Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Unburnable Female Operative

The female covert operative: the very idea evokes smoky, black-and-white images of leggy, Cold-War Soviet spies laying (forgive the pun) the perfect honey trap for unwitting Western journalists, diplomats, and men who wield power, influence, or (most importantly) information.

 Phillip Knightley explodes a few “honey trap” myths in this article for Foreign Policy Magazine, titled: "The History of the Honey Trap." And in this piece for the Times Online, British journalist Jon Swain describes his romance with a beautiful “Mossad Mata Hari” posing as a photojournalist.

Mostly, these anecdotes reveal a simple truth. The honey trap often comes to naught: sex or romance exchanged for useless information, if any at all; failed schemes to ensnare, compromise, and blackmail powerful men (and sometimes women).

And from the point of view of the private investigator, what’s the use of it? Considering how many of our cases have to do with domestic relationships, how would a honey trap work, exactly? The word “entrapment” immediately springs to mind.

Which leads to the point of this article: why waste a female operative’s unique skills by merely exploiting her sexuality? 

“In most of the world, women in law-enforcement or security are considered non-players,” says Agent X, a 20-year veteran of the trade who has worked internationally. “It’s just a mindset. That’s why it’s often so much easier for women to do surveillance.”

Agent X points out that because such a small percentage of law-enforcement and security personnel are female, women can often disappear into the environment in ways men might not be able to. A man walking a dog in a neighborhood at night might arouse suspicion, for example. “But a woman in that situation is perceived as non-threatening,” he says. “It’s not uncommon to see a woman walking a dog or pushing a carriage…and she’s able to get closer to targets that way.”

The same goes for surveillance at a bar or restaurant. “It’s easier for a man-woman surveillance team or a single woman to sit in a bar and watch (without arousing suspicion) than for a man to sit alone,” says Agent X.

“Women just aren’t seen. They're invisible,” he adds, at least, from the point of view of targets keeping an eye out for tails. “Because they’re not ‘classical’ authority figures.”

Agent X admits, this approach plays to the stereotypes about men’s and women’s traditional roles in society. But when it comes to surveillance, playing to stereotypes works. Would you wear a polo shirt and khakis while infiltrating a biker bar? What about a country club?

When it comes to disappearing into the background and quietly gathering information, it’s all about perception, playing to what people expect to see. “If you’re a female with a stroller, a dog, a leash, or a baby seat in your car, there’s nowhere you can’t go,” he says. “Think about it: a guy walks around looking in my yard - suspicious, right?  He’d better have on a gas company vest. But a woman out there with a leash calling a lost dog? Who’s not gonna come out and help her look for it?

“A female just has so many advantages,” says Agent X. Especially as part of a man-woman team. “If somebody’s engaged at the front door with some stupid dog story, somebody else can be in back doing a trash pickup.

“Pack a baby seat, stroller, and leash in your car,” he advises female investigators. “Then have a bag ready with a jacket, shorts, sweat pants, sneakers, pumps, and a couple of different shirts.” In two minutes, he says, a female can easily dress up or down, go into character, walk in anywhere, and fit in, from a gym to a nightclub. “Boom, you’re done,” he says. “You’re unburnable.”

And the purse-cam is rolling.

Friday, March 26, 2010


We're often asked what special skills are required to be a private investigator. Well, once again our friends over at Burn Notice have summed it up nearly perfectly. Check it out.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tradecraft - Public Records and Gathering Intelligence


Private investigators love information, also known as “intelligence.” We gather it and analyze it. We spend hours online searching proprietary databases trying to locate people, things, and places. It’s true, we sometimes go dumpster diving, clawing through trash to find tidbits of information that can help a case. Get enough intelligence gathered, and you can make a case for fraud or infidelity simply by arranging the information in a timeline and making inferences.

Identifying links, connecting the dots, is the key to solving most cases. There are a number of resources that help us connect the dots, tie people together, and establish that a relationship exists.


