April 2010 • Volume 98 • Number 4 • Page 184
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Law and Technology
Your (Mostly Free) Private Investigator
An amazing amount of information about parties, witnesses, clients, businesses and more resides on the Internet. And much of the best stuff doesn't cost a dime. Here's how to find it.
Lawyers wondering how to use the Internet to find out information about opponents or witnesses may envy the skill of fictional private investigator Lisbeth Salander of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson's bestselling crime novel.
Salander has an uncanny ability for "digging up information on just about anybody. If the individual was listed in a computer file, which everyone inevitably was, then the subject quickly landed in her spider's web. If the individual owned a computer with an Internet connection, an email address, and maybe even a personal website,… she could sooner or later find out their innermost secrets."
Larsson and other crime writers do not hesitate to have their characters engage in illegal behavior, such as hacking into subjects' electronic accounts, for the sake of a good story. But lawful techniques of finding out information online, accompanied by persistence and creativity, can provide lawyers with not only the information they need to represent their clients effectively, but good stories to boot.
Two lawyers and a downstate police detective and presenter shared tips for digging up information over the Internet with the IBJ.
Mike Bazzell of the Alton Police Department explained free and low-cost techniques for finding people using search engines and people-finder websites. Chicago lawyer Todd Flaming, who spoke in Springfield at ISBA's 5th Annual Solo and Small Firm Conference in October 2009, focused on finding information about companies and their representatives. Fellow Chicago lawyer Kent Sezer recounted his own story about how his Internet investigation led to the dismissal of a case that had the potential to cost his client big bucks. The techniques the three describe will, in Flaming's words, "save you [and your clients] a ton of money and get you started far faster in your case than anything else you can do."
People-finding - Google, but don't stop there
A 13-year veteran of the Alton Police Department, Detective Mike Bazzell's assignment is computer crime. In the course of his work, Bazzell's acquired expertise in computer forensic analysis, identity theft, how hackers steal information, and Internet safety for parents and children. "All of these areas revolve around information out there on the Internet that can be used against us or to help us."
Bazzell illustrates how his techniques can benefit lawyers. What if you need to name one or more defendants but don't know where they are? Before you hire a private detective, do your own Internet search for the person, starting with the search engine that's made its way into our lexicon. "Google is an excellent first place to start. It will search many of the other websites that offer information," says Bazzell.
But "don't get stuck on using just one search engine," Bazzell says. Google isn't the only game in town: Bazzell particularly recommends, at a minimum, using Microsoft's Bing.com in addition to Google.
"Searching Bing will give you different results in a different order," he says. If need be, he says, you can expand your search to use even more engines you may find that you like.
Bazzell provides some tips for tailoring a search for a person to return fewer and better results. If putting in a first and last name doesn't yield the information you're looking for, put quotes around the name to be sure you get pages that will reference only that name and not pages that contain either the first or the last name but not necessarily both. If you still get too many results, add more information, such as the town the person lives (or may live) in or an interest or occupation.
Try also different permutations of the person's name, such as the name with the middle initial or the middle name, or the first initial with the last name, until you get the results you're looking for. "Google is fairly smart about searches," Bazzell says. Using his own name as an example, he says "If I do a search for 'Michael,' chances are it will provide results with 'Mike' as well."
Whatever the search engine, some of the results returned in any name search will likely be for people-finder services such as 411.com. Many such services that used to provide whatever information they had for free now provide only limited information about a name to the searcher for free, requiring payment before divulging more. Though the fee may be modest, there's no guarantee that the information you purchase will be current or helpful, or even that it will relate to the person you're looking for or someone else who just happens to have the same name.
To avoid paying even modest fees for information that's publicly available, Bazzell recommends searching multiple sites. He includes links to a number of popular online resources for finding information on other people on his Web site at http://computercrimeinfo.com/info.html and says, "If you go through all of these sites, you will usually get enough information so that you don't need to purchase a report."
Bazzell concedes that there are people who are pretty good at eluding detection. "There are people who purposely want to stay off the radar, though that requires quite a bit of effort in our digital economy."
Though he declines to reveal law enforcement's innermost secrets because of the risk of compromising investigations, he suggests that fee-based services may provide fast and accurate information concerning the whereabouts of, say, a record owner of property who doesn't seem to have left any virtual footprints since graduating from high school thirty years ago. Some such services that many lawyers use include Accurint, Lexis/Nexis, Fastcase, and Westlaw.
