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

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

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

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

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

Professional Investigative Databases

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

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

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

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

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

Court Searches / Public Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20. Maryland Courts: Maryland judiciary case search

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search Engines

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

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

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

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

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

Employment / Degree Verification

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

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

Financial and Government Regulatory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Contributions

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

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

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

New York Specific Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Investigators

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

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

State Criminal Record Checks

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

64. Connecticut Department of Public Safety ($)

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

66. Georgia Felon Search ($)

67. Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center ($)

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

69. Illinois State Police ($)

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

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

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

73. Maine Criminal History Record ($)

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

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

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

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

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

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

80. Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation ($)

81. Oregon Open Records ($)

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

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

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

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

86. Washington Access To Criminal History ($)

Miscellaneous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

98. Historical Military Records: Verify historical military records

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

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

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

Social Media

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

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We are often asked about how to find certain pieces of information about someone. Like whether they are married. Where they live. What date they were born. Whether they have any money. Where they work. What kind of person they are. Or what they are up to.

Which got me thinking.

What if you wanted to find out everything about someone? Literally everything, including what they ate for lunch yesterday.

Would that be possible?

I often tell clients that anything is possible. Any motivated party can find out (just about) anything about someone. But everything?

Absolutely.

This, of course, means sticking to all legal and ethical boundaries that we have. I am sure some other people might have some more nefarious methods, like hacking into someone’s computer or phone, either of which is pretty much the hub of all personal information (if you don’t believe me, just ask the FBI).

So here we go…

Public records

No public record would be too small, including criminal records, civil lawsuits, judgments, liens, bankruptcies, property records, motor vehicle records, watercraft records, U.S. Tax Court and U.S. Court of Claims filings, professional licenses, voter registration records, corporate records, fictitious business name filings and even Uniform Commercial Code filings.

Not only would I conduct research through multiple database aggregators, such as Lexis Nexis and Westlaw (duplicating wherever possible) and direct sources (county clerk websites, court websites, etc.), I would also send people to the individual courts, secretaries of state and clerks’ offices to pull every single piece of paper that has the person’s name on it.

Every. Single. One.

I would even go to the extent of contacting every police department in each town/city the person lived in, checking by name, aliases and addresses to see whether they ever had any run-ins with the law, regardless of how minor they were (jaywalking included). I learned my lesson recently when doing some research on a person who seemed like a perfectly nice gentleman, until I found out that he had been harassing his neighbors for the past 15 years.

And I would go back to every town, city, county and state that the person had lived in since turning 18 (most everything before that would have occurred when a person was a minor, which in most states means the information is off limits).

Open source searches

Next I would tackle open source searches. This means anything that may not necessarily fall within public records (e.g., some type of government document), such as historical news media, employment history, education history and professional affiliations.

I would even go to the local libraries where the person had lived and scour the local newspapers for anything I could get my hands on. College newspapers too. High school and college yearbooks also might be a good source. I’d be looking for not-so-flattering information, gaps in employment history, downright lies or ties to nefarious characters.

Our open source searches would include various Internet searches. You don’t want to just Google a name. And you would want to make sure you go to at least page 2 of Google results. After all, you do want to find out everything, right?

Make sure you use multiple search engines, like DuckDuckGo and Bing. And make sure that you search under name variations, handles, alter egos, email addresses, etc.

All this information would be crafted in a running time line, making sure that every single hole in the person’s life was filled, from the moment they were born through grade school, secondary school and their professional career, up to the moment you started looking into the person. I’d also be keeping an eye on anyone in their immediate family, close friends and colleagues.

Social media

Next, I would dive into social media. Whether or not the person is active on social media, chances are they are somewhere out there; you just need to find them or their footprint.

First, I would start with some of the big ones like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, making sure that I uncover every nook and cranny to find their profiles. If I can’t find them (after all, not everyone is on social media), I would dig through family and friends’ profiles to see whether I can backdoor my way into some information.

Once I found their profiles (or their friends/family’s profiles), I would download and save snapshots of every single page I come across for future reference (you never know whether the posts/photos will be there the next time you check). Once I found these profiles, I would review and analyze every single photo, mention or post for clues about the person’s close family and colleagues, likes and dislikes, and even enemies.

