Transparent Methods

Here are the 8 assignments we most often carry out, and methods we use to do each one.

It’s generally assumed that the most common falsehoods in executive resumes are academic degrees that were never earned, or military service that never took place.

However, it’s far more common for executives to omit stints at jobs that didn’t work out, or don’t fit well with their current career goals. Like the investment banker who worked several months in adult entertainment — he covers the omission by stretching the dates of other jobs held just before and after.

What's online is only part of the public record.

A corporate exec does a money-laundering stretch upstate that interrupts her thriving career. When she gets out, she returns to the corporate world and passes every background check — public-record databases don't include her state's criminal records.

Until twenty years later, when investigators turn up a paper record showing when convicts were released from the state’s prison system.

Trouble in an individual's past doesn't always have his name on it.

A client needs a background check on an executive in Asia who used to run a division of an importing company. A robotic check finds no lawsuits or media naming him and issues the all-clear. But experienced investigators dig further to reveal that his division was engulfed in fraud charges while he ran it.

If the client had relied on robots and publicly embraced the exec, the next day local gossips and industry bloggers would have been delighted to bring this to their — and the world's — attention.

Some red flags get less serious as you dig deeper.

Many board members have been named as defendants in fraud litigation. But further digging is needed to assess these as due-diligence issues. Concern declines, for example, when a suit is brought by professional plaintiffs, the name we care about is cited along with every other director, and no particulars are alleged.

A client should never have to read this sentence. Ours don’t.

There's an art to approaching people for information over whom you have no power. You have about 30 seconds to win their trust before they decide to slam the door. How? Instead of peppering them with questions, introduce yourself properly and hook their sympathy and curiosity.

You’re in a hurry, but don’t talk fast. Slow indicates trustworthy.

Every statement in a background-check memo should be sourced to the raw material that was gathered or the person who said it.

Interviewing an opponent's former employees can yield valuable information. But identifying them is not always straightforward.

Knowing the right combination of phrases to search can help figure out who used to work where.

In a dispute over how a retired factory worker got lung cancer, investigators look for any documents indicating the presence of carcinogens throughout his life.

They start online and then turn to archived, paper records, including forgotten thirty-year-old port documents stored in a municipal warehouse suggesting the worker was exposed to asbestos at a previous job.

After an executive jumps ship to a competitor, it’s wise to check whether she took any trade secrets with her — or otherwise shifted loyalties to the new job while still at the old.

The first thing to do is to look for emails she sent on her work computer using her gmail or other home account.

Investigators often cultivate an air of being bored — and boring.

We know how to ask around about something without getting anyone excited.

Experience teaches us to pursue every scrap of media coverage, even if it’s decades old, unavailable online, and in an unfamiliar language.

In Egypt, for example, the locals archive by hand — but don’t upload or even translate — newspaper obituaries of prominent citizens. Obits list the names of those who made donations to the family following the death, as is local custom, and this information can be invaluable in tracing political and business connections of the living.

A group of small petstore owners suspect that suppliers are giving secret discounts to big petstore chains. But they don’t have enough facts to sue.

The investigation begins by tracking down formers from the pet-supply business, who shed light on under-the-table arrangements that allow big retailers to buy for less.

A law firm needs to locate a key witness who sold his home in San Diego the prior month, and then disappeared. Because he moved so recently, the usual database searching gets us nowhere.

But on closer inspection of the deed from the house sale, investigators see that the notary’s stamp is from Scottsdale, Arizona. And an in-person search of recent Scottsdale property records turns up the witness’s newly purchased home.

A bank needs to locate the officer of a small trust whose signature on a document is at the center of an investigation by securities regulators.

The bank is frustrated in its own efforts because the officer has a common name.

A team of investigators discovers the man had attended a mortgage-broker convention early in his career. This leads them to check archived broker licenses and find out where he lived in the 1970s. From there, they track him from address to address until they find where he currently lives.

After deciding on a new name for a South Asian venture, a multinational discovers that the .com and .net versions of that name pull up a hardcore adult website.

The sites prove untraceable, but some of its content tracks to someone the client knows — he squatted on the name as soon as he heard it mentioned, hoping for a payday.

People disappear all the time, sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertantly.

To find them, we do our Google and database searching with one hand and hold a phone in the other. The document trail gives us leads on who to dial up and sweet-talk. If we can't get a small-town clerk to walk across the office and pull a file for us at 5:15pm, we’re in the wrong business.

