Friday, November 27, 2009

Against Your Better Judgement

Check out
this NPR story about Terry Harrington, a man not merely wrongly convicted, but actually framed for a 1977 murder by Iowa prosecutors. It seems police and prosecutors manipulated and concealed evidence that pointed to another suspect, leading to the wrongful conviction of Harrington, who served 25 years before his conviction was overturned.

Harrington was black. The likely murderer was white. Did this fact play a role in what would seem to be the cynical and self-interested motives of an Iowa justice system determined to remove an unsolved crime from the books at any cost? That's a pretty difficult question to answer, perhaps even for the principal players involved. Certainly they allowed something other than facts to influence their prosecution of the case.

Most of us harbor some kind of prejudice, even if we don't know it. We make judgements. It's how we organize our observations about people and their behavior. 

But sometimes we don't even realize we're making a judgement. We unwittingly dismiss people or assign them motives based on our assumptions about their age, race, gender, profession, education, attractiveness, accent, or dress. Malcolm Gladwell writes about this phenomenon in "Blink," citing a variety of studies about how we perceive people instantaneously, before we are even conscious of our perception. Our minds make connections we aren't aware of, such as connections between black males and violence, in one of his examples.

And there's this startling pair of statistics: only around 14% of American men are more than 6 feet tall, as compared with more than 58% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Why the shortage of short men in corporate America's upper echelons? See this excerpt of "Blink" for Gladwell's unsettling assessment of how we choose leaders.

As investigators, these kinds of unwitting prejudices can hinder the quest for good intelligence. I found the following website interesting: Project Implicit has created a series of simple online keyboard-stroke tests that assess people's split-second reactions to information about race, gender, and other possible sources of bias. I took one of the tests and found the results both illuminating and fascinating. The race-bias test takes no more than 5 minutes, and it's almost like a quick video game. You can try it here. 

As if this all weren't confusing enough, it's not only our innate prejudices that can cloud our judgement. Sometimes information from clients, while often useful, can cause us to make assumptions about the subjects we're observing. That we're getting one side of the story is the very nature of the job. Even if our clients aren't actively trying to bamboozle us (like about 95% of Thomas Magnum's damsels-in-distress), they're likely to tell their tale with a slant that ratchets up the purity and nobility of their motives and actions. Who wouldn't?

Case in point: the client tells you his wife hires a babysitter and goes out every Friday and Saturday night. He shows you receipts from her recent shopping sprees at Victoria's Secret and a cell phone bill with lots of calls to a mysterious number. All this is factual, useful, and possibly telling information. Then he adds she's been unkind, distant, and dismissive towards him lately, often doesn't answer his calls, speaks to him sarcastically, and picks fights. Less factual and quantifiable--a fine line between reality and perception here. Then he throws in that his wife's a manipulative, high-maintenance gold-digger who spends all his money on shoes and spa visits and is a lousy mother to their two toddlers. This last bit's pretty much devoid of fact.

What do we do with all that information? It's easy to sympathize with the client here, buy his story at face value, and let it fuel a little righteous anger on his behalf. We want justice for this poor guy and his little girls, and it's our mission to help him by catching his wife in the act. Suddenly we're the righteous crusader, and our work feels meaningful in a way that sifting through trash and watching a parked car for ten hours sometimes doesn't.

But once we decide the subject's not only guilty, but also evil, that's all we'll see. To a hammer, all the world's a nail; now everything she does reads as evidence of her narcissism and deception. Heck, maybe she even reminds us of that ex-special someone who...let's say, left quite an impression back in the day.

Suddenly, we're not searching for truth anymore. We've been programmed to look for the answer we think the client wants, and we want to please him. Ultimately, this doesn't serve the client's interests any more than those Iowa prosecutors' eagerness to convict someone, anyone, served the public interest in 1977. 

The client hired us to find out the truth, even if he doesn't grasp that at first. And the truth in the form of "actionable intelligence"--facts backed up by admissible evidence--is what we need to deliver. All that additional info about the shoes and the domestic cruelty? We sympathize, but we file it into the "irrelevant" pile and remind ourselves, yet again, to keep an open mind.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

[FIND] Monthly Ledger - Volume 1 November 2009

[FIND] just sent out the first volume of the [FIND] Investigaitons Monthly Ledger. If you want to be in the know, need to know a guy who knows a guy, desire to be in on the latest news, take a moment to sign up for the Monthly Ledger. Thank you for taking the time to drop by the blog. More soon. THH

Friday, November 13, 2009

Investigator Skills - Facial Recognition Test

Have you ever wondered how hard it is for an investigator to remember details. It's why we make notes all day long, even when it seems that nothing of importance is happening. Details make the case. Can you pick a guy out of a line up? Do you notice faces and remember them?