Surface Data

We crawl around our online sources every day. We hit Facebook, Linked In, and My Space regularly to identify people and relationships. One service we employ actually has a graphic that shows relationships between people, assets, and criminal records. It looks and behaves just like Visual Thesaurus. This tool is perfect for gaining that 1,000 foot view of a case, kind of like a data-driven aerial photo, a data-map. There are other services we use that aggregate publicly available information. These are all great places to start an investigation, but we here at [FIND] Investigations like to dig a little deeper.


Deep Research – Applied Tradecraft

Once the obvious connections have been made, we have the information to start really digging for connections. An article in the March/April 2010 edition of PI Magazine covers one of the least used resources available, the City Clerk’s office.

The City Clerk often handles personal property and maintains a list of property owned by residents. Want to find a boat or its owner? Just check out the personal property index for boats. It’ll have a detailed list of owners in alphabetical order, mailing address, and type of personal property owned. Want to find the owner of a piece of rental property? Have a look at the book that tells where tax bills are mailed. Some rural locales actually keep what they call the 3x5 file, a card index of residents in a town. These little gems very often have extra notations, hand written notes about the person in question. Notes like, “watch out for dog,” or “nut job.” The City Clerk’s office can be a treasure trove of intelligence.

We also like to pay a visit to the Tax Assessor’s office. In larger metropolitan areas, the assessor’s office is usually well organized and relatively easy to navigate. Most larger counties actually have their full database online. Still, when you drop by the office in person and take the time to pull a property file, you’d be amazed by what you can find. I’ve used the property file to get floor plans, pictures, and detailed lists of improvements on the property. The property file will almost always have a list of past sales for the property, listing deed book and page numbers.

Next stop, after the assessor’s office, is the Register of Deeds office. Armed with document numbers, you can go to the records room, pull the heavy leather bound book off the shelf and review the original deed. Here’s where the real fun starts. Make note of all signatures, buyer (Grantee), seller (Grantor), what law firm filed the deed, and who notarized the deed.

It’s possible to tie a single fraudster to several transactions simply by noticing that the same person notarized every one of the deeds in question. A quick stop by the Notary Public’s office and a few friendly questions later and you can likely identify the one person behind all of the sales.

Notifications are often sent to all parties involved in a transaction (sale or lease). In the Notifications clause, you may find alternative addresses for everyone concerned. Read the entire document and make note of all details.

Another source of valuable information is the prior ownership certification. I’m not certain about this for all states, but in Tennessee every deed includes a legal description followed by a clause that states who owned the property previously and a document number for that last sale. Track the sales back for several years. Pull all of the deeds and see what you can find.

If the property is owned in the name of a company or a corporation, track down the principals of that entity. It’s not unusual to find several companies owned by the same person. People try to distance themselves from transactions sometimes, but no matter what the degree of separation, there’s almost always some piece of paper that ties them to the deal.

Compiling information, the tradecraft of intelligence gathering, is not necessarily a difficult process. Sometimes it just takes a lot of time and a high degree of patience to establish all the connections. Start drawing the inferences with online searches and databases--these are the recognized starting points. But to make the hard case, it’s helpful to physically visit the original source of information and review the documents. We here at [FIND] Investigations have spent the past 24 years creeping around court houses and city offices. If there’s a connection, we can usually find it.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Real-World CSI: The Near Future

Someday soon, law enforcement may be able to ID criminals by the microbial signature they leave behind, says Noah Fierer of UC Boulder. 

Fierer says more than a hundred different types of bacteria (most of which are harmless, some, even beneficial) live on the surface of our skin, and that each person's microbial colony is unique. That bacterial trail we leave behind--on a computer keyboard or mouse, say--may be identifiable for up to two weeks, according to Fierer's experiments...which could one day give law-enforcement agencies one more tool for gathering physical evidence. 

In other odd forensic news: one day soon you may be asked to put your nose into a 3D scanner, instead of your thumb onto an inkpad.

Scientists at the University of Bath in England are developing software that recognizes individual noses, which are unique, just like fingerprints.