You would want to spend extra time mining places like Facebook – not only because a site like Facebook has oodles of data that is behind the scenes, but because it’s got over 1 billion people on it. It’s more than likely that the person’s picture is on there somewhere, even if they don’t actively participate.

And don’t forget about the hundreds of smaller social media sites. They might be more niche, but they can provide a wealth of information. Make sure you plug the person’s username or handle into a database like Knowem to search hundreds of social networks to see whether their name has been used somewhere.

The Internet

Everyone can do a Google search. But at this level, you will need to go beyond simple search engine searches. You need to scour the depths of the Internet to find fake profiles that the person might have created or identify them on lists they shouldn’t be on (Ashley Madison, anyone?). Maybe they posted on some historic message board under one of their various alter egos or handles.

Don’t underestimate the power of the Internet.

So far, we have spent a lot of time sitting behind a computer. Some investigators think that focusing on information on the Internet is “disgusting.”

Personally, I think it’s smart, in part because everything I have done up to this point has been completely discreet. As long as you have been careful, the person you are investigating will never know what you are doing.

Now, let’s get into the not-so-discreet stuff.

Surveillance

Everything we have done up to this point provides a pretty good picture about someone. But when you want to find out everything about someone, you need to know what they are up to right now. What their routines are. Where they shop, work and bank. And of course, who they meet up with.

Surveillance is meant to be discreet. But sometimes, things don’t always go as planned. So just be careful. Use several people to conduct surveillance. Rotate surveillance vehicles and surveillance operatives. Get close, but not too close. You don’t want to get burned.

Track their habits. Know where they go. Who they meet. And of course, find out what they eat for lunch.

Dumpsters

This may get dirty, but you can certainly find out quite a bit about a person through their trash. When a person throws something out, that item is now in the public domain. Effectively, if you put out your garbage on a public street where it is accessible to members to the public, it’s open for anyone to take. (If you go on private property, though, that’s a whole different ball game.)

What kind of information might one find?

Certainly what they ate for dinner. And probably quite a bit of junk mail.

But think about what else could be in there – personal documents, bank statements, medical bills, tax documents, etc.

The list of possibilities is endless.

Human intelligence

Human intelligence means identifying and interviewing people who are familiar with a person. They include friends, colleagues, family members, business partners, neighbors, investors, investment partners, etc. You want a good cross-section of people from various points in the person’s life that encompasses their personal and professional past.

But you also want to find opponents in litigation, or people who they have had disputes with. They say that you find out a lot about person when they have their back up against a wall.

You don’t want to skimp on this. And with each person you talk to, you want to make sure that you get at least three good referrals of someone else to speak to.

You need to be careful. At this point, things are probably going to get back to the person you are looking into. It’s just inevitable.

Conclusion

There you have it. How you can find out everything about someone. Of course, this all comes at a price. Like around $100,000 or so.

Email us for our bank details to wire us the money.

;)

Guide to Hiring a Private Investigator

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Private investigators are known to be a pretty secretive group. Kind of like the photo you see above.

While some investigative firms like to perpetuate the “cloak and dagger” image, we are not one of them.

So let’s turn back the curtain on some of those not-so-secret weapons.

Social Media

If you haven’t figured it out already, people will say and do the darndest things on social media. Like these two geniuses who posted selfies with stolen money and ended up being arrested. Or the Montana man who got arrested after liking his own mugshot. And then there’s the story about the 103 gang members who were indicted after leaving a long trail of incriminating Facebook messages.

Not everyone is that senseless. But it’s amazing what kind of information you can glean from social media – information that either you could never have gotten otherwise if they didn’t tell you, or would have taken tens of hours to find.

Most people do not understand and cannot fully harness the power of social media, like finding hidden Facebook photos, so before you dismiss it, know that there is a lot more to it than just plugging a name into Facebook.

Google

Ahhh…Google. It’s become so popular, it’s become a verb (go Google it!).

Most people use Google in its simplest form, but there are so many advanced features that nobody even touches.

I use a number of its tools, such as Google Keep for keeping track of notes, Google Alerts to monitor cases I have worked on and Google News for keeping up with the latest industry trends (you can personalize Google News to include almost anything).

I also use Google Apps for Work, which has some incredible enterprise-level tools for sharing, collaborating and security (and you can get 50 percent off Google Apps for Work using this link – http://goo.gl/ItM1Hi – and entering the code CW9F6A47W99CTN…just saying).