In some cases, even these fee-based services may come up empty. At that point, Bazzell says, the lawyer may be faced with manually searching courthouse records. "You can go to courthouses in counties where you suspect the person may live or have lived and look up tax records and cases to see if that person is a party." Though these searches will more than likely require road trips to the courthouses, Bazzell notes that more and more counties, including St. Clair County, which neighbors his own beat, are making virtual trips feasible by putting their holdings on line.
Not e-discovery, free discovery
A litigator who usually finds companies on the other side of counsel table, Todd Flaming uses tech-geek terminology to categorize 21st Century discovery. "Discovery 1.0 includes the traditional categories of interrogatories, document requests, and depositions. These are still useful tools. But, thanks to the Internet, we now have Discovery 2.0."
Directing a remark to those who post content on social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, YouTube, weblogs and personal websites, Flaming says "You've now provided me with free discovery. Not e-discovery, free discovery."
Starting with a simple online search, lawyers may, and arguably should, commence Discovery 2.0 without leave of court, and before filing suit or being served, says Flaming. He guarantees "All the people you are dealing with have posted something on the Internet that is helpful to you, if not because it's relevant evidence, at least for giving you helpful background and getting you started."
Flaming says "If I'm dealing with a company, I always start with its Web site." Once he's thoroughly reviewed a site, "I'm usually pretty well versed in a company's history, products, managers, people, locations, and all the things I really need to get a framework for how I'm going to get information from this company."
As an example, Flaming selects the Web site of one of the financial corporations that received a substantial infusion of taxpayer funds as it was professedly on the brink of failure last fall. "They helpfully published stuff for you and me," he says. To find that information, "All you have to do is point and click your way around the Web site."
Doing just that, Flaming comments that the company apparently felt compelled to draft an explanation of what happened to send it to the point of collapse. "No doubt a team of very careful, diligent lawyers carefully crafted and vetted it, but if I were suing this company I would love to start with something like this."
Flaming continues poking around the company's Web site. "Here's a letter to the company's shareholders. Here's a list of the board committees and who's on them. This is a witness list. They've done it for you."
Flaming also finds the company's bylaws, code of conduct, annual reports, corporate governance guidelines, and press releases, all standard documents to be found on corporate Web sites, in short order. (You can also get company information such as registered agents through filings on state websites, such as the Illinois Secretary of State at http://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/business_services/home.html, and, for publicly traded companies, the SEC at http://www.sec.gov/edgar.shtml.) "You didn't even have to serve discovery requests or file a lawsuit yet."
Before the Internet, Flaming says, it would have taken him months to find all of the information that he locates in just a few minutes in his presentation. "It's all right here for me, ready to go."
Carefully vetted though it may have been, information published on a company's Web site may be helpful to a lawyer, Flaming says. "The company history is a good starting point because there are so many things going on in a big or a small case."
Make your own case chronology in your favorite word processing program, Flaming says. You can then intersperse events from the company's history that you find on its Web site with the events that you already know bear on your case. This chronology may help you gain more insight into the case story that you unfold.
Depending on what your case involves, he continues, you may be happy to find product descriptions and documentation, including advertisements and manuals, that you can download for free from a company's Web site. Company financial statements and information about any subsidiaries or parent corporations may be particularly useful for collecting a judgment. Company locations, he says, are helpful "because you need to know where stuff is and where the people are."
Flaming also says that small companies may post even more helpful information than large companies. "Smaller companies are very savvy and fast and efficient. They don't have a team of lawyers vetting whatever's posted." For this reason, he says, on occasion, "They will create extremely useful information for you."
Social media sites: "everyone seems compelled to post their lives"
Individuals such as customers, employees, and product and securities analysts may also create and post useful information about a company on sites such as Twitter, blogs, and review sites such as glassdoor.com, ripoffreport.com, and jobvent.com.
Before the advent of social networking, says Flaming, those who were unhappy with a company might report it to the Better Business Bureau. "These days, they get on the Internet and post an angry rant with details of everything that went wrong. The ranter is someone you can call on the phone and talk to or email about their experience."
Though you should always consider the source in assessing the information's reliability, the rant might prove a good starting point, he says. "Maybe you can get some names of witnesses you might talk to."
Flaming marvels at the volubility of people on the Internet. "Everyone seems compelled to post their lives on social networking sites these days. People tend to be far less guarded. They say things that no rational person would say out loud. There are horribly stupid things on nicely organized Web pages that you can get access to."
Even though a person's Facebook page, for example, may have private settings, "if you know it's there, you can get it in discovery. That may settle the case for you."
