Why can’t you find out everything you need with someone’s social security number?

There is no killer app database that does this. If there were, our clients would have it and they wouldn’t need us. The fact is that a lot of important information about people is never written down. What is in writing is often buried in courthouses since most public records are still not on line. If an investigator tells you he can do a “nationwide criminal background check” in an hour, he is not telling you the truth.

For more on the complexity involved in fact investigation, see Philip Segal’s book, The Art of Fact Investigation here or watch highlights of his speech, Fact Finding for Everyone. You can also read this blog entry, A Fact-Finding Test for Lawyers here.

How does an asset search work? How much is it?

No thorough asset search can be done in an hour or two, because it takes longer than that to search on site for litigation records. Through litigation, we can find companies associated with subjects that were previously hidden from our clients. We uncover every bit of public information about our subject in order to do a proper job. The simplest domestic asset searches at Charles Griffin start at $1,500 but can ran significantly higher for complex cases or those that involve offshore holdings.

What other services do you offer?

We find witnesses, interview people who may make good witnesses, figure out who is behind websites violating intellectual property rights, help investors and lenders figure out the real story behind a person who wants to sell something or borrow money. If it’s a people story, it’s our kind of job.

 What do you mean by “looking through public records?” 

In addition to a variety of commercial databases, we look through federal judicial, securities and regulatory records as well as state and municipal records dealing with real property, legal matters, licensing and many other matters. We look at media reports, social media, internet registration documents. Do not be fooled by firms that claim they can check everything over the internet. Most public records in the U.S. are not on line. If you don't go to courthouses, you may miss critically important information. Sometimes, summaries of court cases are available on line but the documents themselves are not. In many counties, a trip on site is the only way to check for records at all. There are more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. Which ones will your investigator visit?

Can you get bank, cell phone or medical records for someone?

Almost never. In the U.S. and many other countries, doing so would be against the law without the subject’s consent. If an investigator tells you he can get bank records, ask him how he proposes to do this without violating the Gramm Leach Bliley Act. We will never impersonate another person, nor use anyone’s Social Security Number to obtain information to which we are not legally entitled.

What about credit reports?

These too are off limits, unless the subject has explicitly permitted their retrieval. This happens most often in pre-employment searches. We will not begin a pre-employment background check without a waiver that is compliant with the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

How do you represent yourself when you telephone people you interview?

We never call under a pretext. It is often illegal and for attorneys nearly always unethical to pretend to be someone we are not. We keep client identities confidential unless the client instructs us otherwise.

We’ve written about good interview practice here.

How do you charge?

We work by the quarter hour to a fixed budget guaranteed in writing. We often recommend starting slowly by working in phases: public records first and possible interviewing second. Others in our field might propose an expensive approach that includes all steps at once, but our view is that we do a better interview once fully informed by what we can find in phase one.

What happens to the results during the case or once the matter is concluded? 

All findings are confidential. We never re-sell information gathered to third parties. We prefer to work through a lawyer even if our client is not a lawyer, so as to protect our information by attorney-client privilege and attorney work product.