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Litigation Support – White Collar Fraud Investigation – Corporate Fraud Investigation

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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Telephone numbers and address information are the lifeblood of private investigators. Getting in touch with people either by phone or in person is absolutely essential to any private investigator, regardless of his or her area of specialization.

(Note: These databases are available primarily to private investigators, so this article is a bit nerdy for the layman. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

One type of work that we particularly focus on is identifying potential fact witnesses for interviews.

For example, we may be asked to identify former employees who can speak about issues at a company during the relevant time. If there is a major class action fraud case, a law firm might want to identify former employees of a particular company to be fact witnesses to verify, corroborate or testify to the inner workings of a company.

Or take a major traffic accident involving a tractor trailer. A law firm may want to speak to the trucking company’s former employees who can discuss safety issues, overworked drivers, policies and procedures or a history of rules violations.

Once these former employees have been identified, we need to get in touch with them. For firms that have an endless budget or an extremely sensitive topic (i.e., sexual harassment), door-stepping, or visiting the person face-to-face, might be the best route. But in most cases, conducting interviews by phone is more cost-effective and efficient.

So in our case, where we bill by the hour, finding telephone numbers in the most efficient way possible is essential to our work.

We subscribe to a lot of databases that provide phone number information. The three that we have gravitated to the most are TLO, for its ease of use, reasonable fees and comprehensive information; IRB Search, the old reliable veteran that has been around the longest and has a deep bench of information; and IDI, which is the new kid on the block, recommended by fellow investigators for being reliable when it comes to phone numbers.

In a perfect world, we would search dozens of databases, but our time and resources (aka money) are finite resources. So which one is the best?

That’s a question we asked ourselves. To be honest, even after using all three for phone number research for years, we couldn’t come up with a reasonable answer.

So we decided to run them through the wringer.

To be perfectly honest, the results really surprised me. For the past few years, we have been using TLO as our go-to resource for identifying phone number information. But that might change now.

History Lesson

I’ve spoken to dozens of people over the years who can never understand why it’s so difficult to find a someone’s phone number.

I get it. Why does it have to be so hard? It’s especially difficult to understand if you grew up in the days of phone books, when literally every phone number in existence was in a phone book. Or you could call the operator and ask for a phone number for a name or address.

That doesn’t help much anymore.

First, phone numbers are portable. Since 2003, people have been able to transfer phone numbers to different carriers. For many years, the area code and prefix (first six digits of the phone number) told exactly which carrier the person used and where the person was located. For example, our business phone area code (914) and prefix (500) suggest that we are in New Rochelle, New York, but we are not and never have been. A few years ago, I lived in Spain, and with a VOIP carrier, and in Madrid, I was able to answer my New York-based home phone. My grandmother’s mind was blown every time I picked up the phone.

Also, the internet has spawned all kinds of ways to set up a phone number. I can install the Burner app on my cell phone and have a working number within minutes. I can text and make phone calls from literally any area code in the country and discard the number when I am done. Not only that, but there also is Caller ID spoofing, where you can indicate to the receiver of a call that the originator of the call is from somewhere other than the actual location.

Pretty nuts.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that telephone numbers are a bit of a mess.

Ground Rules

When we work with our clients, we want to make sure we have confirmed phone numbers. And by confirmed, I mean that the person I am trying to reach is going to answer the phone. Just because a database says that a phone number is associated with a person doesn’t make it so. Most databases will give you a plethora of phone numbers that have been associated with a person.

But not all of them work. They might be disconnected, old or transferred to a new person. Or it just might be an old number associated with another family member.

Either way, the only way to confirm the phone number is to call it and ask for the person or confirm he or she is on the outgoing voicemail system.

So we took 52 phone numbers we had confirmed, ran them through all three databases, and figured out which one came out on top.

For each of the databases, we tested four areas:

  • Quantity – How many possible telephone numbers were provided
  • Reliability – How often the correct number was listed toward the top
  • Accuracy – How often the database had the correct phone number
  • Cost – How much the database cost

From my perspective, even before getting into the details, accuracy is the single most important factor here. I want the best information. Period.

Cost is a factor, as it should be, but a distant second, with reliability coming in a bit behind.

Quantity is the least important, for reasons I will explain later.

Quantity of Phone Numbers

In terms of quantity of phone numbers, there was a clear winner. Of the three, TLO clearly came out on top, averaging nine phone numbers per person. IDI was second, with an average of five phone numbers. IRB Search averaged four.

The quantity of phone numbers is not really a great measure, though. Most people have only one or maybe two phone numbers. So while it’s nice to have choices, having more phone numbers means more numbers, and you have to decipher which is the correct one.