Smartphones

A smartphone is a modern-day Swiss army knife. It can replace a number of tools that an investigator would have had to carry around. It can take photos with a time and date stamp, take an undercover video, easily record in-person conversations or a phone conversation, and, of course, it can get you where you’re going with a GPS and even scan documents.

The best thing about a smartphone is that (nearly) everyone has one, so if you need to be a bit clandestine when taking a video, photo or recording a conversation, nobody will even notice.

Public Records

Public records are one of the most incredibly rich sources of information that most people either don’t think about or completely dismiss.

Public records can determine how much you bought your house for, how many building permits you have on your house, whether you have ever been sued or been charged with a crime, if you have filed for bankruptcy, if you owe back taxes, or if you inherited money from Uncle Leo.

And so much more…

Investigative Databases

Investigative databases such as TLOxp and Accurint are powerful tools that combine public and proprietary data to help investigators find people as well as to research connections and assets by searching millions of data points. They have completely changed the game for investigators by centralizing millions of records into an easily searchable and powerful database.

They do have their limitations. And far too often, investigators rely on them way too much, as they are not comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination, especially when it comes to criminal checks – but they are an incredible weapon.

Experience

I get a lot of people who come to me with the same certain problems. For example, I often deal with people who say, “I need to prove that my business partner is a fraud.” In some cases, they will recommend some kind of easy way of proving fraud, like hacking into their partner’s email account, or getting their bank account details or phone records by using some sort of shady or illegal tactic.

After “talking them off the ledge,” I can offer some perfectly legal alternative that would not only help them get some answers, but would keep them (and me) out of jail.

Brains

Throughout my life, I have never been the smartest guy in the room. But I know quite a bit about a lot of different things. Most importantly, I am fully aware of my own limitations and the fact that I don’t know everything, so I know when to rely on other people’s brains.

Patience

I received a call from a prominent Pennsylvania law firm a few weeks back. Their client was about to be awarded a multimillion-dollar judgment from a U.S.-based corporation, and they were interested in seeing what kinds of assets the corporation held here in the U.S. Their paralegals had already identified hundreds of real estate holdings, but determining the value of these properties and whether they were worth pursuing was not so easy.

They thought we would have an easy answer for them, but I didn’t.

Everyone is looking for an easy answer, but sometimes the answer is that you just have to put in the work.

It can be tedious and boring, but sometimes that is the only answer.

Guts

A few years ago, lawyers on opposing sides fought for weeks about serving a Notice of Deposition to an employee of a third-party company. The defense attorneys would not confirm or deny that the person was an active employee at this third-party company; the plaintiff’s attorney saw the LinkedIn profile of the individual, which stated that he was at the company, but couldn’t confirm that it was true.

So the plaintiff’s attorney called me and asked me if I could “work my magic” and determine if the individual was currently employed by the company.

I called him back about 15 minutes later, and told him that the employee had left about four months ago after taking a job at another local company.

“Incredible! How did you find that out so fast?” the attorney asked.

“I called them and the secretary told me,” I said.

(Silence)

I guess he wanted me to tell him something much more exciting.

Sometimes you need brains, patience and experience, and other times you need some social media, investigative database and public record expertise.

But other times, you just need a bit of guts.

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A few months back, The New York Times reported that an out-of-work former taxi driver from Romania hacked into the email accounts of some of the world’s most powerful people, including George W. Bush and Colin Powell.

How did he do it?

Simple.

He guessed their passwords.

That’s right. He gathered a few pieces of information about both Bush and Powell from the Web, and with some patience and a little trial and error, he guessed the passwords.

I am certainly no security expert, but I have come to know a thing or two about protecting your privacy and securing your personal information. After all, I make a living out of digging up information on people. Although I am not a hacker and don’t try to crack into people’s email, I do handle quite a bit of “sensitive” information.

What I have come to learn is that most of these commonsense, “ridiculously easy” things you can do to protect your privacy are not so common to other people.

Password Protect Your Smartphone

Think of all the sensitive personal information that’s on your mobile device. Contacts, passwords, access to bank accounts, social networks and the history of your email. It would seem pretty obvious that one would want to protect this information, but apparently 34 percent of all smartphone owners don’t even have a simple code to lock the screen.

