For anyone who has ever tried to play pool, it quickly becomes obvious that the best way to get the ball in the pocket isn’t always the most direct.

If there’s another ball in the way or the angle doesn’t work, redirecting the ball off one of the cushions can be the best option. Even if you need to hit the ball without banking it, you may need to strike it on the side instead of straight on. In either case, you’re not looking at the goal but at the indirect means of reaching of the goal.

We’ve been writing for years about meta-thinking: how to look for the things that will get you the thing you want. Don’t google for the lawyer in New York, google for the body that licenses lawyers you’ll be able to look at their list (which isn’t fully indexed by Google). See our posts Meta Searching for Fake Royals and Surprise! Google is There to Make Money. There’s also my book, The Art of Fact Investigation.

I thought of indirect investigation yesterday when in group discussion of lawyers and accountants, we were asked to talk about the moment we knew we were good at our jobs.

Find a Lawyer in Liberia Without a Liberian Website. Go!

My moment came in my first job after law school when my new company asked me to find them a lawyer in Liberia. The country was largely destroyed after years of warfare and there was no workable phone system there.

I found them a lawyer in about an hour. Instead of looking in Liberia or anywhere in Africa, I found a former Liberian president living in the U.S. Midwest where he was teaching at a university.

In Liberia he had been a big shot, but here he was in the phonebook and picked up his home land line at lunchtime. Of course he knew lawyers in Liberia and informed me that they were all using cell phones from Ghana. He recommended two, gave me their numbers, and within two days we had hired one and paid him by wire. Our documents arrived by courier the next week. It sounds simple enough, but nobody else had thought of it.

And How Were You Spelling That?

Another example from the same company a few months later: They had done an interview with someone who recommended talking to a former employee with a very long Italian surname.

The interviewee didn’t’ know how to spell the name, which contained three vowels that, based on pronunciation, could have been a’s, e’s i’s or u’s. There were consonants that could have been single or double. It would have cost a fortune to run databases on all the permutations, which is why they hadn’t found him.

I decided to play around with the permutations in the Social Security Death Index (free), figuring that certain combinations would be rare and certain ones very common. I found the guy with the second-most common possible spelling and we reached him by phone immediately. This after months of fruitless googling.

Sometimes, the bank shot is the way to go.

Investigators are in the business of gathering evidence. Beyond gathering, there is the equally important job of analyzing. Good fact gatherers need to report on evidence but also where it comes from and how reliable it may be.

Evidence was my favorite law school course by far (so perhaps not surprising I work with evidence for a living). What I remember from about day one was my wonderful teacher and future colleague Peter Tillers reminding us that for something to be evidence, it doesn’t have to be very good evidence at all. Just a little bit of a nudge to push knowledge forward will be enough.

If someone says they saw something, that’s evidence. It could be rock solid, it could be garbage. In court, that’s for the finder of fact – jury or judge – to figure out. (Fed. Rules of Evidence 104(b):  “When the relevance of evidence depends on whether a fact exists, proof must be introduced sufficient to support a finding that the fact does exist. The court may admit the proposed evidence on the condition that the proof be introduced later.”)

When we do our due diligence work for investors, we never come out and say in a report, “this man is a liar” or “we doubt the reliability of her resume.” Instead, we present the evidence and let the reader decide.

A CFO says he has an advanced degree from Caltech. We can’t check that with Caltech without his permission, but we notice that databases never have a single address for him in California, despite the claimed degree and a few jobs before and after. Could the person really have the degree?

Of course. He could be a scrupulously private person who kept his Chicago cell phone the whole time, lived with family in Pasadena and never got any mail or deliveries in California while studying there. It’s up to our client to ask more questions, or maybe to let us interview a few professors to see if this guy was ever enrolled in their small and selective program. If so, did he graduate?

Evidence also comes from omissions – the hardest thing to program computers to spot. If someone has a 1.5 year gap between their M.A. and their first job, that could mean  a variety of things: Time taken to travel, time spent at a seminary but ultimately deciding not to enter the clergy (we’ve seen it), or the inability to get a job because of bad recommendations. Most commonly, it means leaving a first job off the resume because it wasn’t very interesting or impressive, and it was 20 years ago.