It's not unusual to get search results with links that would seem to lead to tantalizingly useful information but turn out to be dead. But Flaming even has some suggestions for getting to those expired pages.
Check out the "Cached" link that will come up after many links in the search results, for search engines such as Google are constantly archiving web pages. The Internet Archive, at http://www.archive.org/, offers users access to texts, audio, moving images, and software as well as archived web pages. "Once something's on the Internet, it's really hard to get rid of."
A case study in Internet investigation
Flaming says, "In your career, if you do what I'm suggesting, you will find at least one good admission published on the Web that's useful to your case. I've found several in my career." Fellow Chicago lawyer Kent Sezer's experience bears out Flaming's remark.
In forma pauperis. Sezer has used Internet investigations to good effect in more than one employment matter he's handled for a major client. In one case, Sezer says, his client terminated a married couple. The couple proceeded to file a series of lawsuits based on their terminations, making a variety of labor, employment, and civil rights claims. Three of their cases ended up before three different judges in the federal district court for the Northern District of Illinois, with Sezer defending them.
In each matter, the couple filed in forma pauperis petitions asking that filing fees be waived and that the court appoint counsel for them. The form petition, downloadable from the court's website, requires petitioners to affirm, under penalties of perjury, that they are unable to pay the costs of the court proceeding, and to answer a series of questions requiring them to detail their employment, income, gifts, assets, and public assistance. Petitioners must provide the same information for family members living with them.
Sezer says he wouldn't even have been aware of the petitions before the institution of the court's electronic filing system and, in any event, had never before given a second thought to them. Having learned before even receiving service or filing an appearance that the suits against his client were pending through a search on the court's PACER system, and wanting to get a jump on his defense preparation, Sezer took advantage of the court's ECF services to put in a request to be notified of all actions in those cases.
Two of the three judges granted the pauper's petitions and appointed counsel for the plaintiffs. The third, however, questioned how the plaintiffs could even exist with the sworn financial information that they provided in their petition and denied it. The plaintiffs then filed a new petition with different information.
The judge's original action, Sezer says, led him to start an investigation of his own regarding the plaintiffs' circumstances. "If the judge said it didn't make any sense, I thought maybe it didn't make any sense."
Not realizing how easy it was to find information on people such as the plaintiffs, Sezer initially hired a private investigation agency to look into their background. Once he received the report, he realized that the information in it would all have been available to him through his own firm's legal research and public records package. He then started researching the plaintiffs himself, amplifying the results he'd already received.
More surprising information. Sezer obtained far more surprising information than he could have foreseen. The plaintiffs turned out to own a condominium in Hawaii, a townhome in Arizona, and a commercial building in Chicago. They had obtained a second mortgage on their home for substantially more than they had sworn it was worth.
In fact, the plaintiffs, who had sworn under oath that they were unable to pay the costs of their court proceedings and had negligible income or assets, had hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity that they could have used to pay their court cost and attorney fees, Sezev says.
Using this information to dig further, Sezer searched on Google for the county property tax assessors or recorders of deeds to find out whether the records for the plaintiffs' properties were online. Some were, enabling Sezer to find out what the assessed valuations, the yearly property taxes, whether they had been paid, the properties' square footage, and other information.
For a nominal fee, he ordered certified records of the deed and mortgage for the plaintiffs' Hawaiian condo. Sezer also found that Google Maps With Street View enabled him to view the properties in question. From that application, he ascertained that the plaintiffs' Hawaiian condo was in a congenial neighborhood and fairly close to the ocean.
Having learned from his search which banks issued mortgages for the plaintiffs' properties, Sezer had subpoenas issued for the plaintiffs' mortgage documents. "This was a treasure trove of information," Sezer says.
In the case of the Arizona townhome, the documents revealed that the plaintiffs had purchased upgrades for, among other things, the largest possible refrigerator and cable outlets for each of the several bedrooms on the upper level. Sezer found this information particularly interesting in light of the wife's testimony at her deposition that she had purchased this property not for herself and her family, but on behalf of her elderly mother so that she would have a convenient place to retire.
She also testified, Sezer says, that the property in Hawaii was actually to be shared with her siblings, who were sharing the cost, and that when Sezer's client terminated her and her husband's employment, they could not afford to pay for it. But the Arizona mortgage documents revealed that the identification she had shown to obtain the mortgage on the Arizona property was her driver's license - issued in Hawaii, with the condo listed as her legal place of residence.
The documents also included bank records showing that the plaintiffs were paying off an American Express bill at the rate of $5,000 per month around the same time that they professed that they could not afford to pay their court filing fees, he says.
