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Online Asset Search

Sep 2, 2008
Occasionally in life it really helps to be able to find out what somebody's worth financially, i.e, to conduct an asset search. For example, maybe you're considering going into business with somebody, or maybe you're becoming romantically involved with him/her.

Whatever the reason, you'll be glad to learn that, thanks to the Web, it's now easier than ever before to get an accurate gauge on somebody's net financial worth. Asset search is a somewhat complicated subject but I can hit the high points in this brief Guide -- you'll learn enough to do some informed research, anyway. If you want to go beyond what I tell you here, you'll probably need a good P.I., or maybe if there's a lot at stake (as in a major court case) a forensic accountant.

First, let me emphasize there's nothing especially unethical about conducting an asset investigation, assuming you play by the rules. You can not, for example, use what's called "pretexting" to determine how much money somebody's got in the bank or in a brokerage account (i.e., masquerade over the telephone as the account holder). This is illegal. It's important to respect your subject's privacy and state and federal privacy laws like the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

OK, so how do you go about conducting an asset search? Your first step is to positively identify your subject. Since you're going to be accessing public records and other database sources, it's vital that you know the person's basic identifiers, namely his/her name (with middle name or initial) and date of birth, at an absolute minimum. Knowing the social security number is usually helpful, and the person's address history (one or more of his/her past addresses).

A few sources of date of birth info are criminal and civil records (at subject's local County Courthouse), and voter's registration records (also at Courthouse). Sometimes you can get the information by placing a polite, patient call to the County Clerk's office. For a list of these offices nationwide with phone numbers and website addresses, try this site: http://backgroundcheckgateway.com/statelist.html

Note that many of these county sources can also be used to locate a social security number. However, if you happen to know the person's full name/address, date of birth, and one or two past addresses, that's enough to begin your research. One other possibility is Professional Directories. For example, if your subject is a lawyer, doctor, or stockbroker, check Directories in Print or Who's Who, among many others, at your local library.

By the way, don't overlook the plain old telephone book to get addresses, or just call directory information service.

Now, assuming you can positively identify your subject via name/address/DOB/SSN etc., what's your next step? Begin by checking the basic sources, as follows:

Online sources: First, try PRetrieve.com. This website will supply name, past cities, and names of relatives for free, plus -- for a small fee -- background info including property ownership, home values, bankruptcies, judgments, etc. This site was recently bought by Intelius, so if you prefer you can just go directly to the Intelius website.

You should be aware that there are two basic kinds of assets, real assets (real estate, mainly) and financial assets (bank and brokerage accounts, etc.). The former are usually documented in public records and are relatively easy to find; the latter are not public record and you usually can't legally locate them without a signed release from the subject or a court subpoena. The one exception is if your subject has been involved in a court case, such as a divorce or bankruptcy. If so, you're in luck, as these case filings are public records. So one of the first things to check out is civil records in all counties you know of where your subject has lived. If you want to hire someone to do this for you, try Intelius or US Search.com -- their coverage is nationwide.

What about your subject's occupational/professional information? Determining where he/she works and at what profession or job can be a real challenge, especially if the person is more or less a stranger to you. Of course if you know the person, you probably also know if they're a lawyer, doctor, police officer, bartender, or whatever. Then it's just a matter of estimating what someone in that profession or occupation typically earns in their specific part of the country.

A very good source for this is the US Department of Labor's Area Wage Survey. You may also wish to check American Salaries and Wages, published by Gale Research, Inc. Incidentally, if you have no idea what the person does, this may be revealed in his/her voter's registration record, available for most U.S. adults at the local County Courthouse, and this is public information. While you're there check criminal records, civil records, and traffic violations -- all are also public records which may reveal the person's occupation. Finally, you may wish to call the Secretary of State in his/her State of residence and ask for a name search, to determine if he/she is a corporate owner or executive there.

Vehicles. Let's face it, the make of car your subject drives tells a lot financially. If he/she drives a Hyundai, that's one thing. If a Lexus or Porsche, that's another. Remember, in asset investigating, you'll never know exactly what your subject's financial worth is. Your goal is simply to gain a basis for making an informed guess, and if he/she owns a luxury car and also a large boat, you can bet the person is doing pretty well for him/herself financially. To search for cars and boats, I suggest you use one of my recommended information brokers (See Section II, below) as they can do this almost instantly, and if you try to do it yourself it could be a major hassle. While they are doing this, I suggest you also have them search for UCC Filings (financial instruments which describe pledged collateral) and Tax Liens and Bankruptcies (either of which is a strong indication of financial difficulties).

News sources. The Web makes it so easy nowadays to search local newspapers you might as well run your subject's name and see if there have been any write-ups about him/her. Maybe you'll find your subject has attracted news attention because they've been promoted to vice president at a local company, or because they've been sued for fraud, or for some other reason. It's definitely worth a try. Go to NewsLibrary.com, Newspapers.com, or a similar site, to run the searches.

Tricks of the Trade

In the space remaining I'll mention a few of the inside tricks and artful dodges you should know about. Just using the resources mentioned above, you can usually get a fairly good read on your subject's financial situation. To probe even deeper be aware of the following methods:

Bogus Assets. Sometimes people claim to own stocks or securities which are not publicly traded. Some claim to own shares in limited partnerships which don't exist. In your research, bear in mind that all assets claimed are not necessarily real. If you suspect this situation, say, in the context of a legal proceeding, then you're wading into deep financial water (likely over your head) and I advise you to seek the expert help of a NASD (National Association of Securities Dealers) agent to review your subject's financial statements.

The Paydown. Individuals who want to hide assets (e.g., in a divorce proceeding) sometimes pay down home mortgages or other major bills -- they may even stash funds in universal life insurance policies or annuities, collectibles, safe deposit boxes, or collectibles. Overpayments to the IRS are not unheard of! Some will just go out and buy traveler's checks or cashier's checks and hide them under the mattress. Detecting hidden assets is an art in itself, and if you suspect this may be the case, I suggest hiring a good CPA. with experience in this field (it's called forensic accounting). You're not likely to ferret out hidden assets on your own.

Dumpster Diving. I myself would never sink this low, of course, but you should be know that a favorite P.I. trick is to steal your garbage from in front of your house then rifle through it looking for bank statements, purchase orders, old invoices, airline tickets to the Cayman Islands, phone bills, etc. This is legal as long as the garbage is out in the street by the curb.

Background Players. If your subject is attempting to hide assets, he/she will often put some or all of their holdings in somebody else's name, usually in the name of the spouse. So for a complete investigation, you need to search relatives' assets, as well, particularly the spouse's assets. And keep in mind he/she may have hidden assets under the names of non-relatives, such as associates, or may be manipulating assets via "sweetheart lawsuits" (a trusted friend sues him/her, then turns the proceeds of the lawsuit over to him under the table).

Dumpster Diving. I myself would never sink this low, of course, but you should be know that a favorite P.I. trick is to steal your garbage from in front of your house then rifle through it looking for bank statements, purchase orders, old invoices, airline tickets to the Cayman Islands, phone bills, etc. This is legal as long as the garbage is out in the street by the curb.

As said, this is a complicated subject, and I've just barely touched on the main themes in this article. For a detailed treatment of the subject, I recommend How to Do Financial Asset Investigations by Ronald L. Mendell, C.L.I., available through Amazon.
About the Author
Joseph Ryan is Director of Washington Research Associates, Inc., Washington DC. The firm's website, Web Search Guides provides helpful 10-minute tutorials on topics of current interest, such as identity theft, asset-searching, people searching, identity theft, and many others.
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