In this chapter:
- Who Acquires Information
- Internal Records
- Private Records
- Public Records
- The Internet and Search Engines
A potentially important source of information in many fraud investigations is court records. From the book:
Civil and criminal court records are widely available on a local, state, and federal level. More information is becoming accessible online, but most jurisdictions limit their online information to general case information, including parties, attorneys, dates of hearings and motions, and results of the cases. To get the actual filings and documents, unsealed court records must often be requested in person at courthouses across the country. The federal court system does offer copies of filings online, accessed through PACER (Public Access to Electronic Court Records) for a minimal per-page charge.
It is always a good idea to contact the clerk of courts to see whether records can be obtained without having to go to the courthouse, especially if it is in another city or state. Sometimes the clerk can send, fax, or e-mail documents if proper payment arrangements are made and the local rules allow for it. In areas in which records can be provided only in-person, consider contacting a company that contracts out those services so you are not forced to go there yourself.
Civil court records can help establish relationships between people and companies, and can provide information on business operations and financial conditions of individuals and companies. They might provide clues to a person’s financial situation and potential troubles, such as divorces, child support, judgments, repossessions, or foreclosures. These kinds of cases can contain a wealth of personal and financial information that might help shed light on your investigation. A history of lawsuits could indicate something about a person’s past business and personal relationships and patterns that may be material to an investigation.
It is important to search more than just an individual’s name or a company’s name when researching civil court records. Search for records for related parties (relatives, friends, co-workers, known business associates) to see whether there is anything found pertinent to your investigation. The most relevant information will likely be found in court records tied directly to the person under investigation, but it never hurts to check related parties.
Probate court records detail the happenings after a person dies and assets are being divided, sometimes with a will and sometimes without a will. The records that will be most useful in a fraud investigation concern the distribution of assets, providing not only information about potential financial issues, but also potential motives behind disputes between people. These records may also contain information about relationships between people and business entities.
Criminal court records are important to show the criminal history of an individual. Offenses can range from traffic tickets and ordinance violations to misdemeanors and felonies. It is not a good idea to draw too many conclusions from the type of charge or even what the charge was called. Details of situations and people involved can play a big part in how an offense is charged and whether a plea is offered. It is important to look at actual court documents to determine the details of the situation if the information from the criminal records is going to play a part in your investigation and conclusions.
Imagine how embarrassing it could be to draw a conclusion based on what the charge was called, only to find out that the situation giving rise to the charges was quite different from what you assumed. As an example, there are many situations in which a defendant pleads guilty to disorderly conduct. This ordinance violation or criminal charge is often used by law enforcement as a catch-all when other more specific laws do not address a situation or there are other circumstances that warrant it. A fraud investigator can’t assume that the situation involved a brawl or other physical altercation, when the fact remains that the situation could be anything from a traffic accident to threatening phone calls. Police reports and court records are critical in determining what actually happened in a situation.
Bankruptcy court records will show all the creditors of an individual or business and the amounts owed to them. Assets owned at the time of the bankruptcy filing will also be listed, and sometimes substantial detail is included. These records aid in analyzing the financial status of a person or company, and may also give clues to relationships between businesses and people.
Other relevant court records that are increasingly more widely available on the Internet include tax court, naturalization court, and a variety of hearing boards. When looking for unusual types of court records, do not give up easily. There are so many court records available online, although sometimes they are not easy to find. Search high and low before giving up. When searching online court records, be sure that you are aware of what is and is not included in the database you are using. Sometimes a particular type of case might be excluded from the online records, and you may need to know that. There may also be a particular jurisdiction not included in the records, or cases prior to a particular date may not be available.
Also be careful when relying on court records gathered online. Many websites have disclaimers about accuracy. Depending on how you intend to use the records you find, it might be worthwhile to request copies of the actual records from the court in order to verify what you have found online. Do not assume just because a search has not turned up any records that there are not any records for the person or business in question. Consider the effect of misspellings or name changes, as well as the possibility that errors in record keeping might prevent you from finding certain records.