When a client’s assets are lost or stolen, unravelling what transpired and retrieving crucial evidence can exceed a legal department’s usual skillset. This is where professional investigators can help.
By gathering intelligence, investigators can be integral to developing a strong legal case. As well as identifying offenders and collating evidence of a crime, they can also be invaluable when assessing the chances of, and options for, recovering stolen assets.
Asset loss and recovery is increasingly complex. Globalisation and digitalisation of asset streams (whether involving regular currency or crypto assets) have made it easier than ever to transfer items quickly, and even anonymously, outside of a jurisdiction. Furthermore, complicated networks of businesses, digital hosts, individuals, and other entities provide various routes in which to divide, dissipate, launder, or hide stolen assets before the victim is even aware of the loss.
Developing intelligence profiles
Knowing what steps to take from a legal perspective is rarely straightforward, particularly if the perpetrators are not known. Certain information is needed before legal teams can develop a strategy, including the value, location and form of the assets stolen, as well as what methods were used to steal them.
Legal teams can benefit from bringing investigators in from day one in order to develop carefully curated intelligence profiles on everything from the assets in question, to the potential perpetrators and their proxies. This intelligence may not only lead to further lines of enquiry, but also contribute to the evidence needed to pursue a civil or a criminal case. To streamline their enquiries, investigators need to understand all current facts about the incident, and have access to all relevant materials, including transaction data and relevant communications.
Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT)
From this point an investigator can then focus their research on areas that appear the most promising or suspicious. While not above the law, investigators do have sufficient skills and resources to successfully exploit the wealth of Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) available, i.e. any data available in the public domain, and therefore legally obtainable. A surprising variety of data exists in this category including: public government data, news reports, social media accounts, images, videos, metadata, vehicle tracking, and grey literature (white papers, reports, or evaluations).
In a recent case involving the investigation of an entrepreneur operating in the student housing industry via public record research, we compared all financial statements to find attachable assets. Based on the market value of the properties it was assumed at the outset that the entrepreneur was in possession of net assets valued at over £30m. However, after investigating all statements and corporate structures, we concluded that all properties had encumbrances and cash had been siphoned off the entities. Due to the limited chances of recovery, the legal team decided to not start a claim against the entrepreneur.
HUMINT (Human Intelligence)
OSINT is usually augmented by HUMINT (Human Intelligence), the process of gathering real-life information and intelligence. Offline transactions are still common even in a digital world, particularly for those attempting to cover their tracks. The sale of real estate is a common method of dissipating or laundering stolen assets. To hide this activity, perpetrators may avoid advertising the property online, but that does not mean it cannot be found elsewhere – the shop window of a local estate agent, for example.
HUMINT can involve numerous investigative techniques, including site visits, observations, and even informal discussions, all of which – when properly documented – may add to the evidence that a legal team requires. In fact, it is often advisable to conduct investigator-led discussions in the first instance for most investigations, as leads are likely to be less defensive or intimidated.
An investigator can be introduced at any point during the preparation of a legal case, but it is advisable to do so as early as possible, if budgets allow. Collaborating with an investigator from the outset can be beneficial as it establishes a two-way line of communication early on and makes areas of enquiry more efficient.
Legal teams may request that an investigator ‘maps assets’ prior to launching a legal case. This process assesses the complexity and jurisdiction of an adversary’s assets – both those belonging to them, and those that they have allegedly stolen. As the case goes on, these maps can be used to identify assets at a higher risk of dissipation. Post-judgement, any payments or penalties can be enforced with the help of an investigator as they can help identify assets, activities or transactions that can be disrupted or frozen until compensations have been made.
As such, as well as the collation of vital evidence and the tracing of stolen assets an investigator can support with the intelligence and leverage required to obtain freezing orders, disrupt business for an adversary and, where necessary, bring them to the table for settlement.
A combination of skills
The roles of both investigative and legal professionals are becoming more challenging; global networks are becoming increasingly complex, and new methods for illicitly obtaining, moving and disposing of assets are constantly evolving. Working together, however, lawyers and investigators can combine their skills and capabilities to locate perpetrators, their assets, and any leverage, and bring them to justice. Whether legal teams are looking to conduct due diligence, comply with anti-money laundering regulations, or profile future business associates, the professional investigator should always me top of any lawyer’s contacts list.
Reworked from an article featured in OpenAccessGovernment