What’s the value of huge, undifferentiated lists of OSINT resources if people don’t know how to use the tools?
Here is an actual quote from an article I recently came across in one of the many open-source research guides available online:
“This article will also address the difference between a standard company and a corporation, from the perspective of corporate research. The main issue here is that a corporation has additional information available that it must file with the SEC.”
I am forever coming across these items—mini encyclopedias on how to research. Typically, they are a list of links, leaving you the impression that if you click enough, you can find anything. I disdain this approach to research. Combine it with misleading guidance, and my ire meter starts moving. It climbs into red when I see these guides passed around in good faith across social media, LinkedIn, etc.
Don’t. Send. Out. Lists. Of. Links.
My belief is, if you recognize the absurdity of the above quote, you do not need the guidance. And if you don’t recognize the absurdity of the quote, you’re going to need a different sort of article altogether.
What passes too often as useful frustrates me for three reasons:
1. The article fails to explain the nuance and degrees of their linked sources, often giving misleading statements for the sake of brevity.
2. It implies completeness and totality when such things do not exist or when the provided sources contain significant gaps in their records.
3. No information is provided on why/how to choose or distinguish between the linked resources. How do I know which one use in various contexts? How do I choose one site over another?
I believe that when you give someone a list of links, you are actually impeding their progress as researchers. It reinforces a “dabble approach” when you need a direct approach. Let me elaborate, drawn from a recent list of links I ran across.
There’s a lot of overlap between investigative reporters and private eyes (or similar professionals). Kroll Associates, which invented the modern corporate investigative business, was known for hiring reporters. On the other hand, private detectives often use the Investigative Reporter’s Handbook as a primary reference manual. Which is why I follow a site called Global Investigative Journalism Network. Still, they are guilty of raising my ire.
The G.I.J.N. put out a guide for “citizen investigators.” Its stated goal is “to help non-journalists investigate even more. The sections teach techniques used by investigative journalists.” It is surely apt for business researchers and other investigators.
Before I start griping, I will say that there’s some good stuff there, especially on the process of research. I will also admit that when it comes to links, their page on digging up property records, which includes a collection of real property databases from around the world, is quite valuable.
It was the chapter on Finding Out Who Owns Companies that brought out my big bad blog lesson fulcrum. Their starting advice is not as bad as what I first quoted. But it’s still misleading:
“Learning about corporations is one of the toughest challenges for investigators, professional or amateur. Unfortunately, the identity of the real owners may be legally disguised.”
Yes, the real owners may be legally disguised. That’s a fact. People can disguise their ownership many ways. They can set up their companies in places like the British Virgin Islands, a notorious tax haven where secrecy laws make it incredibly hard to identify a company’s owner. Or they can use a nominee (i.e., put the company in their Grandma’s name).
Still, that’s not the issue most of the time. It’s less a question of disguise and more a question of lax requirement. In many places, starting and ending with the USA, there are rarely requirements that businesses disclose their real owners. Instead, they typically must disclose the following:
- A registered agent so the company can be held legally liable for its conduct
- An officer, director, member, or manager—depending on the state and the type of company
Far too many of these “research guides” begin with such dubious statements. And then the links begin.
As is wont when people compile lists, there needs to be some organizing principle. The list on the G.I.J.N. site starts with an either/or: free or commercial. A fair distinction—not only do commercial sources cost, but they usually require some form of subscription (and with things like Lexis, a fair amount of screening). After these choices, there are several groupings, but around no specific theme.
As I said above, my complaint is not that these are not good resources, but that there is no overall direction of where to go, and especially, why to go somewhere.
In these lists of links, the order flows from the easiest and broadest and then trickles down to the arcane and minor. Opencorporates.com is the first link listed in this guide for company research, and it should be your first place to go when looking up a company. It has two grand offerings: It is free, and it is big, with access to a deep bench of records, so big that it spans the globe.
Still, I beg of you: Is it the best place to start? Do you know the best place to start?
Going down the list, about half-way, you get a link to the Securities and Exchange Commission for their EDGAR company database, then the UK’s Companies House, and after that, SEDAR, the Canadian equivalent of EDGAR. If the company I was researching was publicly traded in the US/Canada or just based in the UK, I would start with those sites before Opencorporates.com. Shouldn’t these link lists provide that guidance?
Worse, there remain holes in the Opencorporates coverage. My home state, Illinois, does not have its Secretary of State records on it; if the company you want to research is registered in Illinois, Opencorporates will not find it. Moreover, many of the states on Opencorporates do not allow searches by officer name, even if it seems like you are doing said searching—this is a fault with Opencorporates as well as the people that link to it. Leaving out this information hurts your research because you may not know what you missed.
All sites are not made equal. We researchers go to some sites because they hold the records we need. We go to other sites because of how they let us search.
This. This is another lesson missing from most link lists.
Will you ever find what you are looking for after clicking? It depends, of course, in knowing what you are looking for. Take SEC/EDGAR records. It’s free. It has all these filings. It does offer options. You can limit your search by filing—for instance, only getting the annual reports in your search results can save you a lot of time in scrolling through results. But you still may be flummoxed in your searches.
What if you are looking for older filings or something specific in a filing? EDGAR now has a full text search tool, and it works well enough. There are commercial sources that search better. Should not you at least understand this? Commercial company sources often have more information, but their primary advantage is how they allow you to search. It’s not just knowing what’s in a site; you have to know what you can do with that site’s information. How can it be searched.
I could go on with examples for a very long time. But I will wrap up with this little treat for all the people who made it this far in the article. It’s lost in the morass of links, but the G.I.J.N. guide contains a link to a truly great resource. The hyperlink provided in the G.I.J.N. guide is off, taking you only to the main page of the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Initiative website, but follow the menu, and you can get to this, their Resources page. There you will find links to Beneficial Owner Guides for many countries, including the US. I cannot speak to any guide other than the one for the US, but that one is good. Dense, filled with information, it will really inform you ahead of company searching.
The silver lining with these link lists is that the longest, most disorganized lists of links invariably contain nuggets of gold. Do peruse them.
Do not then, lose the link lists. Keep them until you know why. Keep them until you have done the hard reading and the true study. When you understand where to go and what site that meets your needs, that link list will come in handy.
A version of this article first appeared at Robert Gardner’s Manage Risks blog and was reposted with permission of the author.
About the author:
Robert Gardner likes to think he has been performing research so long, credit reports came on stone tablets. Over a long career, Robert has worked with private investigators, forensic accountants, fraud auditors, litigators and others who need vital information to make decisions and react to unforeseen problems. Robert works in all aspects of business research including due diligence, litigation support, fraud investigations, asset searching, and competitive intelligence. He has made inquiries in nearly every part of the world. Well versed in a variety of data collection methods, especially online and Internet searching, he has transformed public record findings into reports, charts, schedules, timelines, and databases to assist in many situations.