Passwords

The whole password game is completely broken. If you are anything like most people, you have signed up for 4,853 websites with the same username/password combination for most of them. And you have probably used 123456 as a password at some point. It might be easy to remember, but if just one of your username/password combinations gets stolen – which seems to happen just about every day – you might as well hand over the keys to the car, the house and the hidden bank accounts.

The solution?

Sign up for something like Lastpass1Password or Dashlane, which not only helps you store encrypted passwords, but creates nearly unguessable passwords that I promise you will not make the worst password list.

Shred

Your “snail” mail is protected by federal law. If people try to intercept your mail, they may suffer years in jail. But once that mail has been opened, put in your trash and out on the curb, it’s fair game.

So buy yourself a shredder (this is a great personal shredder that I own). Any important documents with bank information, health records, private details or anything even remotely interesting to would-be snoops – shred it immediately when you are done with it.

Don’t Overshare on Social Media

Some privacy gurus will tell you never to use social media. After all, they collect insane amounts of information about you. If you are hell-bent on protecting your privacy, I would avoid it, but I really don’t see the harm in it, just as long as you are smart about it.

First, I would strongly consider checking your privacy settings and understanding what you are sharing with others.

Second, don’t overshare. Getting into heated discussions about hot topics, badmouthing your boss or tweeting all day while you are supposed to be working may cost you your current or future job.

Also, social media has become an integral tool for robbers to plan their next targets; 80% of robbers apparently check social media for potential targets, so you might want to avoid posting about your latest escapade at the local watering hole.

Encrypt Your Hard Drive

Most people have some sort of password on their computer (if you don’t, do that now) that gives some protection to the stuff on their hard drive. But what most people don’t realize is that if that hard drive were to be taken out of the computer and attached to another computer, just about anyone could access it. To protect that data, you can encrypt the hard drive to prevent people from accessing your files without your encryption key.

On a Mac, you can easily encrypt your hard drive in a few easy steps with FileVault; with a PC it’s a bit more complicated, but still not all that hard. It’s also a good idea to encrypt your phone (the newest iPhones and Android phones are encrypted by default).

By the way, I cringe every time someone says “there is nothing important on my computer.”

It’s just insanely false.

Don’t be that person.

Two-Step Authentication

Two-step authentication puts in an additional level of security by requiring a second form of authentication in addition to your “regular password” to access your account. The second form of authentication comes in various shapes and sizes, such as a keycard with a randomly generated password, a fingerprint or even a retina scan.

Until recently, two-step authentication was not available to regular people, but many services, including Google, Facebook, Apple, and Yahoo, have rolled out two-step authentication. For the second form of authentication, you can get a text, a phone call, an authentication app or a single-use code that you can put in your wallet. So in addition to logging with your normal password, with two-step verification you’ll have to go through the added trouble of entering a second code. This will “approve” the computer you’re currently logging in from for 30 days, so you don’t have to do this every time you log in.

You might be thinking, “I have enough trouble with one password, who wants to bother with a second password?”  Well, it’s easier, that you think – How and Why to Turn On Two-Step Verification for Your Apple, Google, and Yahoo Accounts.

Wi-Fi

It’s a sure bet that people will connect to Wi-Fi in a coffee shop or a public place these days. And there is nothing wrong with that, but you should be aware that your information may not be safe. Does that mean you shouldn’t use it? No, but I wouldn’t be doing any Internet banking, entering sensitive passwords or sending any sensitive data through public Wi-Fi. If you would like to ensure that your browsing traffic is safe, consider signing up for a VPN (virtual private network) service.

Even if you implement everything discussed here, the truth of the matter is that any highly motivated person can steal your personal information. The key here is to try to close as many holes as you possibly can.

There is no perfect plan, but implementing these steps will go a long way.

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One of the double-edged-swords of private investigation is that we tend to be quite cautious and take very little at face value. We’ve heard the stories and investigated the shady characters; often we are more surprised when something appears to be on the up and up. In our lives, fraud seems to be commonplace.

Turns out, it is! According to a recent FINRA Investor Education Foundation report, 80 percent of Americans have been solicited for a potentially fraudulent offer. But the majority of people have difficulty identifying a scam. And 11% of the Finra poll participants reported that they had lost significant amounts of money in what turned out to be a fraudulent investment scheme.

What may be more surprising is that the more educated and wealthier population is more likely to fall for a fraud or questionable investment.

