Background Investigations: Why Online Searches Are Not Enough

Deb Kirby

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Nov 17, 2022

For some people, it’s a mantra: “You can Google pretty much anything you want to know.” Not true. Especially in background investigations. We often meet with companies interested in our strategic background investigations into key personnel, business partners and trusted insiders. Many of these prospective clients seek a better understanding of best-in-class processes that could only be achieved in a background investigation led by an experienced investigator. These types of investigations are much more effective than a tech-savvy online sleuth or automated investigative software directed by hidden search algorithms.

A Mix of Strategic Goals

First, let’s talk about what leads companies to seek background investigative support. For many clients, these investigations allow them to assess the credibility, integrity, and professional history of a subject or gather business intelligence about a company or potential business partner. Others seek a greater understanding of their adversaries in litigation or tangible knowledge of a subject’s solvency and wealth. Some are looking for information about a subject’s past behavioral history and potential for violence.

Scoping the Investigation

How wide a net do we cast? That depends partly on baseline factors, such as the client’s goals as well as the budget and the deadline (e.g., three days, two weeks). It also depends on how common the subject’s name is (e.g., John Smith), where they have resided over the duration of the look-back (e.g., 7 years, 10 years) and online court records in those areas. We also need to consider whether or not mid-project findings suggest the need to physically obtain specific filings and records for deep-dive analysis

Findings Can be Routine or Explosive

Not finding compromising information is the most common result and a positive outcome for these types of investigations as they provide assurance from a risk management perspective. Over the course of our work, we have also uncovered some dramatically damning information, or findings of exceptional importance to clients.

Either way, our client is rewarded through risk assurance along with the ability to exit a relationship early in the process and avoid costly consequences to reputation and business operations. Here are few real-world examples where investing in a background investigation provided significant return value:

  • Case #1: Accessing the courthouse archives opened the digital curtain that had obscured a proposed business partner’s extensive, decades-old criminal history.
  • Case #2: Our findings led to surveillance, which confirmed that a group of employees was meeting with representatives of a competitor in violation of the employees’ agreements and obligations.
  • Unsealed divorce records revealed multiple, serious domestic violence incidents stretching back over many years.

What We Search For

While each search is different, most of the time we look for the following information:

  • Current and previous addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses
  • Relatives
  • Education, professional history and licenses
  • Corporation affiliations
  • Criminal records, civil litigation, bankruptcies, liens and judgments
  • Property and vehicle records
  • Press coverage, social media posts and other online activity

We’ve uncovered obscure information in many places, such as bridal or baby registries, marriage licenses, voter registration records, and sex offender registries. We’ve also found information in small town courthouses in rural jurisdictions without online records (a geographical challenge that requires court runners) and even obituaries, for both deceased persons and survivors.

Online Searches Can be Limiting

A common misperception by many organizations is that online searches can be “good enough.” Depending on the client’s goals, that may be true. But many of our new clients reach out to us because an internet search failed to uncover critical issues, risks and concerns that later emerged under compromising circumstances.

  • Many of the so-called “comprehensive” reports that we use as a starting point don’t include federal cases nor do they include all counties across the United States.
  • Many U.S. jurisdictions – especially small, rural ones – don’t have data online. When they do, the data might only cover a limited time frame.
  • Some jurisdictions allow civil searches but not criminal searches. Furthermore, while most state websites attest that their online criminal database is “statewide,” several states making this claim do so erroneously.
  • The term “national criminal search” is a concept not a reality. Some law enforcement databases are the exception, but access is limited. Some federal, state or local sites require users to be licensed private investigators or attorneys.

Additionally, online searches can be rife with technical minutiae that can obscure available information or lead to misleading findings. Search strings and protocols vary by database. Administrative actions – such as punctuation, salutations, use of special characters, typos, misspellings or requirements for precise spelling – can undermine an online investigation and result in false, inaccurate, or incomplete results and conclusions.

Integrating Physical and Online Search Techniques is a Best Practice

Over the years, our team has compiled many vignettes and cautionary insights that can be loosely categorized as critical information we would have missed with a simple Google or quick database search. These “war stories” include, for example, nuanced insights into current and family dynamics, non-documented causes of life-threatening injuries, ownership of unregistered firearms, and details on a subject’s daily activity. Collectively, we take these small nuggets of information to generate factual findings as well as estimates and projections with a bearing on the client’s risk.

Jensen Hughes can help you uncover critical intelligence and insight in support of mergers, acquisitions, partnerships, executive hires, board appointments, reputational profiling and market entry. Learn more about our background and due diligence investigation services.

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About the author

Debra K. Kirby
Debra brings command experience in patrol operations, investigations, organized crime, law enforcement training, policy development, data-led policing and internal affairs with an acute focus on integrity systems, covert operations and the need for strong accountability practices in support of operational priorities.