Disputes sometimes arrive in court many decades after the original events. Such as cases involving art seized by the Nazis, or asbestos inhaled in a shipyard.

So the people involved likely scattered long before the 1980s, when databases transformed how to locate people.

With Nexis and Google rendered useless, people can only be tracked in dusty, paper archives like union halls and regulators' reading rooms — or the Library of Congress's football fields of city criss-cross directories.

And some of those you seek will have left the earth — get familiar with the Social Security Administration's Death Master File.

We only get the tough assignments to locate people; Google solves the easy ones.

Sometimes we have to build a family tree by calling a distant cousin of the subject. Or satellite-map our way to a back-fence former neighbor.

Q: How do you trace a 25-year-old who was last seen disappearing into the Bolivian jungle in search of psychotropic plants?

A: A good start is by figuring out, and tracking down, his favorite college professor — the one who taught courses in advanced botany and indigenous herbal medicines.

Many people with problems in their pasts try to fake out the background-checkers by transposing numbers in their personal identifiers. But the cover-up is harder than they might think.

It's someone’s date of birth that tracks their criminal record, and their Social Security number that follows them into bankruptcy court.

But mostly investigators tie individuals to their past transgressions through a third identifier that they can't transpose: their past home addresses.

A company is concerned about collusion among its competitors.

By searching an obscure website where golfers brag about their scores, an investigator can prove that top executives of the client’s competitors have played together.


There are some locales in the world where official documents and records simply don’t exist — there are only people to talk to, face to face.

An experienced investigator can get handed from person to person, ever closer to the subject, four or five times — or more — without ruffling any feathers.

Whenever the media dramatically unmasks a businessperson, we like to challenge ourselves: How might we have done it if we'd been assigned to look at that person?

Take the case of Norman Hsu, the bundler for Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign who turned out to be wanted on a criminal warrant. Clinton’s campaign had due-diligenced Hsu but reportedly lost their way among the dozen other Norman Hsu's in the US. They apparently failed to unearth Hsu's middle initial ("Y") from online alumni records at Wharton.

There's only one Norman Y. Hsu in the US, he was easily traceable to California, and available records there showed he had fled a felony grand-theft conviction years earlier.

A client needs to identify the person who’s sending them threatening anonymous letters from a post office box in rural Georgia. A local investigator comes up with a $15 solution.

He buys a cheap fishing pole, wraps it up and sends it to the P.O. box in question. The next day, as an investigator watches from across the street, the P.O. box owner is easy to spot walking out of the Post Office.

Interviewing groups of people is a process we view as a journey.

The research we do beforehand is like packing for the trip. Early interviews provide us with a witness map of people we need to see further down the road, as well as introductions from friends we’ve made along the way.

As we near our destination — say, knocking on a key person’s door — the journey has taught us the right thing to say to get that crucial door to swing open for us.

Look before you leap.

As a client prepares to sign a deal in Sacramento, her potential partner gets offended at a due-diligence question, spurring the client to ask for a formal background check on him.

Investigators find no trace of the man in Sacramento or elsewhere. So they turn to the Bahamian vehicle that he plans to use for the deal, and trace it back to its original incorporator — a notorious scammer. Then they discover that this scammer, after tarnishing his own name, had created the Sacramento name as his stand-in.

Winning an international arbitration against a sovereign government is only the first step to enforce the decision — you still have to find its hard assets.

A company wins a dispute against an Eastern European country, and needs to find assets that exist outside the country’s borders.

One approach is to identify the main suppliers to the country's state-owned businesses and the supply routes they use. Then, using sources that track shipping routes, pinpoint the location of the next shipment en route to the country.

Finding a person’s assets often involves discovering some hidden aspect of their life.

A US bank needs to search for the assets of an individual who claims to be unable to repay a substantial loan. A standard search indicates that he indeed looks broke: rented house, run-down car and a federal tax lien.

But investigators look into some unexpected places and turn up a customs record showing he has recently imported 6000 lbs. of high quality marble into Bermuda. And then find the lavish home he is building there.

Most business executives aren’t great at hiding money.