Red Flags

Red Flags

There are a myriad of investment and assistance offers that should raise a red flag and deserve increased scrutiny before you commit any money. A few of the more prevalent are:

Something for nothing – Promises of an unreasonably high rate of return on a reported very low risk investment.

Cold call pitches – This could be anything from an unknown person calling with an investment opportunity to an email informing you of large payment (lottery winnings, inheritance, etc.) in exchange for an initial investment or fee.

Investor Commissions – An invitation, often from a known person, to invest in a program that provides commissions for referring other individuals.

The “Educational” Seminar – A meeting that is marketed to potential investors as an educational course, but is instead a sales pitch for a particular investment.

Transactional “Assistance” – Particularly in a distressed housing market or down economy, fraudsters and identity thieves may offer assistance to individuals seeking assistance with a variety of official filings. Perhaps it is filing tax forms with the IRS to secure a large refund. Or maybe it is an individual who promises to help you with mortgage records to fight foreclosure proceedings.

Scams and fraudulent investment schemes are constantly evolving and changing. You may have complete faith in the person you are entrusting with your money. Or you may have a nagging doubt in the back of your mind. Why chance it? There are a number of things that you can do if you think there is a chance you’re dealing with a shady character.

Check on them. Then check on yourself.

Check on them

Whether you have already invested or paid money, or you are contemplating it, you should do a little digging to determine whether the individual, company, or investment product exists as represented. There are numerous resources available online for little or no cost:

Ask Questions: For example, who is the company’s auditor? Is it a reputable firm and are you able to confirm the relationship? What are the relationships between the individuals involved? What is the history of the investment returns? Were you provided with documentation about the investment? Do the numbers add up and returns seem plausible? Sometimes a simple phone call or increased scrutiny of the information provided to you will give you all the answers you need.

Online Presence: Check out the company’s website and review the individual’s online presence to see if they are who they appear. Do the photos match up? What about other information you know about this person or company? Is there anything that could indicate that the company or person are not who they claim to be? One useful tool for this is Archive.org, which will let you review a website’s past appearance. Also useful are the Better Business Bureau database and online media sources that allow newspaper article searches.

Corporate Filings: Is the company a registered business in your state? In most cases, this is easily verified through an online check with your state’s secretary of state or division of corporations. If you locate a filing, look for potential red flags in the dates incorporated, status, and associated persons.

Regulatory Agency Records: Finra, the National Futures Association, and the SEC all maintain databases of registered individuals and companies, as well as any adverse or disciplinary proceedings against them.

Government Agency Records: The Federal Bureau of Prisons, as well as many state corrections agencies, provides an inmate locator that allows you to determine if an individual has been, or is currently, a prisoner. Searches of the Federal Trade Commission and state attorney general sites may also provide information about complaints or adverse proceedings against a company or individual. Also a good source of information is a state’s consumer affairs department and its attorney general’s office. If your concern is related to real estate, check local property records (most are available online) under the name of the individual and company.

Professional Licensing: If the individual or firm claims to be in a regulated profession (e.g. auditor, CPA, attorney, etc.), check the state’s registry in order to confirm the license and also any disciplinary actions.

Litigation: With court records increasingly available for free or at low cost online, you may want to review the litigation history for the company and individual. Have they previously been sued or arrested?

Check on yourself

This is particularly important if you have already invested money with a potential scammer. However, it is always wise to routinely review your financial and personal information to ensure that there hasn’t been unauthorized activity. There is always a chance that you are being targeted now because you didn’t catch on to a previous scam.

At a minimum, you should review your credit report and financial accounts (e.g. bank accounts, investments, retirement savings, etc.). Use online databases or go to your county clerk’s office to review property records for any real estate that you own. And you may want to check your online presence to be sure that it is consistent with information you have posted yourself.

So where do you turn?

An additional finding in the Finra report was that a shockingly low number of investment scams are reported. This is due to a number of issues – embarrassment, fear of getting a close friend or relative into trouble, or assumption that nothing will be done about it. But it also isn’t always clear where you should report a fraud. (Will my local detective really be able to hunt down the Internet scammer based in Asia?)

