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Search Topic 7:
by John Simpson, Assistant Editor
I. Overview Of Topic
Why is asset search expertise important? Oftentimes in life it really helps to know what somebody's worth financially, i.e, to conduct an asset search. Maybe you're thinking of going into business with somebody, or maybe you're becoming romantically involved with him/her.
Whatever your reason, you'll be happy to learn that, thanks to the Internet, it's now easier than ever before to get an accurate gauge on somebody's net financial worth. Asset search is a somewhat complicated subject but I can hit the high points in this brief Guide -- you'll learn enough to do some informed research, anyway. If you want to go beyond what I tell you here, you'll probably need a good P.I., or maybe if there's a lot at stake (as in a major court case) a forensic accountant.
First, let me say there's nothing unethical about conducting a financial asset search, provided you play by the rules. You can not, for example, use pretexting to determine how much money somebody's got in the bank or in a brokerage account (i.e., masquerade over the telephone as the account holder). This is illegal. It's important to respect your subject's privacy and state and federal privacy laws like the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
So how do you go about an asset search? Your first step is to positively identify your subject. Since you're going to be accessing public records and other database sources, it's vital that you know the person's basic identifiers, namely his/her name (with middle name or initial) and date of birth, at an absolute minimum. Knowing the social security number is usually helpful, and the person's address history (one or more of his/her past addresses).
A few sources of DOB are civil and criminal records (at local County Courthouse), and voter's registration records (also at Courthouse). Sometimes you can get the information you need by placing a polite, patient call to the County Clerk's office. For a list of these offices nationwide with phone numbers and website addresses, try this site: http://backgroundcheckgateway.com/statelist.html
Note that any of the above county sources can also be used to locate a SSN. However, if you know the person's full name/address, date of birth, and one or two past addresses, that's enough to begin your asset search. One other possibility is Professional Directories. For example, if your subject is a lawyer, doctor, or stockbroker, check Directories in Print or Who's Who, among many others, at your local library.
By the way, don't overlook the plain old telephone book to get addresses, or just call directory information service.
Now, assuming you can positively identify your subject via name/address/DOB/SSN etc., what's the next step in your asset search? Start by checking the basic sources, as follows:
- Online sources: Try PRetrieve first. This site will provide name, previous cities, and names of relatives for free, plus -- for a fee -- background info including property ownership, home values, bankruptcies, judgments, etc. This site was recently bought by Intelius, so if you prefer you can just go directly to the Intelius website.
- In conducting your asset search, be aware that there are two basic kinds of assets, real assets (real estate, mainly) and financial assets (bank and brokerage accounts, etc.). The former are usually documented in public records and are relatively easy to find; the latter are not public record and you usually can't legally locate them without a signed release from the subject or a court subpoena. The one exception is if your subject has been involved in a court case, such as a divorce or bankruptcy. If so, you're in luck, as these case filings are public records. So one of the first things to check out is civil records in all counties you know of where your subject has lived. If you want to hire someone to do this for you, try Intelius or
US Search.com -- their coverage is nationwide.
- What about your subject's occupational information? Determining where he/she works and at what job or profession can be a real challenge, especially if the person is more or less a stranger to you. Of course if you know the person, you probably also know if they're a lawyer, doctor, police officer, bartender, or whatever. Then it's just a matter of estimating what someone in that profession or occupation typically earns in their specific part of the country.
A good source for this is Area Wage Survey of the US Department of Labor.
You might also want to check American Salaries and Wages, published by Gale Research, Inc. By the way, if you have no idea what the person does, this may be revealed in his/her voter's registration record, available for most U.S. adults at the local County Courthouse, and this is public information. While you're there check criminal records, civil records, and traffic violations -- all are also public records which may reveal the person's occupation. Finally, you may wish to call the Secretary of State in his/her State of residence and ask for a name search, to determine if he/she is a corporate owner or executive there.
- Vehicles. Checking vehicles is a must in any asset search. Let's face it, the make of car your subject drives tells a lot. If he/she drives a Hyundai, that's one thing. If a Lexus or Porsche, that's another. Remember, in doing an asset search, you'll never know exactly what your subject's financial worth is. Your goal is to gain a basis for making an informed guess, and if he/she owns a luxury car and also a large boat, you can bet the person is doing pretty well for him/herself financially. To search for cars and boats, I suggest you use one of my recommended information brokers (See Section II, below) as they can do this almost instantly, and if you try to do it yourself it could be a major hassle. While they are doing this, I suggest you also have them search for UCC Filings (financial instruments which describe pledged collateral) and Tax Liens and Bankruptcies (either of which is a strong indication of financial difficulties).
