How Do Investigators Find Assets?
Every asset search is unique. There is no cookie-cutter solution or magic database in this business. We have spent many years developing proprietary methods and trusted sources to obtain reliable information on assets and accounts.
As an industry leader, Hudson Intelligence has established effective processes and best practices. Yet our results aren't something you can duplicate with a checklist. Our success comes from our insights and instincts as experienced investigators.
What Sources are Searched?
We conduct extensive searches across multiple asset classes, utilizing a broad range of investigative, credit-related and public record resources, which include:
- Financial Account Information
- Business and Consumer Credit Reports
- Property Deeds and Assessments
- Mortgage Filings
- Tax Returns
- Family and Personal Trusts
- Corporate Records
- Civil Litigation
- U.S. Tax Court Cases
- Bankruptcy Filings
- Mobile and Digital Forensics
- Motor Vehicle Records
- Securities Filings
- Secured Financing Statements (UCC Statements)
- IRS-Registered Pension and Profit-Sharing Plans
- Safe Deposit Boxes
- Auction Records - Fine Art & Antiquities
- Social Media
- Utility Records
- Cryptocurrency Exchanges (Bitcoin Blockchain Analysis)
Certain classes of information – such as property records – are reviewed in nearly all asset searches. Other sources are utilized only under certain conditions.
More specialized avenues of inquiry are pursued when warranted by the circumstances of a particular case. The number and nature of sources we utilize will be determined upon consultation with the client and as new leads are developed during the course of the investigation.
Financial Account Information
We utilize proprietary methods and third-party sources, both foreign and domestic, to obtain information on bank, brokerage, and mutual fund accounts. We obtain this information in a legal and ethical manner. Our investigators abide by all applicable state and federal laws, including the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA), which prohibits “pretexting” of individuals or financial institutions to obtain account information. We also adhere to the requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which sets strict guidelines for the review and disclosure of consumer credit reports.
Banks are required to comply with mandatory “Know Your Customer” (KYC) regulations, intended to prevent financial institutions from being used for money laundering, criminal activity or terrorist financing. These compliance requirements were instituted in the USA Patriot Act (2001), as well as other federal and foreign laws, including the Money Laundering Regulations (2007) in the United Kingdom. Consequently, banks have increased their due diligence on accountholders through customer identification programs and transactional monitoring. They have also improved processes for gathering and disseminating information between institutions. For example, there are check-verification systems used by the majority of banks in the U.S. that share information on high-risk accounts, fraudulent activity, and non-sufficient funds (NSF) history. These risk-monitoring systems are also accessible, under certain circumstances, to qualified non-bank parties and are resources we may utilize during an investigation to identify financial accounts.
New and alternative financial accounts such as online payments (e.g., PayPal) and crypto-currency exchanges (e.g., Bitcoin) are also areas that can be explored when appropriate.
Once active financial accounts have been identified through a comprehensive asset search, further details on transactional history and account status should be obtained through legal discovery and collection efforts. The account information in our reports is provided with a very high degree of confidence; if that information is intended to be presented as evidence in court, then statements obtained directly from the financial institution are a preferable form of documentary proof, and must be obtained by subpoena.
Subpoenas and/or bank levies can be served upon the financial institution(s) as soon as the investigation is complete. Account statements should be obtained for a period of at least 24 months, and reviewed for major purchases, suspicious transfers, or any pattern of significant cash withdrawals.
In a comprehensive asset investigation, we conduct a nationwide search to identify all real property owned by the subject. If the subject is an individual, we will also identify parcels owned by his/her spouse. In a corporate asset investigation, we may search for property owned by subsidiaries and close affiliates.
Our research includes manual searches of records at the County Tax Assessor, County Recorder / Register of Deeds, and County Clerk’s Offices in all areas where the subject has recently resided and done business. The local county-level research is supplemented by queries of national indexes of property deeds and assessment records.
When appropriate, the scope of the search can be expanded to include properties owned by a subject’s privately owned business or other corporate entities, such as shell corporations or special-purpose LLCs.
We typically conduct title searches for every property owned by the subject, to identify the full extent of financing, tax liens and other encumbrances. Determining the amount of mortgage debt enables us to estimate the equity, an important factor for calculating net worth. Evaluating other encumbrances – particularly priority claims such as federal tax liens or secured loans – can assist creditors in determining if it will be worthwhile to file a judgment lien. Assets that are owned outright, with clear title and no liens, are preferable for collection purposes.
