after some digging around, we found the right guy.

Here’s how we did it.

Eliminate the Wrong Name

The first thing we needed to do was to confirm that the original name we were provided—let’s use Joshua Simmens (not his real name)—was not accurate.  We searched multiple databases and confirmed that there was only one person with the name Josh or Joshua Simmens in the country, with the exact spelling that we had been provided. We confirmed—as our initial research had suggested—that the person had been born and raised in New England and did not appear to have ever worked for the target company.

Search engines revealed no results either.

Certain that this was a dead end, we moved on to other avenues.

Radius Searches

We then conducted some research with the name Joshua Simmons within 60 miles of the Midwest town. It seemed to us when we had first received it that the name Simmens was an obvious misspelling of Simmons, which is certainly a more common form.

So we set out to see how many people lived within commuting distance of this Midwest town. We were lucky in the sense that this was a pretty small town; if the person was in New York, we probably would have come up with dozens of results. Luckily for us, our search gave us two possible leads: a person who had died in 1988 and a 31-year-old who lived in the town in question.

Although the 31-year-old seemed like a decent candidate, he was probably too young to be an executive. Further research found that the 31-year-old did not have much of an online presence—another yellow flag that he might not be the person we were looking for.

So we pressed on.

Work

Sure, having a list of employees at the target company at that particular location would be helpful. But despite what binge-watching CSI might have taught you, there really is no way to get a list of employees that worked at a company. The human resources department probably has that list handy, and the IRS may know, but neither of those things are readily accessible.

Nevertheless, we spent some time mining LinkedIn, resume databases, social media, news media, and investigative databases to see if anyone with a similar name had ever worked for the target company. That got us nowhere either.

A nice and handy little trick is to search for everyone who has ever been affiliated with a particular address. Investigative databases derive their information from credit header information, so if a person had applied for credit using their business address, there may be something linking the person to that address. So we searched for anyone who has ever reported the address of the target company.

Unfortunately, there was nobody at that address with even the right first name.

It was a long shot, but we’ve found people that way before.

Alternative Spellings

Convinced that we had the wrong spelling, we took it a step further. We could have gone through every name variation that we could think of, but that would be costly and time-consuming.

So we did the next best thing.

Many investigative databases, such as TLO, IDI, and IRB, have a “sounds like” feature, where you can input a person’s name and it will find names that are similar in sound. So we put in “Joshua Simmens” and got a bunch of wildly different results. Clearly, each of these databases had a different algorithms for its “sounds like” feature.

None of the options were jumping out, though. Ages didn’t match up; location didn’t seem right.

So, using the “sounds like” feature, we changed the search name to “Joshua Simens” and came up with a bunch more results. This time, one name jumped out: Joshua Simenz, who lived in the right town during the right time and was about the right age (early 60s).

A quick Google search confirmed that we had the right guy.

Booyah.

Some good reminders…

  • “Garbage in, garbage out” is a saying often used in computer science. In other words, bad input will result in bad output. Computers operate using strict logic, so inputting bad data will generally get you a bad result.
  • Never underestimate the power of human error.
  • Computers are not a substitute for thinking.

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In 2019, one would think it would be pretty easy to locate people with the plethora of information available on the Internet. And generally it is, as we found in our recent review of some commercially available databases. While it’s not “free” (what most people on the interwebs are looking for), it’s easier today to locate people than it has ever been.

But that has a number of caveats.

1) The person has a common name

Common names are the bane of one’s existence when you are trying to locate someone. Unless you have the full name, date of birth, and social security number, as well as a hair sample, DNA, and a handwriting exemplar, you are never going to find James Smith from New York.

OK, that might be a bit excessive, but unless you have LOTS of information on someone with a common name, they are going to be really tough to find. And when I say LOTS, I don’t just mean a description of physical characteristics or a recollection of a tattoo.

2) Technology is not what you see on TV

Your favorite crime drama probably showed a blurry photo from a distant surveillance camera that the detectives were miraculously able to blow up so they could see people’s faces as clear as day. Then, with the magic of television, they were able to run facial recognition through a database of every person in the world, and out of thin air, pull up a full dossier of everything that person has ever done and accomplished.

