The Most Powerful Investigative Resource You Probably Overlook


Brian Willingham, CFE
President, Diligentia Group Inc.
Brewster, N.Y.

As an investigator, my job is to collect information and gather facts. There is never enough information. The more, the better. But in my own experience, one of the most powerful sources of information for a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) frequently gets overlooked. Everyone has access to it, and most of what is housed in it can be accessed from the comfort of your computer. Oh yeah, and the information found there is completely free. What am I talking about? Public records.

I have been a private investigator for more than 10 years. In the work that I do, I rarely have access to financial statements, internal documents, emails or employee files. No one is obligated to talk to me, release key documents or hand over their computer. Obtaining a stack of bank records, telephone records or a hard drive of information is the kind of information that I can only dream about.

I spend most my time scouring for bits of information through public records, court records, divorce filings, probate records, state criminal repositories, property records, files in assessors’ offices, news articles, blogs, regulatory filings, court clerk records, social networks, message boards, UCC filings, corporate documents and genealogy records. I’ve been known to spend countless hours in government offices, basements of libraries and the darkest corners of courthouses. I’ve also been known to stare at creepy message boards for days on end.

What I have come to learn is that many people take public records for granted. Because they are “public,” people assume that they can’t be all that valuable. (I bet if we called them “secret records,” everyone would be clamoring for them.) Our vast system of public records in the U.S. is one of the most unique investigative assets we have. When it comes to public records, we are hands down the most open country in the world. Just the other day, an investigator in Spain told me that you cannot verify that a doctor in Spain has a license or has not been sanctioned—incredible as that may seem. Meanwhile, anyone in the U.S. can do that, but I doubt many people have.

Most people don’t realize how public records can serve as resources to help connect the dots; develop a complete picture; fill in the blanks; and find supporting documentation, hidden clues or just plain old dirt.

As an investigator, your job is to collect information and facts. And if part of collecting information doesn’t include using the vast resources found in public records, you are definitely missing out.

I will address this topic at the upcoming 24th Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference, where I will share my tips and techniques to mining vast databases of public records in my session, “How to Utilize Open Sources/Public Records for Investigation in the United States.” I will share my “go-to” sources as well as provide real-life examples of scenarios in which accessing public records could have saved the day.

Brian Willingham is a New York private investigator and president of Diligentia Group.