Where evidence comes from is something the rules care a lot about. Even non-lawyers tend to know about the concept of hearsay being excluded – something that the person testifying doesn’t have first-hand knowledge about. But anyone who has taken evidence knows there are many exceptions to the rule.

One is a recording made in an ordinarily conducted activity (Rule 803 (6)). Here is a list of passengers who took flight 5644 on Feb. 8 last year. As long as the airline says it’s a genuine list, you don’t need an eyewitness to say that the people on the list probably took the flight in order to admit the list. The theory is that the airline automatically produces these lists thousands of times a day. There’s not likely to be any special effort to include Mr. Jones on this list if he didn’t really fly.

Compare that to a Dun & Bradstreet report about a company. Who fills out the information about the size of the company’s payroll? It’s annual sales? Mr. Jones provides the numbers if he owns the company. That is not like an airline manifest. It’s much more open to manipulation. It’s evidence, but of a very different quality.

The same goes for a LinkedIn Profile. Indispensable if you want to know what someone wants you to think about their career trajectory. But you need to remember they can leave out anything they want. They can stretch a few dates to cover inconvenient periods of unemployment following a firing, and shove an honorary doctorate into educational qualifications that, at first glance, can look like they have a PhD. (We’ve seen all this too).

It’s all evidence, of course, but it’s up to us to help guide our clients through it so that after proper consideration, they can give it the weight they think it deserves.


Most of us in the business can remember clients who call us to say something like, “We’ve done some pretty serious Googling, so you probably won’t find anything.” We had a prospective client some years ago who said exactly those words, and I wrote them down at the time.

It got to the point that I decided to write a book, The Art of Fact Investigation, so that I could put down in writing — and in detail — why the most serious-minded Google search is never enough.

But I’ve noticed something else over the years about people who decide to do their own fact-finding. Some of them don’t take it seriously enough. That is, it sometimes gets assigned to junior personnel, and it’s not given the weight of being a full-time task.

If you’re a serious litigator, would you prepare for a major cross-examination or closing arguments while keeping an eye on a football game, maybe handling some email at the same time? If you’re a financial advisor, would you look over a prospective $2 million portfolio in these circumstances? If you’re a mediator, would you mediate with the TV on, or in between more important things to do?

Certainly not, yet a lot of people treat deep investigation this way. I blame Google.

Google is a marvelous tool, but so is the hammer. You can’t build a house with just a hammer, but you need a hammer to build a house. You need Google in any investigation, but you need more.

The easiest way to explain why is to consider the difference between what Google can find and what is on the deep web. Not the dark web, where criminals (but also whistleblowers) lurk. The dark web is a small part of the deep web, which is the part of the internet that Google won’t index: Password-protected stuff such as your bank account, but also plenty of free information that still requires a login.

You want to know how much George Jones paid for that house in Jefferson County? It won’t be on Google. It will be on the county’s website. You use Google to get the county’s website, and then you work on that website to see the information. You may need to pay for it, you may need to send someone to the recorder’s office to get the documents, or it may be free. But it’s not on Google.

The same is true of most litigation if you want to see who has sued Jones, professional licenses (if you want to see whether Jones has misbehaved as a doctor), securities filings, and social media.

Serious Googling is start. But if you stop there, you’re really not serious at all about doing a diligent search.

Listen to Philip Segal on The Investigation Game Podcast.

Check our other blog, The Divorce Asset Hunter.

In a partially hilarious, partially disturbing article this week in The Wall Street Journal, “Facebook Has No Sense of Humor,” the Editor in Chief of the satirical website The Babylon Bee related that two patently ridiculous “news” stories had recently been fact-checked by Snopes: The Onion’s “Shelling From Royal Caribbean’s M.S. ‘Allure’ Sinks Carnival Cruise Vessel That Crossed Into Disputed Waters” and the Babylon Bee’s “Ocasio-Cortez Appears on ‘The Price Is Right,’ Guesses Everything Is Free.”

