Deep Background

Tips and tricks for finding people online

Online records are a bountiful gift for almost every case. However, you need to know how and where to search fruitfully. Here are some pointers to mine internet sources.

by Rilind Latifi, CFE, Director, Mintz Group.

Originally published in Fraud Magazine.

Identifying and finding people efficiently online is a useful skill for fraud examiners, business investigators and due diligence professionals. Many cases require us to follow paper and money trails by searching for subjects, potential witnesses and former employees, who are generally more willing to speak about their workplaces and colleagues than current employees.

Experienced investigators usually start broadly and then gradually narrow their research to find the most relevant individuals. We can use creative, outside-the-box approaches to dig through massive amounts of online information.

Here’s an overview of public records and social media sources to consider when looking for individuals we’d like to contact.

Public records

Public records provide a wealth of information on individuals, businesses and their relationships. Current corporate filings are an obvious first step to identify executives, managers and shareholders. Publicly listed companies in the U.S. must regularly report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). SEC filings often include detailed executive bios, shareholder information and lists of company holdings. Studying these filings across time can, for example, shed light on when someone left a company. Historical corporate filings can also provide past relevant company contacts, though they aren’t always searchable on the internet. For instance, before the SEC set up the search and access tool EDGAR in 1994, companies used paper copies of filing documents, which can now be retrieved through Freedom of Information Act requests. However, some U.S. states such as Delaware and many countries don’t provide officer or shareholder details, so we’d have to consider other sources, such as beneficial ownership registries. (See “Beneficial ownership: increasing transparency in a simple way for entrepreneurs,” by Cyriane Coste and Frederic Meunier, World Bank Blogs, July 2, 2021.)

Annual reports and other company publications often list employees by departments or units. And a company’s other public materials, including its website and marketing documents, might be good sources of information for key contacts. For example, in a white-collar crime case, our firm’s investigators found key contacts listed in some obscure marketing material buried deep in a company’s website. Our client was able to obtain information from these witnesses.

Google search operators, such as those that allow users to search for a specific file type (PDF, Word) or within a website (known as site searches), are tremendously helpful to narrow down results. Investigators can use search operators to refine results to specific file types based on the information they’re searching for. (See “Refine web searches,” Google and “24 Advanced Google Search Operators for 2023,” by Shreoshe Ghosh, Stan Ventures, March 16, 2023.)

Archived versions of websites can reveal important details about organizations’ staffs. The Wayback Machine, which has indexed billions of sites to date, provides snapshots at various points in time for many websites. Google also offers cached versions of many sites.

Other types of public records, such as marriage announcements, obituaries, political contributions, regulatory and court filings, and property records provide additional avenues to identify relevant individuals and map out their relationships. For example, past adversarial parties in a lawsuit could provide information about a subject’s character beyond the publicly available details. Court filings often reference people and their titles at a company even if they weren’t named as parties in litigation, which provides another opportunity to find employees from specific departments or subsidiaries. In the U.S., for example, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) provides electronic public access to federal court records.

The availability of public records varies from country to country. U.S. property records are generally accessible through county recorder and tax assessor offices. In many European and other countries, however, property ownership information isn’t in the public domain. Only certain parties, such as attorneys representing individuals with a direct interest in properties or disputes, can access them in specific circumstances. We must be mindful of jurisdiction-specific privacy laws as well as data retention policies depending on the nature and scope of the case.

In the U.S., the Federal Electoral Commission (FEC) maintains an extensive and easily searchable public database of political contributions. You can filter by employer, stat and time period, among other identifiers. Contributors usually disclose their employers and titles in their donations to candidates or political action committees.

Press releases and news reports provide valuable information on companies and employees. Executives and managers are often quoted in news articles, which can be reliable sources for ascertaining time frames when individuals worked at companies. Subscription press databases, which aggregate news reports for several decades, cover national and regional newspapers in multiple languages. Targeted Google searches for local news sources are also helpful.

Other types of public information sources available online include attendee lists at conferences and seminars. You can identify trade fairs or other events in specific industries and then conduct searches to see if organizers have published lists of participants, which often include information on their professional affiliations and titles.

Licensed private and business investigators, after they’ve exhausted public sources, have access to proprietary databases that aggregate information from a variety of public sources. (See “What can CFEs learn from private investigators?” by Dick Carozza, CFE, Fraud Magazine, January/February 2023.) Aggregator databases are especially useful if we’re trying to find additional information on subjects once we’ve identified them through other means. Common names pose a particular challenge; adding other personal identifiers to our search string in proprietary databases, such as locations or approximate ages, will help us narrow down relevant results.

Source: ACFE Fraud Examiners Manual, Section 3/Investigation/Sources of Information/Business (Corporate) Filings

Social media

LinkedIn and Facebook are good starting points for identifying individuals. Also, many employees use professional networking platforms to list their current and past professional affiliations. Investigators can choose to search only for former employees of a company by narrowing it to a specific region or country and adding other filters.

Social media are also useful for finding people in different industries and regions. Although some users limit their publicly viewable information, many others list their past professional histories in abundant detail. Searching through company pages for comments related to events or product launches can also point to relevant individuals.

Be mindful of regional and cultural contexts in international investigations. While certain social media platforms might be useful to search for professionals in English-speaking countries, other professional and social networking sites might be more popular in other regions of the world. Of course, investigators who are fluent in local languages and well-acquainted with cultural norms are best equipped to decide on appropriate research tools and methods.

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