Sezer's find just kept getting better. "The judge eventually determined that the plaintiffs' in forma pauperis petition was, to say the least, wrong, because they weren't poor, and gave the wife time to pay our fees plus a civil fine to the court, plus the filing fee, or have her case dismissed with prejudice. She said she needed an extension of time because she was trying to sell the business property and included with her motion the listing to prove they'd put it on the market.
"So I looked up the realtor and found a listing of all agents in the office. One had the same name as the wife's elderly mother who couldn't move around very much and was living in Arizona. I clicked on the link for the name and found a very vibrant woman standing in front of a property, talking about how she sells real estate."
And, through a search of pending cases on the Cook County Circuit Clerk's Web site, Sezer learned that the plaintiffs had filed an action to evict a tenant from the second level of the business building from which they had sworn they derived no income.
The district court ended up dismissing all three lawsuits under 28 USC section 1915(e)(2)(A) as a result of the information Sezer obtained. But, though the result was good for his client, Sezer admits to some disappointment.
"This is contempt of court. The plaintiffs filed a court document and made representations that were absolutely untrue. That's outrageous." By filing false in forma pauperis petitions, he says, the plaintiffs stood to gain substantially, not only through obtaining settlements or verdicts on the substantive allegations of their complaints but also through getting to litigate their claims for free.
"If there are significant advantages to lying to the court, and the consequence of getting found out is that your case gets dismissed but that's it, what's the real disadvantage of at least trying it? There's no downside." And, though his client had resources substantial enough to absorb the litigation costs, Sezer agrees that such costs could present a much more significant blow to the bottom line of small businesses and individual defendants.
Sezer says he's altered his approach to litigation in the wake of that case. "I no longer accept what parties say about peripheral information, such as background or whether they're having a hard time finding new employment, at face value. There's so much that can be so easily checked."
An imperfect history
Lawyers who try Sezer's, Flaming's, and Bazzell's techniques may not find out the innermost secrets of the subjects they research. At a minimum, though, they should be able to find most people and verify the stories their opponents, their witnesses, and even their clients tell them far more easily, and do so at minimal expense.
As Flaming sees it, a litigator's job is to be "an imperfect historian," piecing together a case's story from the documents that exist. He, Sezer, and Bazzell demonstrate that the Internet makes it far easier to become a better historian and far more difficult for anyone to hide or get away with lying about relevant facts.
Helen W. Gunnarsson, a lawyer in Highland Park, is an Illinois Bar Journal contributing writer.
Mike Bazzell. Mike Bazzell lectures on a variety of topics relating to computer crime and investigation. His Web site provides links to software and other websites that he discusses in his presentations, including online resources for finding information about people, at http://www.computercrimeinfo.
com/links.html. He also provides a list of the topics on which he presents, which include Using the Internet to Discover Personal Information and Using the Internet for Background Checks. The site also links to Bazzell's newly started blog.
People-finding sites. Some sites that lawyers and others mention as particularly useful for finding free personal information include pipl.com, 123people.com, and Zabasearch.com. These sites also provide additional information for a fee.
Twitter. Twitter.com has its own search engine. Additionally, tweets are indexed by Google and other search engines.
Search engine evaluations. The University of California at Berkeley evaluates three popular search engines, including Google, at http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/
Google Maps With Street View. Access it at http://maps.google.com/help/maps/streetview/.
Property searching. The Cook County Assessor's office provides photographs and other information about properties in a searchable database at http://www.cookcountyassessor.com/Property_Search/Property_Search.aspx. Lake County provides similar information through the assessor's Web site at http://www.lakecountyil.gov/154/Chief-County-Assessment-Office.
Corporations. Foreign and domestic corporation filings are available to anyone for free at http://www.sec.gov/edgar.shtml. The Illinois Secretary of State provides information for companies registered in Illinois at http://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/business_services/home.html.
Internet Archive. The Internet Archive, at http://www.archive.org/, offers users access to texts, audio, moving images, and software as well as archived Web pages.
PACER. Get an overview of the U.S. courts' PACER system and register for an account, which you'll need to access the U.S. Party/Case Index, at http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/.
Cook County case info. The Clerk of the Circuit Court for Cook County provides case information on line at http://www.cookcountyclerkofcourt.
Proprietary databases. Westlaw, Lexis/Nexis, Fastcase, and LoisLaw (a subsidiary of Wolters Kluwer) all provide access to business intelligence and public records and describe their services, packages, and fees on their Web sites.