Real tradecraft means going deeper in your research than Google and Facebook. And that means learning to use old-school archival sources.
Private investigators love information, also known as “intelligence.” We gather it and analyze it. We spend hours online searching proprietary databases trying to locate people, things, and places.
It’s true, we sometimes go dumpster diving, clawing through trash to find tidbits of information that can help a case. Get enough intelligence gathered, and you can make a case for fraud or infidelity simply by arranging the information in a timeline and making inferences.
Identifying links — connecting the dots — is the key to solving most cases, and that work often begins online.
There are a number of obvious online resources that help investigators connect the dots, tie people together, and establish that a relationship exists: Facebook, Linked In, and Instagram are simple tools to begin to identify people and relationships. One service we employ actually has a graphic that shows relationships between people, assets, and criminal records. It looks and behaves just like Visual Thesaurus. This tool is perfect for gaining that 1,000 foot view of a case, kind of like a data-driven aerial photo, a data-map.
Services like these and others that aggregate publicly available information are all great places to start an investigation. But usually, we investigators need to get out of the office and dig a little deeper.
Deep Research: Applied Tradecraft
Using the information we’ve gleaned from public online sources, it’s time to look to less obvious — and often, underused — sources. Taking advantage of these will require some institutional knowledge, time, and patience.
The City Clerk’s Office
The City Clerk often handles personal property and maintains a list of property owned by residents. Want to find a boat or its owner? Just check out the personal property index for boats. It’ll have a detailed list of owners in alphabetical order, mailing address, and type of personal property owned.
Want to find the owner of a piece of rental property? Have a look at the book that tells where tax bills are mailed. Some rural locales actually keep what they call the “3×5 file,” a card index of residents in a town. These little gems very often have extra notations — hand written notes about the person in question. Notes like, “watch out for dog,” or “nut job.” The City Clerk’s office can be a treasure trove of intelligence.
The Tax Assessor’s Office
In larger metropolitan areas, the tax assessor’s office is usually well organized and relatively easy to navigate. Most larger counties actually have their full database online. Still, when you drop by the office in person and take the time to pull a property file, you’d be amazed by what you can find.
I’ve used property files to get floor plans, pictures, and detailed lists of improvements on a property. A property file will almost always have a list of past sales for the property, listing deed book and page numbers.
The Register of Deeds Office
Armed with document numbers, you can go to the records , pull the heavy leather-bound book off the shelf, and review the original deed. Here’s where the real fun starts. Make note of all signatures: buyer (Grantee), seller (Grantor), what law firm filed the deed, and who notarized the deed.
It’s possible to tie a single fraudster to several transactions simply by noticing that the same person notarized every one of the deeds in question. A quick stop by the Notary Public’s office, and a few friendly questions later, and you can likely identify the one person behind all of the sales.
Notifications are often sent to all parties involved in a transaction (sale or lease). In the Notifications clause, you may find alternative addresses for everyone concerned. Read the entire document and make note of all details.
Another source of valuable information is the prior ownership certification. I’m not certain about this for all states, but in Tennessee every deed includes a legal description followed by a clause that states who owned the property previously and a document number for that last sale. Track the sales back for several years. Pull all of the deeds and see what you can find.
If the property is owned in the name of a company or a corporation, track down the principals of that entity. It’s not unusual to find several companies owned by the same person. People try to distance themselves from transactions sometimes, but no matter what the degree of separation, there’s almost always some piece of paper that ties them to the deal.
Compiling information, the tradecraft of intelligence gathering, is not necessarily a difficult process. Sometimes it just takes a lot of time and a high degree of patience to establish all the connections.
Start drawing the inferences with online searches and databases — these are the recognized starting points. But to break the tough cases, it’s helpful to physically visit the original source of information and review the documents.
In 25 years of information gathering and research, I’ve learned a lot by simply creeping around court houses and city offices. All good investigators — from law enforcement folks and fraud examiners to PIs and journalists — should include these sources in their intelligence-gathering arsenals.