They made me laugh, but then came the more troubling part. The Babylon Bee story headlined “Senator Hirono Demands ACB Be Weighed Against a Duck to See If She Is a Witch” was blocked by the robots at Facebook because the Monty-Python referenced line “we must burn her” appeared in the body of the article.

The real problem for me came after the Bee alerted Facebook to the supposed mistake made by its robots, which had generated a warning that the “incitement to violence” could bring further repercussions if repeated. The Bee appealed to Facebook, but to no avail.

We are the first to argue that robots aren’t really that smart – rather they are amoral and very quick at doing mindless drudgery – as we’ve argued in Artificial Intelligence: Good and Evil All at Once, Just Like its Creators.[i]

This blog doesn’t really give a toss about Facebook. It’s a useful investigatory tool as far as it goes, but if Facebook were to disappear tomorrow, no tears would be shed around here. That its robots weren’t overruled by people with good sense is the better reason not to trust Facebook’s human judges of propriety or morality.

So why should a good investigator have a sense of humor? The same reason, broadly that an investigator needs empathy, just as we said on our companion blog recently. Empathy lets you make better guesses about what someone may do next or may have done previously. Humor is useful because the people we look at also have senses of humor. It’s useful the way empathy is, for filtering purposes as above, and also because humor is a great way to put people you are interviewing at ease. Not always, but when warranted.

If you act like a machine, your results will be as good as a machine’s, but you will get them a lot more slowly than a machine would have.

Where is the value (and fun) in that?

[i] In a full law review article, I argue that artificial intelligence brings a lot of promising tools to investigators, but not because it can investigate for us. Rather, AI can comb through the mountains of new data being created hourly. Before long, we will be able to search transcripts of podcasts and YouTube videos, for example. [Legal Jobs in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Moving from Today’s Limited Universe of Data Toward the Great Beyond. Savannah Law Review, Vol. 5, No.1 (2017).]

The big guys have been going bankrupt, but the real carnage is yet to come:. Among America’s small businesses. Potential creditors need to get organized for the fight which appears to have been kicked off in New York this month with a fascinating case.

We have seen the big names going down including JC Penney, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus. Many were weak anyway but some that just could not survive being shut down completely for months. The list is at

But what about the smaller businesses that seemed to be doing fine before this happened? And what of their landlords that the businesses hope will help absorb the losses?

For those of us who get involved in asset identification before and during litigation, these are important concerns. Now, a case that could set a precedent for businesses looking to get out of their leases is before a federal judge in New York. It was reported in The New York Times.

An art gallery paying $54,000 a month moved out early when New York shut down in March. It claimed the lease was rendered null and void and that it should have its deposit back, on the basis of frustration of purpose or impossibility of performance.

The case is Venus Over Manhattan Art LLC v. 980 Madison Owner LLC, 1:20-cv-03838, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, filed May 18, 2020.

The gallery claims it cannot have the 500-person openings it needs to because of the shutdown – therefore it is impossible to operate its business. Alternatively, it argues that the purpose of the lease has been frustrated by government edicts, and that it should be released from its contract. It also wants its $365,000 deposit back.

There are a number of possible outcomes:

  1. The case could easily settle. If the gallery wants to survive, it could accept a new lease for less money and apply some of the deposit seized by the landlord to a new deposit, with the rest of the money being used as credit for the new lower rent. This seems like the most likely.
  2. Tenant wins. If a government shutdown because of a pandemic means any business that was closed can get out of a lease, it is a crisis for commercial landlords all over the state (a crisis even bigger than the cash flow one they already have, that is). Landlords could follow some of their larger tenants into chapter 11 bankruptcies.
  3. Landlord wins. If the landlord is content to keep the deposit and rent the space out to someone else, that is one thing. If the landlord decides to hold the tenant to the terms of the lease, it will need to be able to seize or garnish assets that the tenant has. What assets does an art gallery have? You need to investigate.

