36My company frequently receives calls from attorneys or paralegals who want to know what we charge for a “background check.” I have instructed my staff to direct those calls to me personally, since I’ve learned that such a request is equivalent to walking into a Baskin-Robbins and asking for ice cream. This request is always answered by the pimply-faced teenager on the other side of the counter who asks, “What flavor do you like, and do you want a cup or a cone?”

Usually with some brief questions, the attorney or paralegal is able to tell me the specific information he or she is seeking, and we can then establish the scope and budget for the background check.

Background checks defined

A background check is an inquiry into an individual’s (or corporation’s) history, usually with a specific informational objective. The scope of the inquiry is determined by the objective: the larger the objective, the more thorough the inquiry. For instance, if you suspect that your client has not disclosed his complete criminal history, and this information may negatively impact his settlement, you may be looking for the extent of that criminal history. The scope of the inquiry is therefore limited to one individual’s encounters with law enforcement. The inquiry may be widened to include several counties or states, or narrowed to a specific jurisdiction, depending on how transient your client has been.

What about a background check on an expert witness listed by the defendant? I’ve conducted dozens of these investigations and uncovered everything from phony certifications to degrees from diploma “mills” to outstanding warrants for failure to pay child support. My favorite example was a computer “expert” we almost listed in a child pornography case. This individual was a professor at a local accredited university. He supplied us with his curriculum vitae, and in the process of verifying his education I discovered that his master’s degree was issued by an institution in New Orleans. I couldn’t get an answer to my phone calls, and did some newspaper research (this was “B.G.”– before Google). This disclosed that the institution had been shut down by the state of Louisiana after an investigation by the FBI, who charged the founders of the “university” with mail and wire fraud for running a diploma mill! This “expert” had been employed for several years by a well-known local university, which had failed to uncover his fraudulent degree during their own verification.

The proper use of database reports

My experience with clients who ask for a generic “background check” is that in the past they have received a forty to fifty page “report” from an investigator, which consists of nothing more than the printout from a proprietary database (Accurint™, Lexis-Nexis, or ChoicePoint™). This document contains pages of redundant and unverified information, is purchased for a few dollars by the investigator, then marked up substantially and sent to the attorney/paralegal client with an invoice. The client spends several frustrating hours trying to make sense of the confusing entries, then shoves the “report” somewhere into the file and proceeds without the benefit of the information he or she was seeking.

Many of our attorney-clients also have the ability to generate these reports, since the data providers will sell them with limited access to law firms. But licensed investigators receive access to all of the information the databases provide, and invariably there is a substantial difference between what professional investigators receive in a database report, and what paralegals and attorneys receive. Professional investigators also receive ongoing training with the databases at educational seminars and conferences.

Used as an investigative tool rather than a finished product, proprietary database reports are filled with dozens of leads that can be followed to obtain the necessary information for the client. Database reports often contain personal identifiers (dates of birth, truncated Social Security numbers, driver license histories) that can then be used to discover criminal histories, distinguish between individuals with similar names, and identify relatives or associates.

These reports also provide information about possible employers, corporate affiliations, previous crash history, tangible assets like real estate, motor vehicles, or airplanes, and even voter registration. Much of this information will be determined by the limits placed on access to public records by the various state governments: Florida has remarkably open public access through its “government in the sunshine” laws; northeastern states and California offer extremely limited access. Many attorneys and some investigators also utilize the federal court database, PACER. This source provides information on bankruptcies, and federal civil and criminal cases.

Determining the scope

As I discuss the assignment with the client, I try to learn what he or she is looking for. Often the client learns for himself what his needs are during our conversation. Once the objective is established, I can offer some general time parameters that will help the client determine the budget for the assignment. A skilled researcher will then undertake the investigation, beginning with the database report, and following the leads to either locating the specific documents necessary to complete the objective, or conducting interviews with developed witnesses to verify known information or uncover unknown information that might impact the client’s case.

Most background investigations can be conducted via online resources and by telephone. This does not preclude, however, the use of those standard investigative tools: canvassing and interviews, courthouse or municipal research, and surveillance.

Even “simple” assignments can be more complicated than anticipated. If the client was arrested in another state in a rural county, that record may only be available via an in-person request by a records retriever. We once worked a case in which a subject was arrested and charged with lewd and lascivious behavior against a child; the court file disappeared and wasn’t found for two months! In our transient society, some fraudsters can have lawsuits filed against them in several states. And sophisticated or wealthy individuals can have assets placed in various types of trusts, making it time consuming and costly to determine the extent of their wealth.

A written report

Once the investigation and research has been completed, a report must be prepared to document the findings in a readable format so that the client can easily find the key information. Our company utilizes a format that breaks down the developed information into various topics: personal identifiers, criminal/civil history, tangible assets, corporate or employment affiliations, judgments and liens, and other relevant headings. Documents are attached to the report to substantiate the developed information. And finally, we provide a disclaimer, since information is a perishable product, and much of what we produce has been provided to us in a digital format online, without personal verification of the record itself.

We are fortunate to be living in the “information age,” and fortunate indeed to be in Florida where transparency is still valued and our winters are still paradise. Don’t let your clients settle for less than what they deserve because you received inadequate information. Remember that applied information is power, and that information can be packaged and provided in a way that is cost-effective and case-effective.

Mark J. Murnan is a licensed investigator, a certified criminal defense investigator, and a certified fraud examiner. He is the past president of the Florida Association of Licensed Investigators (FALI) and is the president of Complete Legal Investigations, Inc. (www.completelegalinv.com ), with offices in West Palm Beach. His firm works with consumer justice attorneys, family law attorneys and criminal defense attorneys, and NOT for insurance companies. He can be reached by e-mail at mark@completelegalinv.com or by phone at 561-687-8381.