This facial recognition test is cool. I ran across this little gem on the Pursuit Magazine website. Pursuit Magazine is the online journal of professional investigations, a great resource for investigators. It offers a small peek into one of the many facets of the the daily life of an investigator. Give it a try. Test your skills. See if you have what it takes to be an investigator. Click on over to the BBC here.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Loan Modification Companies - Avoid The Scams

Two things. First, if something sounds too good to be true, it likely is. Second, always, always, always verify that a company that's offering to, "make your mortgage problems go away," is licensed and operating legally. Final thought: no one can make the problem "go away."

Here's another story from one of my favorite blogs, the mortgage fraud blog, about yet another loan modification company trying to scam people out of their money.

*** from the Mortgage Fraud Blog***

International Co-op LLC, Meridian, Idaho, has been ordered by the Idaho Department of Finance to cease and desist unlicensed mortgage loan modification activities and illegally charging distressed Idaho homeowners exorbitant upfront fees.

Department of finance director, Gavin Gee, said that the department received complaints from three Idaho homeowners who had paid International Co-op LLC $1,500 to $2,000 on the company's representation that it would assist the homeowners obtain mortgage loan modifications. "On top of the company's failure to obtain a license, the affected Idaho homeowners received nothing for their money and are worse off than they were before," Gee said.Companies offering mortgage loan modification services in Idaho are required to be licensed and, other than a reasonable application fee, are prohibited from charging any upfront fees, said Gee.

"International Co-op LLC failed on both counts." During difficult economic times there are those who seek to prey on distressed homeowners, Gee warned. "The department of finance will continue to take action against mortgage loan modification companies that ignore Idaho's licensing laws and victimize Idaho homeowners in this way."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Master of Disguise

Can you find Thomas H. Humphreys in this picture?

There he is!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

FBI "Agent X" Trains [FIND] Staff at Firing Range

Say hello to my leettle friend.” –Tony Montana, aka “Scarface,” whilst launching a grenade from an M16 

South Florida conjures images of tropical rot, of beauty and decadence, of moral chaos. Admit it, if you’re over thirty, you most likely sum up the place mentally in terms of the Miami Vice opening credits: a racing Ferrari, bikinis, flamingoes, pastel hues, a glittering skyline, a cigarette boat ricocheting off the waves. Maybe there’s a little Scarface imagery mixed in there.

We at [FIND] are no different. And we found some, but not all, of what we expected.

Ferraris cruising South Beach. Check.

Gorgeous creatures in bikinis. Check.

Flamingoes. Nope, mostly iguanas.

Thomas H. Humphreys in pastel t-shirt with white blazer. &$%# no.

We did, however, say “hello” to one of the U.S. Government’s little friends: an M4 carbine that our FBI contact (henceforth to be known as “Agent X”) let us open up in a Miami firing range. 

Being a rather petite person with small hands, I found the Ruger .22 pistol somewhat more manageable. The Glock .40? Fuhgettaboutit. Too much gun for me. But with "Agent X's" guidance I managed to put plenty of .22-sized holes in the bull's eye (and a burn on my chest as a spent casing flew down my shirt--high comedy).

However, it wasn't easy to concentrate with the M4 carbine (pictured) blasting away like a cannon in the cubicle next to me. So, needless to say, I had to try the M4 out for myself.

Niiiiiice. Barely any kick, relatively easy to handle, even for a small person. Hello, Little Friend.  

The best thing "Agent X" taught me that day? The gentle squeeze. After I shot up a few targets, with middling results, he had me practice squeezing the trigger of an unloaded pistol ever so slowly with a spent casing resting on the back sights. The exercise: pull the trigger without dropping the spent shell. It made all the difference. 

I love great teachers.


Beware, Mortgage Modification Companies

No seriously, I’m speaking directly to the mortgage modification companies. Be careful. Be very careful. Enough of your peers have scammed, cheated, and lied that the public is getting savvy, and apparently a bit touchy, about being ripped off.