They do everything right (Caymans account, Panamanian trustees, etc.) — but then brag to their secretary about it. Then there’s the guy who steals from his employer, resigns, and then turns in his BlackBerry after thinking he had deleted all of the data on it. Too bad investigators recovered the numbers he had on speed dial, including the one for his Isle of Man fiduciary.

A Spanish company hears a rumor that its executives are buying condos somewhere abroad with company money.

Investigators identify a private plane the company chartered, and then track its frequent flights to an exclusive Mexican beach town.

A few casual conversations with local real estate agents lead directly to the condos.

Working for a judgment creditor, investigators review the mortgage history of the debtor’s multi-million dollar home. The investigators find that the bank assigned the debtor’s mortgage to an LLC named after characters in a video game.

The investigators find that the debtor’s boyfriend brags online about his skill at that video game, then tie him to the LLC, meaning that the debtor sold her house to her boyfriend’s LLC in an attempt to judgment-proof her home.

To find an adversary's assets, look online for something called a Personal Property Report Card.

It can include a company's inventory (even goods in transit), computers, and its furniture. Some states require these filings for tax purposes and then make them blessedly public, if you know where to look. Figure out where a company's facilities are and then check whether its personal property records are available.

Counsel for a judgment creditor receives unconfirmed reports that a bankrupt individual is improperly removing valuable art from his home.

Solid evidence of the looting is gathered by identifying and talking with the former chauffeur of the bankrupt individual.

Determining a person's middle initial can get you from the 1,257 “Steven Cunninghams" in the US to the 62 “Steven P. Cunninghams.”

Birthdates and past addresses help zero in closer to the guy you’re looking for. If needed, signature-matching can pluck him out of the crowd.

An investor who claims to be a financial novice accuses a brokerage firm of fleecing him.

The brokerage firm hires investigators to get the facts on his sophistication. The investigators file a request with the Securities and Exchange Commission for any depositions taken of the investor. They uncover a decade-old SEC deposition which shows that the investor is not only highly sophisticated, but also had been the subject of a past investigation regarding stock manipulation.

Opponents, regulators — and crackpots — often make allegations that fall apart under investigation.

Emails surface that appear to show corruption in a government ministry. By looking at electronic copies of the emails containing the allegations, computer-forensic experts find that they have been altered to make the officials look bad.

Here’s a tip for when you’re asking around about a sensitive matter: Move the conversation onto neutral ground, such as a chronology of events.

When you appear on someone’s doorstep, you can even hold a big, crudely drawn timeline across your chest while you’re introducing yourself. When they ask you what it is, you can say, “It’s my pathetic attempt at a timeline of what happened, and you can see why I need your help..."

This allows you to walk a person through a forest of details, along the lines of, “Now let’s move on to April 2007..."

An experienced investigator approaches a company’s litigation history like a butcher slaughters a hog — nothing goes to waste.

Begin by carving out juicy allegations against the company.

Don't overlook the odd bits: even the most boring and irrelevant cases are brought by some hostile party — look past the case and go talk to the opponent.

Cases filed by the company are prime cuts in a different way — they can show its style of dealing with disputes. A pattern of petty litigiousness and scorched-earth tactics can be a serious reason not to do business with them.

Companies that do business with the government always leave a paper trail — but sometimes the trail isn’t only made of paper.

Some years ago, a waste disposal company made exaggerated claims about the volume of its business in order to win a county contract. Competitors complained and the county held a hearing. As a result, the trash hauler withdrew its bid.

Years later, when a client needs to investigate the waste disposal company, it seems there is no detailed public record of this incident. Until a clerk mentions to investigators that there are audio tapes of the hearing stored in county records.

Days before it plans to bring a company public, an investment bank is approached by a female employee of the company who claims the CEO sexually harassed her.

An investigative team interviews other employees of the company, as well as the accuser and accused, to evaluate the facts around the accusation.

The company reaches a settlement with the employee, which allows the bank to proceed with the transaction as planned.

A banker denies any previous relationship with the real-estate developer to whom he'd loaned millions without full collateral.

He tells his superiors it was an honest mistake. But a little work on each of them shows that years earlier the two had shared a post-office box.

Friendship doesn't usually leave an obvious paper trail.

To identify friends, try looking backwards at political-contribution records. Start with the date a certain individual contributed to a candidate, and see who else living nearby gave that amount on that day — friends often attend the same fundraiser.