Reliability

TLO, IRB Search and IDI all display phone numbers in a list. TLO has a nice feature in which they indicate the “likelihood” that the number was current, assigning each phone number a percentage of likelihood. They must have some type of algorithm that figures that out.  They also indicate whether or not the phone is a mobile, land-line or VoIPor phone number. In either case, it’s not always that accurate, but it doesn’t hurt. In general, it’s relatively accurate, as numbers with a low percentage of likelihood are typically old numbers. But having conducted hundreds of phone interviews, I can tell you it’s not perfect.

Neither IRB Search nor IDI has that feature, but it’s presumed that the ones listed toward the top are the freshest, most recent ones.

In this category, IDI was the winner. On average, the correct phone number was the first phone number on the list 71 percent of the time, while TLO was first 42 percent of the time and IRB Search was first 34 percent of the time.

If we expanded this reliability test to the first or second number on the list, IDI had the correct number 85 percent of the time and TLO was right 67 percent of the time, while IRB was right on the list 54 percent of the time.

Accuracy

Now we get to the heart of the matter. After all, getting the most accurate information is obviously the most important. As I mentioned above, we had verified working numbers of all 52 people. So which one of them had the most accurate numbers?

TLO had 50 of 52 (96 percent), IDI had 46 of 52 (88 percent) and IRB Search had 37 of 52 numbers right (71 percent).

TLO was the winner here, with almost all the numbers correct, and IDI was not far behind. IRB Search was a distant third.

Cost

I would be remiss if I did not mention the cost. IRB Search cost $3 per search ($156 total for 52 searches) and TLO cost $1.80 per search ($90 total), while IDI cost $0.50 per search ($25.50 total).

IDI was the hands-down winner here. In my mind, cost should never be the determining factor; getting the best information is far more important. But considering IDI cost less than a third of TLO and six times less than IRB Search, it’s certainly a factor.

A Personal Test

So we had a total of 52 phone number to verify, 50 of which came from previous cases that we worked on. But I also tested this out on myself and my colleague to see whether they had our personal cell phone numbers. All three databases had my colleague’s personal cell phone number. TLO and IDI had my personal cell phone and home number listed prominently at the top; IRB Search had my home number but not my cell phone number.

The Winner?

If you are keeping score at home, both TLO and IDI won two of the categories and finished second in two of the categories, while IRB Search finished last in all four categories.

As I mentioned above, TLO has been our go-to source. Personally, I like the way the search functionality works and how easy it is to use. IDI is still pretty new to us, but given these results, it certainly deserves a closer look. IRB was the clear loser here, having the least reliable information and being the most expensive.

Keep in mind that this is a pretty small sample size. I am no mathematician, but 50 phone numbers out of billions of records doesn’t really provide a great sample size.

I’m not trading in my subscriptions for any of them. They all deserve a look, and I will continue to use all three when necessary. One of my many mottos in this business is to use multiple sources for research. Because you never know which one may help you. But this test may help us decide in the future which one to prioritize.

Also, keep in mind that these databases also provide dozens of other data points, including address history and (limited) criminal history as well as hoards of other information. So while they may be great at one thing, they may not be so great at another.

But that’s a blog post for another day.

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It’s pretty commonplace for investigators to get stuck going down a rabbit hole into a vortex, which sucks you into a dark place that renders you nearly powerless.

One thing leads you to another to another and another, which will inevitably get you to a YouTube video of cats.

And you have no idea how you got there.

I know because it happens to me quite a bit.

One of the ways to avoid heading into the rabbit hole is to follow four simple rules: gather, analyze, report and repeat.

Gather the information, review and analyze the data, and draft a succinct and coherent summary of the information.

Once you have done that, you can more easily find holes, leads, missing pieces, inconsistencies, patterns, discrepancies, cracks and flaws.

Then, you go back to the beginning and start all over again.

It can be all too easy to get overwhelmed with information in the gathering phase. But a few simple steps can keep you out of the rabbit hole.

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“Would anyone be able to find out ____________?” is a question that people pose to me quite often.

The truth is that any motivated party with enough time and resources can find out pretty much anything about anybody.

Granted, there are people who do what we do legally and aboveboard; while others might use more sketchy, underhanded or illegal methods of obtaining information.

So this is my advice to anyone who is willing to listen:

The best way to keep your secrets safe is to not have any secrets in the first place.

~ Brian Willingham
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Enjoyed What You Read?

Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date with what Hal Humphreys, from Pursuit Magazine, believes to be one of the absolute best blogs in the investigative industry!