October 2, 2022 Vaccaro Online 0

Background Check Investigations


Original Article by: Brian Willingham
Date: November 18th, 2021






Recently, I was having a discussion with a fellow private investigator about a background investigation report that was produced by another private investigation firm. The report has some glaring holes and a lack of depth, and the vast majority of the report was a cut-and-paste job from various investigative databases.

Some of these so-called holes and what I consider big issues may have an explanation, but the background investigation report was on THE key witness in a case with major implications and a lot of money at stake. I understand that there are times when you need to cut some corners, but this was not one of them.

This happens quite often in our line of business. I’ve seen private investigators send a $15 “comprehensive report” from the investigative database provider TLOxp (owned by Transunion) to an attorney, charge them $500, and call it a background investigation.

Note to anyone who does that: attorneys can get access to TLO too.

I am here to tell you that sending a comprehensive database report to an attorney and charging them multiple times what the report actually costs is not a background investigation. It’s doing no service to anyone.

Raw data + zero analysis = no value-add.

So, here are what I see as some glaring holes in background investigations.

1) Relying on Databases With Limited Access

Background investigations rely on both public and private databases for information. These databases get information from a variety of public data (e.g., criminal records, property records, voter registration records) as well as private data (e.g., phone information, credit header information). But a database is only as good as the information contained in the database itself.

So, for example, each database has its own set of phone information, driver’s license records and criminal records, some of which are more complete than others.

But NONE of them covers everything. ALL criminal record databases have major holes; even the FBI’s national criminal database (NCIC) has some huge holes.

2) Failing to Note the Limitations

Digging deep into someone’s background takes time and effort. Sometimes clients just don’t want to pay for that time and effort, which is understandable. A client may not want to spend thousands of dollars in order to learn “everything” about someone.

If you need to go back only five or 10 years in criminal history searches because you didn’t have the budget to do criminal history searches in 14 jurisdictions, say that in your report.

If you were only looking for derogatory or controversial social media posts because you didn’t have the time to analyze 82,000 tweets, say that.

Just please don’t say, “We searched his criminal history and found nothing.”

Because that literally means nothing.

3) Not Multisourcing

As stated earlier, databases are only as good as the information that they contain. Each database provider offers different sources of information. Some are good for some things, while others are better than others. Any good background investigation will search multiple sources of information even if they overlap. For example, PACER is a great tool for federal, civil, criminal and bankruptcy cases. But its search capabilities are absolutely archaic. And PACER will only search for plaintiffs and defendants. That’s it.

Free services like RECAP or paid services like Bloomberg Law, Westlaw and Lexis Nexis allow you to use more advanced searches to find name variations and also includes searches of the docket sheets, which can show you if someone has filed an affidavit, testified or been a witness in a case. And the paid services allow you to search the actual court filings, so you may be able to find a hidden gem of when someone was involved in a case but not named as a party.

4) Cutting and Pasting

Just the other day, a new client reached out looking for some information on her daughter’s ex-husband. The potential client told me that the last investigator had been a waste of money because that investigator had “merely cut and pasted information from PACER.”

In the age of the internet, potential clients are smart and savvy.

Don’t cut and paste information from sources that can be easily found via a few Google searches.

Leave the cutting and pasting for the kids.

5) Not Vetting Information Through Reliable Sources

I’ve spent a good portion of this post talking about investigative databases. The ones private investigators use include TracersInfoTLOxpDelvePointIDI and Accurint. In vetting other public records and news sources, sites like WestlawFactivaProQuestLexisNexis and Bloomberg Law are extraordinarily valuable as well.

All these services have their benefits, but the one limitation that they all have is that they rely on information from elsewhere. So, for example, one of these services may report some criminal history, but in order to rely on the information, getting the information from the actual source or local court is critical. Databases get information wrong, so vetting the information from the original source is critical.

And before you ask, all of these databases have their benefits, but none of them is the “best.”

6) Lacking Analysis

I often see background investigation reports regurgitating database information with a lack of analysis. The prime example of that would be bankruptcy and litigation records. It’s obviously useful to know that a bankruptcy is filed, but an analysis of the bankruptcy petition, which lists assets, loans, income, retirement, children, corporation interests and other valuable information would be a bit more telling. Did the person have hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debt? Or did they get laid off and fall on hard times?

Litigation documents can be telling as well. Do the records suggest that it’s more of a course-of-business collection case, or is there some deeper issue of abuse, threats or harassment?

Similarly, knowing that a criminal case exists is one thing, but knowing the intimate details of the filings is another.

All of this adds some contextual information, not just a data dump.

7) Including Opinions

I read a background investigation report produced where the investigator wrote that they were “very moved by his social media presence,” he appeared to be an “encourager and uplifter,” and it was “evident by his presence that he had worked very hard to reform his life and become a shining example for men like him.”

I’m not making this up.

There are so many things wrong with this I don’t know where to even start.

But, clearly, this investigator never watched “Dragnet.”

Just. The. Facts.

8) Not Researching Name Variations

One of the first steps I teach investigators is to confirm a person’s name. Seems silly, but it’s a critical piece.

Why? Well did you know that the actor John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison? Or that Michael Keaton is really Michael John Douglas? Or Brad Pitt is William Bradley Pitt?

Researching records on these guys would be a nightmare. Think of all the name variations that you would need to conduct searches under. Remember, computers aren’t smart enough to know that Brad Pitt and William Pitt are the same person. For example, most court records or official documents would include the real full name, while references in other places might include their stage name.

There are also married names to contend with. Like actress Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of Will Smith. She might have records under Jada Pinkett, Jada Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith or Jada Pinkett-Smith.

Conducting a background investigation under name variations is critical to providing a complete, accurate background investigation.

9) Lacking Clarity

Last, but not least, the biggest mistake I see is that a private investigator lacks the clarity of what the client is looking for.

A few months ago, I was speaking with an attorney who wanted to find “anything and everything” on several individuals involved in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. When it came down to it, however, the client was convinced these guys were lifelong fraudsters and was really only trying to see whether they had any significant issues in their past to confirm suspicions.

Those are two very different things.

  1. So, does your client want to make sure that the person is not a convicted felon, wanted by the FBI and on the terrorist watch list?
  2. Is the client on a dirt-digging exercise to find “anything” that may impugn a person’s character?
  3. Are you trying to find holes in a person’s history to challenge their credibility?
  4. Or are you working for an investment firm that just wants to check a box to make sure that the person is legitimate?

Each of these requires a whole different approach.

If you’re in need of proper backgound checks done right, contact Vaccaro Investigations today to get started.