As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. Well, they never met my dad. In his toolbox was this stubby, pointy thing, an oft-crossword-clued thing – an awl. For some reason I do not understand, this was my dad’s tool of choice. Everything was done with it. For me, the tool I have been given has been public records. Over 30 years ago, I started searching for background information on individuals and companies with a phone, a modem, and a desktop computer a bare 40-megabyte of hard drive storage.
It was the 1990s, and I used what today would be called “old school” tools and methods to find articles and information about matters. We even used phonebooks (both the white and yellow pages) to build our reports. We relied on document retrieval services like the missed Prentice Hall and Charles E. Simon Company to bring back records, and we relished that two weeks it took to get back our documents, so we could take our time with the rest of research.
In the years since, things have changed, and nowadays there is an amazing wealth of information via the Internet and from online sources, and with changes in technology, it can be obtained in a much faster timeframe. We no longer have that extra time. Now, I get most reports out within a few business days. What was good before is now great! I learned the meaning and value of what I was finding, and I learned what to do with it. I became an early adopter and believer in the power of public records.
As a forensic accountant or someone who relies on their assistance as litigation support artists or expert witnesses, you, too, should understand the power of public records.
Let me lay out the case, and then tell you where you must focus your public record search prowess. But before we can get there, let’s set some terminology and common language. I used the term public record before, but some folks might refer to this as open source. These days you might even hear the term OSINT. In the real world of spies and investigations, there are various forms of intelligence, although what they mean is basic information gathering. There is HUMINT, information gathered from human sources; SIGINT, information gathered from satellites and other electronic devices; and OSINT, information gathered from publicly available sources. In the world of espionage, it is far more common that open sources, such as a local newspaper or an entry in someone’s Facebook account, can be far more fruitful than intelligence gathered using fancier and far more expensive sources. This has all boomeranged back to the commercial and private sector – so why not take advantage of these methods, too?
Five reasons help explain the value of public records searches in your data-gathering process:
One of the best things about public record research is that it is simply cost-effective. I do not mean cheap as in not valuable. As you will see, it is highly valuable. Sometimes, in a few diligent days of online research, we can pull together amazing dossiers covering business affiliations, social media profiles, news, litigation, and related records. It may be the path to deeper research, or it may be enough to find out about a prospective new employee or potential business associate.
Another reason for using open sources is that you have discretion. In some of my research, the subjects are well aware of what I am doing. Often, they are even providing their basic identifying information so they can be further checked out. And then there are many other cases where the searches are being done without the subject knowing. It may be in anticipation of a meeting, where one party wants to be prepared; an offer may be sprung on a company; it may be in the context of litigation or an investigation where the other party is not cooperating. Often, we are compiling information to assist someone conducting an interview. You can generally comb through public record sources without notifying the subject. Public records research is discreet.
Companies make multi-million-dollar investments, hire key executives, and face “bet the company” litigation. In these instances, they need good information to inform their decisions. it is prudent to know that the information that drives these decisions be genuine, validated. When the information comes from open source, you can rely on these documents because you know where they came from. Public information can help supplement other forms of information, such as bank records, cell phone records, or text messages. Public records help gain additional comfort to what has been said in an interview or email. Public records help because they are legitimate and reliable.
But here is an alert – there is really no such thing as a neutral source. Everyone has some type of slant or position. You should understand the agenda and points of view of those who provide the information. The problem is that sometimes it is hard to know. When you use open sources, these slants do not disappear, but at least in most cases the bias is apparent. With news articles, it is possible to parse to understand known biases and perspectives, understand how they have been constructed, and who the sources were. Also, with media sources, you generally have some idea from the publication what the slant or perspective is. When you obtain information from lawsuits, you know the angle based on the source of the filing, plaintiff, or defendant. I am not saying you can always determine the bias in public record research, just that, with public record research, bias is generally more apparent.
In the end, the primary reason and the power of public record research is that it is useful. When making deals or investments, or looking at new hires, new clients, or new business partners, you want things to go smoothly. Finding the right record can be the start of locating many more records that are in hiding. Supplemental information can often validate information known, help put things in context, and/or alert you to other potential issues. In most instances, this type of research provides some insurance and is of good value.
There is a plethora of information that can be discovered via open sources. Open means available – records you are legally allowed to view and obtain. Open source intelligence means anything you can get your hands on, anything you can find. It does not mean completely free. There are times that you may need to buy the book, or more likely pay for the subscription. With so much available in open source, the bigger question might be prioritization. What records and information should I be using? How do I know if the information will be cost-effective and useful?
Let me provide an example and a prescription for how to get started with public records research and improve your handling of OSINT. I identify two areas that are likely to reap benefits: litigation records and SEC filings. In fact, in some ways, you can combine them by looking at the litigation disclosures provided as part a company’s 10-K filing. For starters, let’s assume you have a PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) account, which provides public information about all types of commercial litigation. There is an amazing amount of information that can be extracted from the filings in a lawsuit. It is a great source to the open source researcher in providing background as to what happened and what may happen, what has been disclosed, and what may be disclosed about a company that is of interest.
Now let’s further assume that the company sells stock to the public. Go to its website and look under the investor relations tab and locate its last 10-K or other periodic filing. These filings are not only about financial analysis or accounting. Read the background section or execute a word search on reputation risk or litigation. Companies often make it easy for you by including an entire section labeled risk factors. Other areas to look for are keywords or sections such as internal controls, related party transactions, and the aforementioned litigation disclosures. There is often much available. Not all companies are public and have SEC filings, but most have websites, which often disclose a lot of information.
So, where to go next after looking through litigation records and SEC filings? Well, it depends on the particular topic or person(s), but if the topic is in the news, it is likely there are likely some information in OSINT, from a news source, trade journal, blog, or some form of social media. Now you are only a Google search away from a host of additional information ready to be found and further analyzed.
Being an open source researcher is NOT about the arcane and often little-known record. Harnessing the power of public records is not knowing what could be out there, but knowing how to find it and use it. Enjoy your search and discover journey.