Also at issue in the case is that in addition to the obligation of the tenant, there was a personal  guarantee that the rent would be paid. The lawsuit does not specify who gave the guarantee, but if the landlord wins, he will not only be able to go after the gallery but also that guarantor. What the guarantor has is also something to be investigated.

The time to look for assets is now. Of course, under the concept of fraudulent conveyance, once the tenant sues the landlord, the tenant cannot transfer assets out of his company in the event that he loses and needs to hand them over. If he loses, those assets can be taken back by the court if he transferred them around the time he sued to get out of the lease. This is called a constructive trust.

Still, it is easier to identify assets now, before he can transfer them to a different name.

As for the guarantor, he may be able to plead that he had no notice of the lawsuit and that his assets are freely transferable. That is an argument that could work. But if it does not, a forward-thinking landlord would want to be able to identify the assets now in the event he needs to go after them to collect.


For more on asset searches, check out our firm’s other blog, The Divorce Asset Hunter.

We always like to say that when we find out about a person, we do so without invading their privacy. That can still mean we find out a lot of things about them that they would rather keep secret, but those facts are derived from what we can legally look at: legal records, mortgages and deeds, secured debts, media reports and social media,

There can also be interviews, but not with people who are represented by counsel and talking to whom would violate rules of professional responsibility governing lawyers.

Like everyone else, I have been thinking about how the current worldwide lockdowns will change my business.

In many cases, the answer is not at all. Throughout the current lockdowns, we have continued to do due diligence, profile litigants, find people to interview and search for assets.

One way things may change will be a curiosity about a person’s exposure to the Covid-19 virus. Eight weeks ago any kind of snooping around about a person’s medical history would have sent up a flare for me. I would have been worried about violating strict records about medical secrecy. Hipaa (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) has been such a ferocious piece of legislation in its protection of medical history that I barely got asked to violate it.

Contrast that with the Gramm Leach Bliley Act that protects the confidentiality of bank records. Lawyers ask for these without a court order all the time, and we of course decline.

It is only four years since the major controversy over whether the government could force Apple to crack the iPhone of the man who shot 14 people to death in San Bernardino, California. Many Americans took the view that even if cracking the phone could help prevent a co-conspirator from shooting more people, the cost to privacy was too great. The Washington Post reported on two of the polls on the issue. Part of the difference in responses was due to the way the question was asked. But unquestionably, millions of Americans did not want the government going into a terrorist’s phone in case their phones would be next.

Now today, privacy advocates are having second thoughts. Even as The New York Times thundered in an editorial that we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our privacy to fight the corona virus, the paper’s privacy advocate Charlie Warzel is reconsidering his fear of government tracking us through our phones. He hates the idea that private companies can track us (though that is because we let them), but he is not sure about the government tracking us if there is a public health reason for doing so.[i]

My own view is that getting a targeted ad is probably less threatening to my liberty than a permanent government record of where I have been and with whom I have been associating. Advertising clients have anonymized data about us, whereas the government would keep records of our names. Ad blockers can eliminate ads but if phone companies tell the government where we are every second, that is not something we can easily prevent without deciding to give up cell phones.

It is easy to say, “prevent disease and protect privacy,” but how? The Wall Street Journal editorialized:

Planning for the next phase of the pandemic will also heighten concerns and conflict over civil liberties… Testing may be mandatory. Contact tracing may mean government tracking of cellphone data. How much privacy are individuals willing to forfeit for a virus that increasingly appears to pose little danger to a large percentage of the U.S. population? … Ultimately, we may not be able to escape the “immunity passports” that Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cited as a possibility “under certain circumstances.”

The relaxation of Hippa is underway, although supposedly temporarily, outlined here by Fox Rothschild.

But if enough people decide that more intrusive record keeping is warranted to prevent another outbreak from spreading, will yesterday’s standard of medical privacy ever return?

There is no agreement among even western democracies of what constitutes reasonable privacy. Europeans are aghast at the notion that a couple’s divorce agreement is a matter of public record in some U.S. states. Americans look at you blankly when you tell them that a person’s tax return is a matter of public record in Norway.

