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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.

Next, 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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Not every person, corporation or law firm needs to hire a private investigator on a regular basis.  Realistically and thankfully, a private investigator is not someone that everyone has on speed dial.
But if a situation requires one, before you hire a private investigator, take into consideration these questions:
What is your objective?Are you trying to find someone, collect on a judgment, determine if it’s worth suing someone or perhaps investigate a complex matter? With some cases, the specific objective may be obvious, but often clients are not sure what they really want. Having an ultimate goal or objective before you hire a private investigator can help control costs and focus the investigator in the right direction.

Do you need subject matter expertise?

Investigators often have a specialty. These include surveillance, matrimonial cases, insurance disability matters, internal fraud investigations, adoption, computer forensics, forensic accounting, litigation support, due diligence investigation and background checks.  Hiring the wrong investigator for the wrong job may doom your case from the start. Before you hire a private investigator make sure the investigator you hire has a proven track record in the area you present to them.

What do you already know?

It’s important to collect every relevant piece of written or electronic information in your possession to provide to the investigator. Also, be sure to tell them everything you know—even if it’s not written down. This insures that the investigator has the best tools to be effective and efficient so that they can hit the ground running.

How will the information be used?

Are you trying to get information for your own use or do you anticipate litigation relevant to the information?  In the first instance, it may be appropriate to deal directly with the investigator, but if there is litigation in the works, your investigator should be retained by an attorney to protect work product privilege.

What are your expectations?

We all love a good Sherlock Holmes novel or an old episode of Colombo, but it’s called fiction for a reason. Understanding what the investigator can legally, properly and ethically do will save you from unrealistic expectations and trouble down the road.

What are the risks if inquiries become known?

What if the investigator is caught digging around? If the inquiries the investigator is making are exposed, what’s the backlash?  Think this through. This is key to developing a leak proof investigative strategy to avoid embarrassment or worse.  An investigative approach depends on the sensitivity of the case—make sure you and the investigator are on the same page about technique. Is it necessary to take every precaution and be sensitive or can the investigator go in with guns blazing?

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A pre-litigation asset search can provide you or your client with valuable information to determine if a lawsuit is worth filing or to gain leverage in the course of negotiations prior to filing a lawsuit.

Going through litigation is expensive.  There is nothing worse than racking up tens of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees only to find the person or company you are suing doesn’t have anything of value.  In other cases, you may be in the midst of negotiating a settlement prior to filing a lawsuit and want to see how far you can push the negotiations, or if you should cut your losses and settle.

In pre-litigation mode, attorneys don’t have the luxury of having the legal authority to access information about liquid assets such as bank accounts and investment accounts.  Attorneys need information quickly, discreetly and most importantly, legally.

What to consider?

Determining whether you should sue a person or a company has two parts – what they may own and what other potential liabilities they may have.  Of course there may be a whole host of hidden assets, but here are a few key assets and potential liabilities that can be identified quickly, discreetly and legally in a pre-litigation asset search:

Assets

  • Personal Assets – The most significant asset that people own is typically their home, but other assets that can be identified through open sources include motor vehicles, boats and airplanes.  Beyond the obvious assets held directly by a person, assets may also be held by a close associate, family trust, family member or shell company.  Real property assets may have also been recently transferred to other related parties or held overseas.
  • Business Assets – In addition to holding individual assets, assets may also be held in a corporate entity.   Identifying corporate affiliations through secretary of state filings and other research is an important step in identifying assets held by affiliated companies which may not be held by the subject directly.

Liabilities

  • Bankruptcy – Obviously, if the person or company has filed for bankruptcy protection, you will eventually be notified and you can file a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding.  What if you haven’t been notified yet?  If the person or company has a history of filing for bankruptcy protection, wouldn’t you want to know?
  • Civil Litigation – If other civil litigation has already been initiated against the person or company you are about to sue, you may be in a long line of creditors once your lawsuit has finally been settled.  It may also be a sign that you should settle fast.
  • Judgments/Liens – If the person or company has been subject to recent judgments and/or lien filings, this may be a sign that the company is already heading for trouble.

Final thought

Conducting a pre-litigation asset search can quickly identify assets and potential liabilities that can help you make a more informed decision about whether you should file a lawsuit or if you should cut your losses and settle prior to filing a lawsuit.

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A risky and growing trend in the legal arena is the use of in-house paralegals or support staff as an alternative to hiring a trained legal investigator. Although this is understandable, particularly given the cost-effectiveness and convenience of in-house resources, there is no substitute for a professionally trained legal investigator. It takes much more than just an inquisitive mind and Internet savvy to consider oneself an “investigator.” Before assigning investigations to in-house researchers, attorneys should be asking themselves, “How important is getting this information?” and “What if the other side finds out something I did not know about?”  A trained legal investigator can identify facts to assist an attorney or law firm achieve a desired result for a client.

Who Needs a Legal Investigator Anyway?

