Open-source intelligence tips and tricks by Brian Willingham, a veteran investigator specializing in online and public records research:
I’m feeling a bit nostalgic these days. My eldest son just became a teenager. I passed the threshold of “15 years experience” as an investigator. And while I will always be a student of investigations, I have recently found myself in the role of professor, teaching the knowledge that I have gathered over the years.
Here are some tips I have picked up along the way.
1. A “Comprehensive Background Report” is the beginning, not the end.
I’ve seen quite a troubling trend over the last few years: an investigative firm runs a “comprehensive background report”—by paying $10 to use a favorite all-in-one database, hand that so-called comprehensive report to a client, and call it a day. The trouble is that these comprehensive reports are not so comprehensive. They’re filled with holes. Vital data is missing and inaccurate.
Don’t get me wrong, I run TLO and Accurint reports all day. These services offer an excellent starting point, but but that’s all it is—a place to begin. There are millions of other data points that you can provide a client before you “call it a day.”
2. People will say the darnedest things.
Depending on how you look at it, social media can be a blessing or a curse. But for the investigator who is trying to dig up as much information as possible on a person or business, it’s an absolute gold mine. Trouble is that you have to understand how to mine social media effectively, to get your client what they’re looking for. Guys like Michael Bazzell over at Intel Techniques have put together some awesome tools to get you started.
3. This is a time- and resource-intensive business.
There are no two ways around it: Conducting investigations online consumes time and resources. Until artificial intelligence and the next generation of computer power can think like humans and assemble the puzzle pieces of a complex mystery, our jobs are safe. But in the meantime, there is no getting around putting in the hours scouring online.
You have to put in the work; there are no shortcuts.
4. Know thy source.
I spoke to an investigator recently who, for years, was using the New York State Unified Court System website to run civil litigation and criminal case searches. Why not? It’s an “official source” of records, run by the State of New York, and nothing on the website seems to suggest that it’s anything but complete.
But it’s not complete. Not even close. Even if you dig into the fine print on their website. This is true with dozens of other online websites, even those run by state agencies. So before you rely on some official or unofficial keeper of records, know thy source.
5. Use more than one source.
If you get anything from this post, I hope it’s this: Every database you run should be multi-sourced. If you use TLO for your comprehensive background report, do another comprehensive report using your other favorite database provider. If you’re using Pacer to search federal court records, you should also run federal and bankruptcy court searches through another source, like Courtlink, Lexis Nexis or Westlaw. If you run a criminal court search on the Miami-Dade County Clerk of Courts website, you should also check with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Sure, it can be overkill sometimes, but I’d rather go overboard than miss a critical piece of information. I can think of countless occasions in which I found records in one source, but not another.
6. Go to the source.
Premium, professional databases have sure made the job of an online investigator easier—millions of records from various sources, all under one roof and easily searchable. But while these records may make things easier to find, there’s no substitute for searching the original source.
Whether it be the individual county court, Secretary of State, or local recorder, going directly to the source is where you can get the most comprehensive information. And as an added bonus, you can get the source documents as well. (Super bonus: clients love source documents too.)
7. Keep up with the times.
Nearly every source that I would have used to conduct an investigation 15 years ago is either extinct, outdated, or completely useless. In order to be relevant, you’ve got to stay current.
While I’ve put together some sources to bring your investigative game to the next level, I’ve also I’ve also put together a handy little course to get you going.
A brand-new version of Brian Willingham’s Open-Source Intelligence master class is now available for CE credits:
Open Source Intelligence 101 – 6 CE Hours, approved in these states: AL, GA, IA, KS, KY, MT, NC, NM, OK, OR, SC, TX, and pending approval in AZ, MO, MN, TN.
Brian Willingham is a New York private investigator, Certified Fraud Examiner, and founder of Diligentia Group. To read more Willingham wisdom, check out his blog and his previous stories for PursuitMag.