OUR STAPLE DIET
Background checks and research are our daily bread. We are often called upon to undertake desk top research or background checks on businesses and individuals, their associates and relations along with their reputable and on occasion nefarious activities. The results sometimes include tales of the unexpected, not just for us but for our clients too.
The world we live in now is just as much a real jungle as it ever was. The only problem is that we’ve added a new dimension or two with cyberspace and all its accompanying black holes. Next time you ask us to carry out a simple, straightforward and benign background check, think of jungles and cyberspace. None of us know what’s round the corner, be it a cerulean hole or hungry hyena.
Accordingly, we thought it might be of interest to some of our readers to highlight and exemplify a couple of important points about carrying out background checks or indeed any desk top research. They may seem rather basic. So be it. Why? The issues recur time after time and our clients aren’t dim-witted. After all, they had the sense to choose us!
THREE ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS
The critical issue when undertaking any background check or desk top research is as simple as ABC: Assume nothing Believe nobody Check everything. ABC is our first port of call on any assignment. In an imperfect world instructions are often imperfect as can be the person giving or receiving the instructions so we check everything we’re told from the start. If you set out for the moon and are 0.0001 degrees off course at the outset you’ll miss it by miles.
Another key issue as an assignment progresses is to be able to differentiate twixt a loose end that needs tying down and a red herring. Given our experience we have often identified tangential issues during the course of an assignment which were of more concern to the client than what we were hired to investigate in the first place. Going that extra mile to add value, mitigate risk and pave the way for a clear path ahead is always worthwhile and we won’t set out on any major tangential expeditions without our clients’ consent.
Finally, there is nothing wrong in selectively using automated checks like LexisNexis, Intelius, Checkmate, SafetyNet, OpenCorporates et al to make searches quicker. However, without experienced interpretation and further research simply relying on the results of such programs may be downright dangerous.
The data gleaned from some of these types of automated checks can on occasion be as misleading as the ticks in the boxes generated by banks’ money laundering automated checks as noted in a recent PwC Global report. Per the report “less than 1% of global illicit financial flows are currently seized by authorities” despite a global spend of over US$6 billion on money laundering checks etc. One might justifiably argue that these automated checks are a “waste of money”.
In almost all of the examples that follow, had we simply accepted the findings of automated checks or search engines without undertaking real research we would have missed the jewels in the crown. Artificial intelligence is in its embryonic days and conclusions reached solely on the back of automated searches may be as unreliable as the out of date and/or incomplete databases on which they were based.
Furthermore, even if the results of automated checks are interpreted by human beings, do they have sufficient knowledge and experience to identify untoward signals? The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime concluded that almost the entire money laundering industry hadn’t. Will those studying the results of their searches even consider whether the “facts” might have been distorted by disinformation placed there to sidetrack and thwart their investigations?
Needless to say, in the ensuing examples, sufficient information has been withheld to prevent either the identification of the clients or the culprits. It is of note that all the assignments alluded to below were completed by Faire Sans Dire ahead of schedule notwithstanding the distractions en route.
EXAMPLES FROM OUR MENU OF EXPERIENCES
The client may be wrong – intentionally or otherwise
We were asked to investigate a whistleblower who had purportedly defamed the director who instructed the law firm that engaged us. The whistleblower’s evidence that the director was de facto moonlighting with a competitor didn’t withstand scrutiny. However, when we dug deeper from another angle and went the extra mile we discovered that the director was moonlighting under such a well established pseudonym that even the relevant regulators had approved it. The law firm couldn’t possibly have guessed it was a stitch up, but once armed with what we dug up, the true culprit was easy to dismiss for breach of contract and the whistleblower was exonerated.
Another similar assignment involved a well known global financial conglomerate which wanted to appoint an ex-FBI agent to one of its boards simply because he was ex-FBI. During a chat apropos “nothing” we noted an aberration that ultimately led us to the extraordinary conclusion that unbeknownst to the FBI he had spent a gap year in prison in the USA before being employed and trained by them. He didn’t get the job and was reported to the FBI: they were not amused but could do nothing about it.
Finding a clear path without clues and ignoring disinformation
For completely understandable reasons, sometimes even our clients who have their own risk management or internal audit departments or who are investigators in their own right aren’t able to give us complete or accurate data at the outset of an investigation. Nevertheless, whether or not names they were given were misspelt or just wrong, normally within hours of receiving instructions we will have identified the individuals involved and confirmed the targets before commencing the detailed assignments. That is an example of ABC in practice if ever there was one. Mind you, most criminal investigations start without that many clues and some of those are often just disinformation.