This post is from the Mortgage Fraud Blog: Five charged in beating, torture of loan modification agents.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Daniel Weston, 52, La CaƱada, Califorina, and Gustavo Canez, 36, Los Angeles, California, were charged with two counts of torture, two counts of false imprisonment by violence and two counts of second-degree robbery in connection with the beating and torture of a pair of loan modification agents. Read more…

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Cheater as "Rational Fool"

I’ve been reading a lot of nouveau-self-help-marketing books these days, which is a radical departure for me. On my granddad’s insistence, I took a Dale Carnegie course in high school, but aside from that, I’ve largely steered away from the self-help genre.

Lately I’ve developed a taste for some of these books and their straightforward morsels of wisdom, intended for entrepreneurs and artists and all of us who must market our products or services.

One of these wise little nuggets that keeps cropping up is this simple truth: Give people a reason to trust you. Marketing guru Seth Godin harps about this in his latest book, Tribes. Harry Beckwith noted it in his 1997 book, Selling the Invisible. Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod alludes to this several times in his book, Ignore Everybody.

This is a new concept, that you should be trustworthy?

I’m not poking fun at these writers for pointing out the obvious. Sometimes we need people to point out the obvious to us. It never hurts to hear, read, or entertain a new (old) idea.

A passage in MacLeod’s book, Ignore Everybody, brought it home for me: “Regardless of how the world changes, regardless of what new technologies, business, models, and social architectures are coming down the pike, the one thing the ‘new realities’ cannot take away from you is trust.”

Trust in business isn’t a new idea. Science journalist Matt Ridley explores the evolution of trust and cooperation in human society in his 1996 book, The Origins of Virtue. Viewing life as a vast tit-for-tat or prisoner’s dilemma game, you’d think most of us would conclude, time after time, that deceit is in our interest. (See the following illustrative clip from the British game show, Golden Balls.)

But Ridley argues that humans as a whole have instead learned to cooperate, to trust each other and trade fairly, and even to behave altruistically. In the prisoner’s dilemma construct, as in life, cheating might benefit the cheater in the short term; he's a sort of offshoot of Amartya Sen's homo economicus, a "rational fool." 

But developing a reputation for honesty and fair play benefits the moral person in the long-run. Business doesn't always have to be a zero-sum game. Communicate clearly, establish mutual trust, and everybody wins.

Case in point: occasionally, clients will ask me to slap a GPS tracker on a subject’s car. That surely makes surveillance easier, but I’m not willing to do it. Bottom line—it’s cheating.

First of all, it’s illegal in Tennessee, a Class D misdemeanor. Secondly, it removes the creative, problem solving, part of the job almost entirely. It’s a crutch that inhibits the kind of free thinking this job requires.

I have friends who rely entirely on GPS map systems to navigate. They key in their destination, listen to the computery voice coolly issue directives in stilted English, and follow mindlessly. They don’t know how to read a map. They can’t think in terms of cardinal points on a compass. Without that bossy electronic voice, they are helpless.

I love GPS. I’ve used it hundreds of times while flying and sailing. But as an old Kiwi sailor once told my wife Kim, “GPS is a navigational aid. It all comes ‘round to you in the end.”

Likewise, using a GPS tracker removes a good deal of the “you” from the equation. If you’re fully engaged, you’re thinking about where your subject might go and why, anticipating actions based on your observations and knowledge.

Is he wearing workout clothes? Does she seem anxious or dejected in the Safeway checkout line? Is she dressed to go out and in a desperate hurry to drop off the kids? Using a GPS tracker you’d never know. You simply get an alert that the subject is at the alleged paramour’s apartment and you drive over and take pictures. You’re missing the wider picture, the sense of direction and broader understanding that you only get from doing the work the hard way.

I tell my clients up front that we do not use GPS trackers. They’re not legal. Losing my investigator’s license to win a client or make a case a little easier is an example of short-term, “rational-fool” thinking.

This approach may cost a little bit more in surveillance fees, and it may lose me an occasional client. But when I’m on the stand and the opposing attorney asks, “Did you at any point use a GPS tracking device to follow my client?” I’ll be able to say with conviction, “No, I did not.” I stay out of trouble, and my client’s attorney isn’t stuck with expensive, inadmissible evidence.

 It’s not hard. It’s a matter of trust.