We always seek to stay on the right side of the privacy line as we do our work. Even if that line is a bright line, it can still move this way or that. It may be on the move right now.

[i] In researching this blog I also discovered that as much as the New York Times hates data gathering by private companies, its own data gathering controls can be as confusing as some of the companies it bitterly criticizes. Try adjusting the kind of information the Times gathers about you if you read it online. You can opt for “I want to keep my subscription or service but want to delete my personal information that you don’t need in order to provide my subscription or service, unless you have legal reasons for keeping it.” This is as opposed to just ending your subscription. But then if you click the first option to keep your subscription with limited data scraping, you agree that this will terminate your service with the paper. If Facebook had such two such contradictory options, the editorialists would tear it apart.

In honor of President’s Day (still officially known as Washington’s Birthday) a few thoughts about interviewing.

There are so many more facts about ourselves that are in our heads (or the heads of people we know) than there are in databases and court cases. Many times, to get as much as the truth as we need, we are forced to do interviews.

To see this for yourself, Google yourself. How much of what you know about your and your history will you find there? Perhaps one percent, perhaps less. If someone wants to find out where you went to elementary school, who your friends are, who you dated before marrying, where you worked (but didn’t include on your resume), they would have to ask people.

Sharpen Your Axe Before Taking a Swing

An apocryphal quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln was, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” This well summarizes my approach to doing an interview. You will not know the right questions to ask until you have done your research.  My sharp axe is the knowledge that Mr. X had a couple of companies his wife didn’t know about. You can’t ask his former colleagues about these companies if you don’t know they exist and are linked to Mr. X. You can’t know all of this unless you do research before picking up the phone.

While preparation is key, so is humility. The well-known rule among litigators “Never ask a question to which you don’t know the answer” may be fine for court or depositions, but that kind of questioning is not the best course of action for a fact investigator. Because we know so much less than we think, over-preparing to the point of anticipating answers will make an interviewer less alert to any surprises that may emerge. Just as we take a fresh approach to each person when we do a public-records check, we need to keep in mind those public records when we start our interview yet be fully aware that the public record is at best a rough abstraction of someone’s life.

Humility Gets Results

George Washington said that “honesty is always the best policy,” and this blog has written for years about the ethical strictures the allow lawyers to “dissemble” but not to tell lies. You can’t pretend to be a police officer (by statute), but the rules of professional responsibility mean you can’t pretend to be a New York Times reporter when you are not.

Still, it is not dishonest if you fail to interrupt someone who is telling something you already know. Listening to something you think you already know is useful for two reasons:

  1. When you let people speak, they become comfortable talking to you. Cut them off and they will let may wait for you to lead them.
  2. They may be about to tell you something you didn’t know. They could start out talking about Mr. Jones, and you think you know all there is to know about Mr. Jones, who is not even the person you are investigating. You care more about Mr. Smith. But then, 30 seconds later the person you’re interviewing tells you that Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith had a terrible disagreement, almost came to blows, and sued one another in small claims court three years ago. If you had interrupted too early, you would have missed all that. You also now get to find Mr. Jones and interview him too.

Checking your ego at the door is therefore to be recommended not just during interviews, but in general. Ronald Reagan said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

But the best presidential remark relating to interviewing came from Lyndon Johnson: “You aren’t learning anything when you’re talking.”


There is a widespread belief among lawyers and other professionals that investigators, armed only with special proprietary databases, can solve all kinds of problems other professionals cannot.

While certain databases are a help, we often tell our clients that even if we gave them the output of all the databases our firm uses, they would probably still not be able to come to most of the conclusions we do. That is because databases have incomplete, conflicting outputs. You need a knowledgeable person to weigh those outputs and come up with a “right” answer that is always, at first, a best guess that requires verification.

Commercial databases are also hobbled by legal and commercial restrictions that other large information resources are not. This is one of the reasons I have argued for several years now that increases in of artificial intelligence will increase – not diminishjobs for humans.