Technology just isn’t there yet, although it may be soon enough…

3) Information is not publicly available

We recently received a request to find a Jose Fernandez who had previously worked for a large corporation in Dallas. Seems easy enough to distinguish the 4,000 Jose Fernandezes in Dallas. The company is not going to give anyone his details, unless you use some sketchy method to provide a pretext for the company to get them to do so, or employ some other unscrupulous method. The IRS might know, but they won’t divulge his information either. Unless he has self-disclosed that information on a resume, social media, or elsewhere, Mr. Fernandez is not going to be easy to find.

4) The search is cost prohibitive

Now, finding Jose Fernandez might be possible, but unless he was the key to a multimillion-dollar lawsuit or someone with deep pockets was willing to spend the money, it might be too cost prohibitive. You could call former employees of the company and ask them if they knew him or know where he works now. Or you could make a list of every Jose Fernandez who lived in the Dallas area and call them one by one, something I have actually done in a different context.

Note: If you need some assistance in those areas, let me know, and I can send you our bank details so you can wire the retainer.

5) You might not have the right information

Sometimes, you may have information that is completely inaccurate. Like the wrong spelling of a name. Wrong birthday. Or even the wrong name.

Years ago, we worked on a case for a Connecticut man. His mother, on her deathbed, mentioned in passing that his father was not who he thought it was; it was a man that she had had an affair with for years in the 1950s. She provided scant details, like his name and the New York department store where he had worked. We spent years trying to track him down, but without success. Several years after working with the client, I heard back from him, and he said that he found his father (who had passed away) after speaking with friends and family members.

His mother had given him the wrong name and the wrong department store. We were doomed to failure.

But at least it had a happy ending.

6) Not everyone can be found

A few years ago, we were asked to identify a man who was owed about $100,000 after his mother had passed away. The man hadn’t been seen or heard from in many years, and the last that anyone had heard of him, he was homeless. The client was about 100 percent sure we would never find him, but we found his last reported address, and what do you know, he was there. He was living on the streets but had stopped at the apartment where he had once lived to sleep for the night.

It was complete luck. If we hadn’t had that miraculous stroke of luck that day, we may have never found him, unless we had spent dozens of hours combing the streets, which was out of the budget range of the client (see #4 above).

7) The person lives off the grid

There was an interesting story a while back about a privacy nut who spent $30,000 to have himself removed from every known database so that no human could track him down. He went so far as to even buy himself a decoy house and hire a private investigator to check his work. It’s a fascinating read, if you haven’t seen it.

And there are also stories of people living off the grid, paying cash barters and not using any electronic databases. That’s a bit extreme, but there are people who do it.

8) Some people don’t want to be heard from

Whitey Bulger, one of the most wanted men in history, lived in California unnoticed for more than 15 years by paying cash, keeping to himself, living an unassuming lifestyle, and rarely venturing out in public. This is a completely extreme case, but there are people who just don’t want to be found. Especially people who are in trouble with the law or are running from someone or something.

9) Are you working with old information?

Last week, we received a call from a Pennsylvania man who, because of closed adoption rules, was only recently able to finally get the name of his birth mother. But he had only a name and an age from when he was born in the 1950s. The name, of course, was common enough that finding her would not be easy. But the bigger problem was that she was most likely married long ago and carrying a different name, which would not be in any electronic database records that are readily available.

Most electronic information that is easily searchable and accessible will date back to the 1980s, but anything from the 1950s will not only be difficult to find but will require some serious digging.

10) People can remove themselves from databases

There is a cottage industry of privacy nuts who will do everything not to leave a trace of their existence. If you are interested in learning more, Michael Bazzell has a great book and podcast. Some may have good reasons, such as concerns for their safety. But others just want to be hidden from the Internet. What most people don’t know is that you can remove your personal information from public databases and people-search websites. Given the hundreds of sites, it’s pretty much like having a full-time job, but it can be done. Here is a good place to start.

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