A few of the places you can turn:

  • Private Investigator
  • Attorney
  • Local law enforcement
  • State law enforcement (e.g. state investigations division or attorney general)
  • Federal law enforcement or agency (e.g. FBI, Postal Inspector, SEC, FTC, etc.)
  • Regulatory agency (e.g. Finra, SEC, NFA etc.)
  • Better Business Bureau

The correct answer to the question of where to report a fraud may depend on the amount of your loss, the capabilities of your local law enforcement, and your ability to provide adequate information about the scam.

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Below, we have put together a short list of things a private investigator can do.

The fact of the matter is that each case we get is different and needs to be approached differently, so it’s difficult to describe what a private investigator can do in a short sentence.

Ultimately, what we find is “information” or “facts” but that’s not nearly as entertaining as #101 on our list; “We will tell you what those bastards are up to!”

101 Things a Private Investigator Can Do

    1. Find a current address
    2. Find historical addresses
    3. Find a date of birth
    4. Identify known aliases
    5. Identify and/or confirm a Social Security number
    6. Locate birth records
    7. Locate death records
    8. Locate marriage records
    9. Locate divorce filings
    10. Dig through someone’s trash
    11. Locate a beneficiary for a probate proceeding
    12. Research current and / or historical property holdings
    13. Identify mortgage information
    14. Identify secured lenders
    15. Identify related party property transactions
    16. Determine current market value of real property
    17. Locate bankruptcy filings
    18. Retrieve and analyze bankruptcy records
    19. Uncover improper relationships
    20. Locate federal civil lawsuits
    21. Locate federal criminal records
    22. Retrieve and analyze federal civil and criminal records
    23. Retrieve mug shots from arrest records
    24. Provide independent analysis
    25. Locate state and local criminal arrest records
    26. Retrieve and analyze review criminal records
    27. Provide peace of mind
    28. Locate home phone numbers
    29. Locate cell phone numbers
    30. Identify owner of home or cell phone number
    31. Determine owners of corporation
    32. Retrieve and analyze corporate records
    33. Locate current or former executives
    34. Interview current or former executives
    35. Find and retrieve judgment and lien filings
    36. Research familial history
    37. Connect the dots
    38. Locate witnesses for a civil or criminal lawsuit
    39. Interview witnesses for a civil or criminal lawsuit
    40. Find assets
    41. Find current or historical boat registrations
    42. Find current or historical aircraft registrations
    43. Search for hidden assets
    44. Conduct business intelligence
    45. Discreet intelligence gathering
    46. Determine connections between parties
    47. Locate bank account information
    48. Locate current or former employees of a company
    49. Interview current or former employees of a company
    50. Locate significant inheritances
    51. Show you the big picture
    52. Identify a will for an estate
    53. Locate probate records
    54. Identify foreign assets
    55. Locate regulatory records
    56. Identify regulatory actions
    57. Identify professional licenses
    58. Determine prior disciplinary records for professional licenses
    59. Analyze state and federal political contributions
    60. Analyze state lobbyist records
    61. Analyze federal lobbyist records
    62. Identify potential whistleblowers
    63. Vet expert witnesses
    64. Interview industry sources
    65. Gather competitive intelligence
    66. Identify related party business transactions
    67. Retrieve and analyze non-profit financial filings
    68. Knock on doors
    69. Obtain and analyze Department of Labor Form 5500 Filings
    70. Submit FOIA / FOIL requests to government agencies
    71. Obtain driving record history (in applicable states)
    72. Find current vehicle registrations
    73. Find historical vehicle registrations
    74. Make you look brilliant
    75. Determine current market value of motor vehicles
    76. Assist with jury selection
    77. Background checks on prospective jurors
    78. Analyze documents for potential fraud
    79. Identify Risks
    80. Identifying corporate relationships
    81. Give you a competitive advantage
    82. Identify Uniform Commercial Code filings
    83. Foreign corporation research
    84. Help you manage sensitive situations
    85. Overseas litigation research
    86. Identify stock ownership
    87. Find facts
    88. Locate online resume
    89. Identify online networking profiles
    90. Locate historical video or news footage
    91. Conduct historical newspaper research
    92. Conduct mobile or stationary surveillance
    93. Perform clandestine operations
    94. Find undisclosed ties
    95. Identify and retrieve U.S. Tax Court cases
    96. Locate a missing person
    97. Identify and confirm education history
    98. Identify and confirm previous employment history
    99. Scour the Internet
    100. Research presence on social networks or message boards
    101. We will tell you what those bastards are up to!

Guide to Hiring a Private Investigator

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