The full argument is in Legal Jobs in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Moving from Today’s Limited Universe of Data Toward the Great Beyond, Savannah Law Review Vol. 5:1, 2018.

Forget what you know about SQL and relational databases. Forget about the large universes of even millions of documents put into various artificial intelligence engines for expedited document review. When users populate and control a database, they can alter the content. They can control the programming to make the databases talk to each other.

Even in hospitals, with more than a dozen different information systems struggling to interconnect, it’s possible to imagine a smoothly-running network of networks given enough computing power and programming time.

The commercial databases that depend on credit-header information, utility bills, commercial mailing lists and more are different. Commercial databases used in investigations do not play nicely with other databases for two main reasons:

  1. Competitive Barriers

 There is only one New York Secretary of State, or one recorder of deeds in a county. They are presumed to be correct as a matter of law as long as you get a certified copy of their documents.

The commercial databases are different in that they compete with one another. Databases do not share results so that we may sort out conflicts automatically. They do not suggest, for example, that if a John R. Smith of Houston  is this John R. Smith on Walnut Avenue, then this John R. Smith owns the following companies in Nevada.

Instead, one database will tell you about the man on Walnut Avenue, and a different database may give you the Nevada company information and suggest that its owner lives not on Walnut Avenue but at another address in San Diego. A third database may tell you the same person who lived on Walnut Avenue in 2014 now lives in San Diego.

You will have to stitch it all together yourself. By you, I mean you a human being and not you, using some kind of databases version of that assembles travel sites and hands you results in one convenient place.

Note that for someone searching for completeness, Kayak’s no model either. If you assume that every airline and hotel in the world is listed on Kayak, you are wrong. That is because Kayak is a business that makes money from the places it lists (it’s part of a profit-making company called If you go to another for-profit site,,  and enter flights leaving from New York for Dallas, you do not get all possible options. You can fly on Southwest between those two cities, but the other day Travelocity didn’t give you that choice. Tomorrow may be different if the market for airline pricing changes.

Commercial databases are like airlines and hotels: they too are profit-making enterprises. Just as American won’t let you board with a Delta ticket, databases don’t like to share either.

  1. Legal Impediments to Sharing

Even if databases wanted to share information, doing so would be fraught with legal difficulty. That is because the information they offer is accessible to licensees only. These users need a permissible purpose under federal law that governs credit reports, and the varying permissible purposes yield varying amounts of information.

Each database has to review the permissible uses you enter, and each has to make sure you are a paying customer. Databases could theoretically subcontract that job to a central entity that handles its competitors as well, but with just a handful of big competitors, there’s less incentive to outsource.

The other, larger problem an information “Kayak” would have is that the real travel Kayak just gives you a small number of  data points: price, when you leave and when you arrive. Database output about a person, his known residences, phone numbers, associates and more is voluminous. How would you sort the differing outputs of different competitors? “Rank by accuracy” is a laughable non-starter.

All in all, if you make your living sorting through database output and then use that to check against public filings, litigation, licenses, news stories, blogs, videos and social media, be of good cheer.

The robots haven’t even come close to usurping your duties.

The New York Times published in interesting piece this week that was among its most popular: I Shared My Phone Number. I Learned I Shouldn’t Have.

In it, the paper’s personal tech columnist Brian X. Chen explained how much information people can get about you with just your phone number. This includes “my current home address, its square footage, the cost of the property and the taxes I pay on it,” as well as past addresses, relatives’ names and past phone numbers.

He is right, but that kind of information is out there for many of us, with or without a phone number. If you have an unusual name, all of it is easy to find without any cell phone number. Even a pretty common name can be isolated on, and the information vacuumed up. It’s even easier if you are the only person with your name in your entire state, which happens a lot.

The Times says Brian X. Chen lives in San Francisco. There may be more than 100 Brian Chens in the U.S., but in California there appear to be a few Brian X. Chens, one of whom is listed in San Francisco. With or without a phone number, your property ownership is an open book if you own the property in your own name.