Be prepared for anything after a thorough check
A small English law firm asked us to help one of their wealthy clients in a case that oddly enough ended up in the Family Division at London’s High Court. We obtained some surprising evidence and the defendant’s claims were decimated. The fact that the defendant was an international criminal of some substance and experience had eluded the rest of the person’s family and all their professional advisers for almost a decade. The case didn’t just stop in the High Court and we helped protect the plaintiffs from any retribution.
Even death can’t be said to be certain
Talking of courts, on another occasion we located a death certificate for a gentleman we had been asked to investigate. It was genuine but we had our suspicions. We subsequently found him alive and well and persuaded him to return from the grave to testify in court. He had arranged his own murder to facilitate his “disappearance” and the local law enforcement authorities had mistakenly identified someone else’s body as that of the gentleman concerned. For the record his name wasn’t John Bingham!
If there’s one flaw there are usually others lurking in the shadows
En passant on assignments we frequently “stumble” across other vulnerabilities in the websites of those supplying our clients with critical services such as banking and legal advice and on one occasion we even found a huge flaw affecting all the emails sent via a top global internet service provider. Such situations are always difficult because a supplier is unlikely to admit a flaw exists. However, where requested to, we have worked with our clients to get their suppliers to fix such vulnerabilities thereby protecting not only our clients from reputational and/or financial damage.
On many assignments, where we have been asked to investigate one issue we almost inevitably find others. If you smell a rat or see a crow, there’s almost certainly a mischief or murder of them.
The road to reputational ruin is paved with unintended leaks
After a meticulous beauty contest Faire Sans Dire was selected by one of the top three global law firms at the time to investigate persons suspected of involvement in organised criminality. Within three days of being appointed we submitted a preliminary but reasonably conclusive report. Our report revealed that emails relating to the law firm’s assignment had been intercepted by multiple parties and the targets of the investigations were already aware that they were being investigated before we even took part in the beauty parade.
The opposing parties in a dispute may be part of a facade
Another international law firm was involved in some supposedly straightforward commercial disputes in neighbouring countries and instructed us to obtain background information on their opponents and potential witnesses. By looking at their clients first, our findings revealed surprising links between the disputing parties which led the firm to question the veracity of and purpose of the dispute and the role which they were ostensibly asked to fulfil. Maybe the purpose of the dispute was to launder money?
The complete truth can be an elusive commodity
A leading Asian law firm instructed us to investigate affidavits adducing evidence that a high ranking official was a paedophile, an alcoholic and/or illicit drug taker and prone to violent outbursts. Those submitting the affidavits swore on oath that there was no doubt about their claims. We were able to show that the affidavits had been based on imperfect translations of old benign press reports (which were not available on the web). The allegations set out in the affidavits were withdrawn apologetically: we can all make genuine mistakes and even nowadays not all data in the public domain is stored electronically.
You can’t hurry the truth but on occasion we can!
One lawyer from a leading American law firm asked us to shed light on the structure of a group of international companies which he and his team had not been able to penetrate prior to an important client lunch. By desert we provided a comprehensive explanation which helped him in his negotiations with the client. Working fast on investigations isn’t a sin as long as you are not hurried by the client.
Background checks that don’t quite make sense
Our final example relates to our own breed! There is such a thing as a peer review in the investigation community. Not only do fellow investigators ask for our assistance but we are also brought in by clients to seek out any additional dimensions to otherwise routine investigations. On one occasion this resulted in a household name company in the UK avoiding costly and highly embarrassing litigation. We were able to show within a couple of days that their ultimate counterparty was an unblemished philanthropist and not as alleged, a money launderer.
CONCLUSIONS DU JOUR
With twists and turns as exemplified above, an in house background check is unlikely to be as effective as one undertaken by experienced independent investigators. If you are uncomfortable with the findings of any investigation or research then when in doubt the use of peer reviews by experienced investigators like us is always worth considering. That extra mile might just save you from disaster whether from known unknowns or unknown unknowns.
Our Web Data Reviews as opposed to full blown investigations may be of interest to you so please contact us about those. In all the cases referred to above, other than the case involving the FBI, our Web Data Reviews alone would have led us to the quirks we found including old press reports not even stored on the web.
This article was first published on 3rd September 2016 and last updated on 17th September 2016.