In addition to current properties, we also identify all parcels that have been sold, transferred or otherwise divested by the subject within the past five years. Transfer history can reveal fraudulent conveyances and other financial relationships, particularly when evaluated in the context of litigation timelines. For example, if the debtor in a recent judgment subsequently transfers ownership of a property to a new LLC formed by his wife – or if he sells the property to his business partner for a nominal sum – these assets may be recoverable by the judgment creditor, pending approval by the court.
Family and Personal Trusts
Trusts are established for asset preservation and estate planning. Although the trustee often holds title to the trust property, assets that are placed into the trust thereafter belong to the trust itself, not the trustee, and are subject to the rules and terms of the trust contract. A revocable trust, or living trust, allows the person who made the trust (also known as the “settlor” or “grantor”) to later transfer property from the trust during his/her lifetime. By contrast, the terms of an irrevocable trust are permanent and cannot be changed or revoked. Within these two main categories – revocable and irrevocable – there are many different models, such as asset protection trust, charitable trust, Totten trust, constructive trust, tax by-pass trust, and spendthrift trust.
Different trusts confer varying degrees of asset protection from creditors. Generally, if a beneficiary can demand payment from a trust, then that beneficiary’s creditors can similarly demand payment. Moreover, if the settlor of the trust is also the beneficiary, then creditors may pursue claims against the assets of the trust.
Trust documents are typically prepared by an attorney and are not considered a matter of public record. Yet when a trust takes ownership of a tangible asset, the existence of the trust is revealed in the title records. Additional information on the terms of the trust can also be extrapolated from these records. For example, when a trust acquires real property, the warranty deed will identify the trustee who executed the instrument on behalf of the trust. Additionally, if the title of the trust includes a suffix such as UDT (under declaration of trust) or UA (under agreement), these designations indicate whether the settlor and the trustee are the same party.
Tax filings are a valuable source of information on assets and income sources. Copies of tax filings can be obtained through legal discovery in litigation, including post-judgment discovery and debtor exams. Tax transcripts can also be requested directly from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under certain circumstances. For example, if an asset search is conducted during a divorce, either spouse can contact the IRS to obtain copies of their prior joint returns or tax transcripts. We typically advise clients in divorce cases to obtain copies of tax filings for at least the past five years. Except with a subpoena or the voluntary consent of the taxpayer, private investigators do not have the authority or permissible purpose to independently obtain copies of tax returns.
Federal and state returns provide an overview of income-generating investments, asset sales, business interests, and relationships with financial institutions. Federal law requires reporting of income from investments such as interest, dividends, and rental income. This includes income from foreign accounts and foreign asset protection trusts (Schedule B, Interest and Dividend Income, Lines 11 and 12). If capital gains or losses are reported for sales of stocks, the tax filings will identify the institutions where those investments are held. Tax filings also describe: proceeds from selling a business (Form 4797); supplemental income from partnerships, S corporations, estates and trusts (Schedule E); and miscellaneous itemized deductions, such as expenses for estate planning and safe deposit boxes (Schedule A).
Identifying business interests, shell corporations, partnerships and special-purpose limited liability companies can be a critical part of an asset investigation. Searches are conducted with the Secretary of State to determine whether the investigative subject has been ever been identified in corporate filings as an incorporator, officer, director, agent, member, manager of any business entities.
These searches proceed on a state-by-state basis, initially focusing on areas where the subject has lived and worked in the past. There are several states that do not provide a searchable index of corporate officers, directors and agents, thereby protecting business owners and investors from public disclosure. Principals and agents in these states can still be effectively identified during an asset investigation, through proprietary investigative databases with nationwide coverage that compile and cross-reference corporate filings.
Frequently, these searches then expand to other jurisdictions that are popular domiciles for corporations and investment vehicles, due to low tax rates and business-friendly laws. More than half of U.S. publicly traded companies are incorporated in Delaware, while many small private companies are domiciled in Nevada and Wyoming by out-of-state owners.