If you are interested in keeping your address secret, some steps you could take are:

  • Own the property in trust or in the name of a limited liability company. If your name is Joseph L. Sullivan, it would help not to name the trust the Joseph L. Sullivan 2019 Trust. You can name it just about anything you want, and the same goes for LLC’s, as long as the name isn’t already in use.
  • Don’t get utility bills sent to the house. Use a PO box or a UPS Store. Be aware that if you use your cell phone to order a pizza to your house, the number will be linked to your home address in commercial databases. Some of that information may make it into web-based services such as the one Chen writes about, but some may be limited to more expensive databases available only by license.
  • Use a made-up number when you get discount cards for groceries and pharmacy purchases.
  • Don’t say your address in a loud voice into a telephone while talking in public, to be followed by a slow, clear recitation of your phone number. I hear these all the time and not being a criminal, do not act on the information. Others will.

As Chen says, there is no easy answer to counter the trend that we are increasingly identified with our mobile phone numbers, especially if we have given up land lines. His major example of when not to give your number cites Facebook, and I couldn’t agree more.

But what if you want to reserve a table at a restaurant? They often need a phone number, which is then available to a large number of restaurant employees. Here in New York, many of us get our dry cleaning delivered home, with a cell phone number to pull up our account. If I don’t  trust these people with a phone number, does it make sense to give them a credit card number?

It’s true that hackers can do a lot of damage with the public records available in the U.S., but one thing Chen didn’t suggest that I have been doing for a long time is: make the answers to your password-recovery security question something that is not easily found on the internet. If mother’s maiden name is something easily found on line (don’t forget about on-line obituaries), don’t make it what someone needs to reset your banking password.

Try something like the name of your first school, or (unless you put it all over social media), the city where you honeymooned. If you’re not married, pick the city where you would like to have a honeymoon.

I wrote in my book The Art of Fact Investigation We often say that a Google search is not enough to do a good investigation because only a small amount of what you know about yourself is on Google. Everywhere you’ve ever lived? The names of best friends for third grade? All you old bosses?

Use that information to your benefit and the crooks will have a harder time hacking into your electronic life today.

Not for the first time, the most compelling piece of information in an investigation is what isn’t there.

We’ve written often before about the failure of databases and artificial intelligence to knit together output from various databases and I discussed the idea of what isn’t there in my book, The Art of Fact Investigation. Remember, two of the biggest red flags for those suspicious of Bernard Madoff were the absence of a Big Four auditor for a fund the size he claimed to have, as well as the absence of an independent custodian.

The most famous example of missing evidence is from Sherlock Holmes: the dog that didn’t bark when the horse was removed from its stall during the night. No barking meant the dog knew the person who took the horse. It’s discussed by an evidence professor here.

This week, another excellent example: The Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) provided an advance copy of its report to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, detailing the way Kim Jong Un evades international sanctions. The report, Lux & Loaded is an example of superior investigation.

Using public records that track ship movements, commercial databases that record the movement of goods, and publicly available photos on the internet, C4ADS makes the case that Kim was able to get his hands on two armored Mercedes-Maybach S600 cars worth more than $500,000 each.

The report details the movement of the cars from a port in the Netherlands through several transshipment points, but the key finding is that the ship last seen with the cars “vanished” for 17 days last October, while the cars were in transit off the coast of Korea. While unable to say conclusively that the cars moved from Rotterdam to North Korea, the evidence is persuasive.

Most interesting is not the evidence that they could not find because it does not exist in open sources, but the evidence that was removed because a Togo-flagged ship called DN5505 turned off its transponders. It’s as if the ship just disappeared from the high seas.

Maybe we should not expect to be able to track every cargo shipment in the world every moment it’s at sea, but ships going dark for weeks at a time is something that should arouse suspicions.

That’s why, among the organization’s recommendations is that insurance companies should require that ships keep their transponders on in order to acquire and maintain insurance.

That won’t catch sanctions busters every time, but it’s a very sensible start.