Attorneys and support staff are becoming increasingly adept at using publicly-available search engines (i.e. Google) and accessing third-party resources such as Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw. These resources are, of course, also commonly utilized by professional private investigation firms. What attorneys may not realize is that every Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw subscription may contain records from different databases. The research databases in a licensed private investigator’s subscription may contain millions of records and publications that are not available to private law firms. Because of federal and state privacy restrictions, these data brokers will generally provide attorney clients with only limited access to public records. Attorneys should consider what information they may be missing by only using their in-house resources. 

Cost Effectiveness v. Cost Efficiency

In an age of shrinking budgets and increased scrutiny of client costs, it is understandable that many attorneys will first look to internal resources and research. However, no amount of Internet savvy will help a paralegal or researcher whose sphere of information is limited by the databases available to him or her. An attorney who uses in-house personnel is at risk of missing critical information that could cost the case, the client, or both.

Where Can Professional Investigator help?

Though it may not be necessary to assign every investigative task to a professional, it could be beneficial to consult an investigator for additional recommendations regarding your case. Certain investigators are immensely skilled at locating a subject for a difficult process service, identifying and interviewing witnesses with critical first-hand knowledge, locating personal assets of an individual or business entity or conducting a thorough background investigation on an expert witness.

Conclusion

A legal investigator is trained to pursue information and facts so that an attorney can intelligently proceed in the best interest of their client. In high-stakes litigation, you may be doing your client a disservice by not retaining the services of a professional. While it may be more cost effective to utilize in-house capacity, it is strongly advised to reconsider cutting corners when it comes to gathering information and case intelligence.

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A private investigator is routinely called upon at various stages of a civil lawsuit. The case may not yet be filed – the attorney wants to find out as much information before he or she has to file a complaint. Perhaps the attorney is looking for additional information to bolster the amended complaint. It is also possible that litigation has been going on for years, and the attorney is trying to re-energize his case or prepare for a tough round of cross-examination.

Below are 5 scenarios where investigators were able to provide attorneys with valuable assistance:

The Reluctant Witness

After years of litigation, attorneys were trying to get the last of their key depositions completed. One of the defendant’s witnesses simply refused to appear for his deposition. He claimed that, due to his deteriorating health, he was no longer working and his doctor advised that the stress of a deposition would be too taxing for him.

Attorneys called in their private investigators who quickly discovered that the witness had recently purchased a small sailboat and a sports car. Furthermore, the witness had recently received a speeding ticket for driving significantly over the speed limit in his new car. Additional investigation revealed photos of the witness splashed across the society pages – at galas, regattas, and the theatre. He even tweeted about his recent deep sea fishing excursion. The judge was furious, the opposing attorneys were embarrassed, and the witness was soon deposed.

The Internal Investigation

The general counsel at a major corporation contacted her outside counsel for advice. An executive was suspected of receiving kickbacks from international suppliers. Private investigators were brought in by the outside counsel and they began to conduct discrete interviews and review the executive’s corporate telephone records and email exchanges.

While they did substantiate the kickback allegations, the intelligence led investigators to uncover evidence of a larger cover-up by the executive and others at one of the overseas facilities. There was proof of a significant environmental accident that had been hidden from corporate management and the local government officials.

The Employment Discrimination Suit

An employee of a large corporation alleged that during the workday for the past two years, he had experienced sexual harassment and threats through phone calls and emails. Although the communications were anonymous, the information conveyed to the employee led him to believe that they came from someone within the corporation. When he felt the company didn’t address his complaints and reporting of the incidents adequately, the employee quit his job and filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the company.

Through interviews, phone records, and intelligence gathering, investigators were able to narrow the pool of potential harassers down to three individuals. The employees’ company-owned computer hard drives were imaged and searched, revealing documents and an Internet history that supported the employee’s allegations. The lawsuit was settled to the company’s satisfaction. The offending employee was fired, arrested, and named as a defendant in several civil lawsuits.

The Insider’s Secrets

The highly-anticipated release of Company X’s new video game was shrouded in secrecy. All of Company X’s employees and contractors signed non-disclosure agreements and significant security measures were in place at the warehouse and development sites. As a result, there was shock throughout the industry when Company X’s game showed up on the Internet sites weeks before the release. Company X’s sales were half of what they had anticipated. The Company X CEO was furious and convinced that someone had leaked information to their biggest competitor.

Investigators were immediately brought in to review of surveillance, computer and phone records. A tip line was established and numerous interviews conducted. Through significant intelligence-gathering, investigators were able to prove that a group of key Company X executives had recently attended the same Asian conference as their competitors. During that time, the competitors purchased a development copy of the game and other corporate information regarding Company X. A criminal investigation commenced and Company X immediately filed a civil lawsuit against its competitor.

The Class Action

Two neighbors approached an attorney with complaints about recurring problems and broken parts in their dishwashers. The appliances were the same model, manufactured by a national company and serviced through regional centers. The attorney brought in investigators who were able to locate and interview people who had previously worked for the manufacturer and the service centers.

Many of the witnesses spoke of a systemic problem that was ignored by corporate management. In fact, several of the former employees had also owned that model of dishwasher and suffered similar problems. Using the information from the investigators, the attorney filed a class action lawsuit and eventually obtained a large settlement for his clients and class members.

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