These domestic ‘tax havens’ also afford other privacy protections. In Delaware, for example, the Division of Corporations does not request, require or store any information regarding the members and managers of limited liability companies. There are also “nominee officer” services in Nevada that allow business owners to form companies under the name of a paid representative – a straw man who has no operational authority – so that the actual principals can operate anonymously. Fortunately, for an experienced investigator, decreased transparency does not preclude the possibility of identifying beneficial ownership of a corporate entity. If an anonymous entity from a tax haven seeks to conduct business in another state, it will typically be required to provide more details on its principals when applying for commercial authority in that state. Additionally, when otherwise anonymous companies acquire tangible assets, such as real property, the transaction instruments – such as titles and financing agreements – are often executed by an officer or member/manager. Certain individuals attempting to shield personal assets will park funds in accounts held by an anonymous LLC, but if they use their social security number as a corporate tax identification number, those corporate affiliations – and the business accounts – become potentially discoverable through our methods and sources. To read more about identifying business assets and affiliations, including strategies to pierce the corporate veil, visit: asset.expert/business
In addition to identifying the extent of debts and liabilities, diligent searches for civil litigation can yield record of business interests, income sources, insurance coverage, inheritances, contracts and other assets. Notices of past garnishments will also yield account information. Domestic and commercial lawsuits, in particular, reveal valuable insights pertaining to personal and professional relationships. Cases filed in bankruptcy, probate, or tax court offer other kinds of valuable insights.
To locate all cases of significance, thorough reviews are conducted of local court indexes and case dockets. These searches cover all federal, state and county court venues in jurisdictions where the subject has resided within the past decade.
Motor Vehicle Records
Among the most basic sources of asset information are state-level vehicle registries, such as passenger and commercial vehicles titled through the Department of Motor Vehicles and watercraft registrations with the Department of Natural Resources. Private aircraft are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration.
High-net-worth individuals are not the only ones with luxury vehicles that may be of interest to litigants and creditors. Collections of expensive cars, private planes, speedboats, and other conspicuous displays of consumption can be a red flag for financial fraud – or a precursor to personal bankruptcy. Even vehicles of modest value can be of significance in an asset investigation, particularly if the title records indicate a pattern of suspicious transfers. For example, if a defendant who has been served with court papers abruptly assigns ownership of his Harley Davidson to his 80-year-old mother, there are reasonable grounds to suspect he may have transferred other assets, including funds from his bank accounts. Providing evidence of vehicle title transfers – especially transfers that occurred after litigation is filed or a judgment awarded – could persuade a court to grant permission to a judgment creditor to expand discovery and collection efforts to include subpoenas of financial accounts of the recipient(s) of any fraudulent conveyances.
If an individual is found to have no vehicles registered under their own name, these negative results can also be a significant finding in an asset investigation. Surveillance may be an appropriate next step to determine their method of day-to-day travel. If a judgment debtor is determined to have exclusive and repeated use of a car titled to another person, this could support an argument that the vehicle is, in fact, their personal asset, which has been registered to another party solely in an attempt to forestall creditors. Presenting such evidence to a court may open further avenues for post-judgment discovery and collection.
Nationwide Scope of Investigation
At the outset of every asset search, we compile a comprehensive list of all addresses reported for the subject during his/her adult lifetime. We review credit headers, bank headers, property records and other sources such as voter registrations, court records, motor vehicles, employment history and social media. We create a list of all cities, counties and states where the individual has resided or worked – which effectively becomes a target-rich roadmap for locating assets and accounts.
The majority of every investigation is conducted by our team of expert analysts and financial investigators. In situations that require additional investigative assistance in the field – for example, for surveillance or document acquisition in other states – we also leverage our network of trusted partners and licensed investigators, based on relationships in the U.S. and abroad we have built over the past 20 years.
Initiating an Investigation
At the beginning of every asset search, we request basic information regarding the identity and background of the individual or company to be investigated.
We do not require much information. Typically, the subject’s name and recent address – or another identifier, such as phone number or birth date – are all we need to get started. If more details are available, let us know. We prefer to have all known information on file before beginning the investigation, so that we can move forward as efficiently as possible, and can focus our efforts on identifying undisclosed and previously unknown assets.
Consult an Investigator
If you would like to discuss an asset search, please complete the form below and let us know how we can assist. You can also speak with an investigator by contacting our offices at 800-580-8755.