- News sources. The Internet makes it so easy to search local newspapers you might as well run your subject's name and see if there have been any write-ups about him/her. Maybe you'll find your subject has attracted news attention because they've been promoted to vice president at a local company, or because they've been sued for fraud, or for some other reason. It's definitely worth a try. Go to NewsLibrary.com, Newspapers.com, or a similar site, to run the searches.
In the space that's left I'll mention a few of the inside tricks and artful dodges you should know about in doing an asset search. Just using the resources mentioned above, you can usually get a pretty good read on your subject's financial situation. To probe deeper be aware of the following methods:
- Residence Drive-By. Simply driving by your subject's residence provides a quick-and-easy fact gathering method. Note any vehicles parked outside, any occupational signs (ABC Computer Consultants, etc.), FOR SALE sign, condition of house and grounds, utility shut-off notices, etc.
- Dumpster Diving. I myself would never sink this low, of course, but you should be aware that a favorite P.I. trick is to steal your garbage from in front of your house then rifle through it looking for bank statements, purchase orders, old invoices, airline tickets to the Cayman Islands, phone bills, etc. This is legal as long as the garbage is out in the street by the curb.
- Bogus Assets. Sometimes people claim to own stocks or securities which are not publicly traded. Some claim to own shares in limited partnerships which don't exist. In conducting your asset search, keep in mind that all assets claimed are not necessarily for real. If you suspect this situation, say, in the context of a legal proceeding, then you're getting into deep financial water (probably over your head) and I advise you to seek the expert help of a NASD (National Association of Securities Dealers) agent to review your subject's financial statements.
- Background Players. If your subject is attempting to hide assets, he/she will often put some or all of their holdings in somebody else's name, usually in the name of the spouse. So for a complete investigation, you need to search relatives' assets, as well, particularly the spouse's assets. And keep in mind he/she may have hidden assets under the names of non-relatives, such as associates, or may be manipulating assets via "sweetheart lawsuits" (a trusted friend sues him/her, then turns the proceeds of the lawsuit over to him under the table).
- The Paydown. Individuals who want to hide assets (as in a divorce proceeding) often pay down home mortgages or other major bills -- they may even stash funds in universal life insurance policies or annuities, collectibles, safe deposit boxes, or collectibles. Overpayments to the IRS are not unheard of! Some will just go out and buy traveler's checks or cashier's checks and hide them under the mattress. Detecting hidden assets is an art in itself, and if you suspect this may be the case, I suggest hiring a good CPA. with experience in this field (it's called forensic accounting). You're not likely to ferret out hidden assets on your own.
As I said, asset search is a complicated subject, and I've just touched on the main themes in this Guide. For a detailed treatment of the subject, I recommend How to Do Financial Asset Investigations by Ronald L. Mendell, C.L.I., available through Amazon (see below).
That's it - our ten minutes are up! (OK, maybe twelve or thirteen.) Below is a listing of Web resources to help you continue your research on asset search.
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II. For Additional Research
This Section provides reviews and recommendations of Web sites and other online resources.
Intelius is one of the largest investigative operations on the Web and probably one of the better ones for asset search. Click on "Background Check" and they'll instantly provide lawsuits, judgments, liens, bankruptcies, home values, property ownership, address history, etc. for about fifty dollars. However, U.S. Search (the following entry in this list) may be a better choice for many purposes -- take a look.
US Search. US Search, another major online investigative service, has a specialized "Asset Search" offering providing your subject's possible company ownership ("possible" means they may not be able to provide the info - no guaranees), possible employment history, bankruptcies, tax liens, small claims judgments, home values, and a rough estimate of income based on your subject's neighborhood average (I wouldn't put too much faith in this, however), plus various other info and consultation with a researcher. This sounds like about as complete of an "instant" asset search as you'll find online, and is probably a good starting point in your research. It costs %59.95.
Related Web Search Guides
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III. Discussion Group
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