Interested in finding a person’s assets? Perhaps in context with a court case against a former business partner, shareholder, or executive? No worries – even if you don’t have the power to subpoena third party records, here is how asset tracing works when professional investigators deploy the power of open-source intelligence (OSINT) worldwide.
Truly Global Databases
What if you could find a good portion of someone’s shareholdings, shell companies and real estate holdings worldwide just by typing their name into one central database? Well, commercial tools like that exist and we have them. To be sure, these databases are not cheap, and you may have to subscribe to more than one (actually, about half a dozen) to cover all five corners of the globe. But then an investigation goes on steroids. Combine the results of these commercial tools with the official primary sources in each country – for instance, a given country’s company and property registries– and you get a powerful tool to uncover someone’s assets on a truly global scale.
Let’s take Bernie Ecclestone to illustrate this. The former Formula-1 czar is 90 years old, worth about 3 billion Euros, according to media reports, and owns assets around the world.
In a global database we find, among other things, that Ecclestone owns and manages Pentbridge Properties Ltd., a UK-registered entity.
Pentbridge, in turn, is the owner of an office building at 6, Princes Gate, Knightsbridge, London SW7, among others. So, Ecclestone owns the building. Check, Ecclestone asset number one.
In the UK, like in many countries around the world, real estate ownership is recorded in public registries and has been for decades. (In some countries, even other tangible properties, such as cars, motorcycles, boats, and aircraft are included in such property registries.) That is why it helps to run a global property search when looking for a wealthy person’s assets. The commercial tools mentioned earlier allow for searching either a person’s name or the name of a (shell) company and produce truly international results. These results should then be followed up with searches in the official primary sources in the respective countries.
Some businesspeople are familiar with the term “OPM”, Other People’s Money. That is the money that is always more fun to spend than your own, of course. Investigators, by contrast, are especially fond of “OPSM”, or Other People’s Social Media. These are the social media profiles not of the target individual but of those affiliated with them, like friends and family. Wealthy individuals sometimes do not use social media themselves, for fear of being too transparent or because they are from an older generation that grew up without social media. But friends and family are often less discriminating when it comes to keeping social media accounts and posting about their activities.
Investigators often find pictures of vacation properties, boats, aircrafts, or other assets posted not by the target themself, but by their friend, spouse, or cousin. In other words, if they invite people to an epic dinner on the patio of their mansion overlooking the sea, someone is bound to post a picture of it. And investigators will find it if they look long and hard enough.
In a previous case, for instance, we found photos on Facebook depicting the target of our investigation – a business man suspected of embezzling millions of Euros from his employer – having a get-together with friends in a Mallorca mansion. The photos contained some clues as to the mansion’s location: rock formations, the coastline and a big tree standing on the property. Spending some time looking at aerial images of Mallorca, we eventually found the location and checked the property registry for its owner–who turned out to be our man.
Aircraft and ship registries
If the individual you are looking at belongs to the wealthy or even ultra-wealthy category, you may also want to check for ownership of aircrafts or yachts.
Often, they are not held in the individual’s name, but registered to shell companies. That’s why in an asset investigation it is important to identify a target’s shell companies early on in order to find assets tied to them.
Shell companies used to be a tough nut to crack for OSINT investigators. Not so much anymore. Besides the above-mentioned global databases of secondary and primary sources that supercharge an investigation, there are countless leaks to search through. From hacked fiduciary offices and offshore company registries, such as the Mossack & Fonseca leaks, the PortcullisNet leaks, to the hacks of national company registries of the Bahamas, Panama, and Malta, to name a few.
Returning to our example of Bernie Ecclestone, we had found a company and an office building he owns at 6, Princes Gate in London. The office’s address, in turn, leads us to a finding in a ship register: two yachts owned by Ecclestone.
The yachts’ current positions can also be found in open sources, such as here. Vessel tracking websites indicate that one boat, the PETARA, has been anchored in Genoa/Italy for some months. The second one, the FORCE BLUE, however, appears to be on the move: it is scheduled to arrive in Malta today. Check, Ecclestone assets number two and three.
Even if you discount offshore leaks, shell companies can never entirely stay under the radar. They sometimes sue or get sued by business partners, clients, or fellow investors. And those court cases are sometimes filed in jurisdictions where court documents are a matter of public record. You may not know it at first, but the European high net-worth individual you are looking at may have been sued in Hong Kong or Canada in context with a business deal that went sour and suddenly the investigator sees the name of one of their shell companies in the court filings – opening a whole new host of investigative possibilities.
We live in a world in which anyone, from regular people to cyber-criminals, can store some of their assets in Bitcoins and other crypto-currencies. The crypto’s appeal is anonymity of course. With a small fortune sitting in a virtual wallet, you can even cross international borders with empty pockets (and therefore you have nothing to fear from immigration and customs officers) and yet have millions of Euros secretly along for the ride — as long as you can memorize a 25-word code that let’s you restore the crypto-wallet at the destination.
For most investigators, this crypto business is new territory. Watch out for our next blog posts this summer, which will cover crypto investigations in detail.
Amidst all the electronic research, let’s not forget the physical world. If there is a lot at stake during an asset investigation – say, because the legal dispute adds up to tens or hundreds of millions of Euros – it makes sense to include good old-fashioned surveillance into the mix. It is not true that people do not move around physically anymore in times of Covid. The wealthy always find a way to travel when the need arises, whether it is for business or pleasure. Surveillance can thus be helpful to determine where someone is staying and who owns the property.
Now let’s look at two popular misconceptions in this context.
In a criminal case, the public prosecutor’s office and/or police will look into all of the above-mentioned sources of information and find the assets for us. Not true.
Prosecutors and police have their own governmental set of investigative tools, no doubt, and yes, they can look into bank accounts and stock portfolios, for instance, if such searches are properly authorized during a criminal investigation. These are useful tools, no doubt, when looking for assets. But they only show part of the picture. Law enforcement investigators will typically not search globally in OSINT sources, for two reasons:
First, the vast majority of them do not have the budgets, manpower and training to acquire and use such tools. It’s just not how law enforcement in Europe works.
Second, prosecutors and police are national organizations and thus rarely authorized or trained to look for information outside their own national borders.
In a civil case, the judge will authorize discovery of assets and thus help us find all the buried treasure through discovery. Not true, at least not in Civil Law jurisdictions, i.e. all of continental Europe. The law here mostly does not provide for evidence discovery in the opponent’s backyard. Instead, each party has to dig up their own evidence supporting their arguments.
The bottom line: If you want to see the big picture of someone’s assets, open-source intelligence is indispensable.
Sebastian Okada is proxy-holder and head of Investigations & Fraud Prevention White-Collar Crime at Corporate Trust in Munich. He has traced assets of high and ultra-high net-worth individuals for almost 20 years.
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