To figure out who is behind a website — even if they are hiding behind a proxy — try determining whether they have any other sites hosted on the same server.

Sometimes people’s efforts at anonymity are inconsistent. One of those other sites might contain a clue leading to the person's identity.

An industry source points investigators toward a key piece of testimony that our subject had given — during a single morning's cross-examination in the course of a two-month Canadian trial.

Even though the guy received no press or Internet attention, it turns out he’d admitted under oath to paying a bribe.

Thorough research on someone usually generates a long list of people who’ve known the subject — business associates, former officemates, neighbors, friends. Who to contact first?

Organize them into a dartboard, with the subject at the bulls-eye. Keep various communities separate, and move the closest current associates toward the center. Then start at the outside — with bygone or hostile contacts — and work your way in.

A creditor to a Brazilian company that collapsed hears of rumors that the company is paying back its local creditors while stiffing its non-Brazilian creditors.

Investigators find a Brazilian blog post accusing the company of using an off-shore Caribbean entity to repay local friends. The company’s bankers are quoted denying any connection to the off-shore entity.

However, sources in the Caribbean lead the investigative team to evidence tracing the Brazilians to the off-shore entity through layers of nominees.

A US bank wants to finance a Mexican business owned by the son of a wealthy industrialist.

A preliminary investigation of the son’s company finds it to be healthy. However, by interviewing the son’s business rivals, investigators discover that the son has guaranteed the debts of his brother’s ailing business venture.

The bank uses the information to structure an agreement to finance the healthy company and eliminate its exposure to the brother’s debts.

A global corporation receives an anonymous note alleging that one of their top executives goes out of his way to favor certain vendors.

Initial research finds nothing on the exec — no side companies, no controversies. But an experienced investigator notes a local lawyer who represented him at his house closings, and decides to check him out, too.

Sure enough, the lawyer had created a software company that, within days of its formation, began to win millions of dollars of vaguely-worded contracts from the global corporation — signed off on by the executive.

Defense counsel for an indicted company calls at the end of a day at trial with a new assignment: investigate a surprise witness that the government plans to call the next day.

During the surprise witness’s testimony, the government lets the witness answer “No” to “Have you ever been charged with a criminal offense?” Defense counsel, however, has in their hands a decades-old document pulled from a courthouse that speedy investigators found overnight, which proves the witness is lying.

There are troves of risk-relevant information you can’t crack into via search engine.

Many people who worked at Enron had contact with conduct that got Enron in trouble. But relatively few of these employees are named in the news accounts or on the Internet.

To unscramble their roles, go beyond Google, to, the website of more than 200,000 raw Enron emails, which were originally released by US prosecutors.

When allegations of employee wrongdoing arise, it may be time to look inside employees’ computers and devices.

If there is reason to suspect an employee of bribery, look at his company smartphone for relevant calls, emails and text messages, including what he has deleted. If the question is whether an employee took company secrets when he quit, check the log files on what he copied onto thumb drives.

Persistence can be essential when trying to win over someone who’s reluctant to talk.

An investigation hinges on a key piece of information — the identity of the fourth member of a tennis foursome. Two members of the foursome won’t talk, which leaves one last chance: an elderly club member who, when called, declines to talk and hangs up the phone. When a determined investigator drops in on him, politely, at his home later that evening, the old guy shakes his head, laughs, and gives up the name.

A remarkable number of people graduate from garden-variety resume fraud to fully creating a fictional identity for themselves, complete with a new name. And they often get away with it.

That’s because most background-checking services robotically match a person's name to criminal charges, lawsuits, etc. When the robot sees "no hits", it issues a clean bill of health.

What you need is a veteran investigator — a human being — whose experience and instinct make him say, "Wait a minute, how can a 40-year-old have no history? I smell a rat."

A corporation becomes concerned about recent leaks of confidential documents.

By analyzing microscopic code embedded in the paper on which the leaked documents were printed, knowledgeable investigators can determine the specific printer it was produced on. (Every printer produces a unique pattern of tiny yellow dots.) This helps narrow the search.

When investigators watch the movie All the President's Men, you can hear a pin drop during the scenes where Woodward and Bernstein appear on the White House secretaries' home doorsteps and try to get them to talk.

Deep Throats are few and far between, but former secretaries still crack cases.

When investigators need to keep sources confidential, clients still deserve a detailed assessment of the sources' credibility.