How Open Source Research Can Advance Your Business Intelligence Work Reviewed by Momizat on . Employing Open Source Data, OSINT, and SOCMINT in the Due Diligence Phase Today’s accountants specialize in document management, research, money laundering, int Employing Open Source Data, OSINT, and SOCMINT in the Due Diligence Phase Today’s accountants specialize in document management, research, money laundering, int Rating: 0
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How Open Source Research Can Advance Your Business Intelligence Work

Employing Open Source Data, OSINT, and SOCMINT in the Due Diligence Phase

Today’s accountants specialize in document management, research, money laundering, inter-national banking, e-discovery, and much more. They go even further. They ask to learn about open source research, cryptocurrency, and network-based financial transactions. In this article, the author discusses how to use public record resources, social media resources and open source monitoring in due diligence and business investigations to expose fraudulent business activities, locate assets, and gather undercover intelligence.

How Open Source Research Can Advance Your Business Intelligence Work: Employing Open Source Data, OSINT, and SOCMINT in the Due Diligence Phase

Today’s accountants specialize in document management, research, money laundering, inter-national banking, e-discovery, and much more. They go even further. They ask to learn about open source research, cryptocurrency, and network-based financial transactions.

I recently served on an AICPA task force charged with defining the technological investigative skill set modern accountants need to succeed. As we outlined the craft’s tools and the research requirements, I learned a valuable lesson from my number-crunching friends: their approach may be different from private investigators. Imagine that!

The difference lies in the accountant’s rigorous training and ability to follow a linear model of critical thinking—considered symmetrical investigations. Unlike asymmetrical open source intelligence (OSINT)—which vaults and leaps from one lead to the next—the accounting mindset tends to see a lead through to the end. It is an important link-analysis model that modern OSINTers have left behind.

The methods may be different, but the tools and skills are often the same. In employing OSINT and social media intelligence (SOCMINT) skills, investigators and financial auditors can expose fraudulent business enterprises, locate assets, and gather undercover intelligence. In this article, I discuss how to use public record resources, social media resources, and open source monitoring in due diligence and business investigations.

Definitions

Due diligence investigations examine the backgrounds of corporate entities and the principals who manage them. They are applicable to all professionals involved in investigations, insurance and risk managers, attorneys, investigative reporters, security practitioners, and every-day consumers.

Business intelligence, open source research (OSINT), and social media research (SOCMINT) are key tools that assist in researching and conducting due diligence. Knowing the difference between public records and public information will help you understand some of the differences between online sites and how they gather their data.

            Public Records

Public records are records of incidents or actions filed or recorded with a government agency for the purpose of notifying others—the public—about the matter. Deeds are recorded in order to keep track of property owners. Mortgages are recorded to indicate liens on the property. Prospective buyers and lenders search these records to verify ownership and determine if the property is subject to liens or easements. These records are public; anyone requiring details about your property may review or copy these documents.

            Public Information

Public information is data that you freely provide to facilitate the flow of commercial and private communications. In today’s tech era, a person’s information becomes public more often than one is even aware. It is not just your landline number in a phonebook anymore. Information placed on social network sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn becomes public. And when you sign up for a discount card at the local grocery store, you have made information about yourself publicly available to entities purchasing marketing lists.

Investigator’s Approach

Resources gathered during the investigative process are a combination of public records and public information. Combined, they can be social media accounts, statements, recordings, documents, witness interviews, news and media articles, and other published materials.

Documents can also include:

Academic records Intellectual property Regulatory history
Board appointments Liens, judgments, and UCCs SEC, FINRA, State Securities filings
Business and personal affiliations Media history State specific regulatory agencies
Civil filings Non-profit participation Subsidiaries and franchises
Corporate records Online and social networks Vendor and supplier relationships
Criminal filings Physical assets Social media updates
Financial records Political and charitable causes  
Government litigation history Property records

 

Once you identify the documents you need to begin to fill out your analysis, you need to determine where you will access this information.

Public Record Resources

For efficiency, tools commonly associated with intelligence and open source research are aggregation services. Aggregators pull together most of the public records and information on a topic and make it accessible, searchable, and easy to incorporate into your reports.

Federal laws, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, and the Driver’s Protection Privacy Act govern how personal information, i.e., social security numbers and dates of birth, is gathered and shared. Such personal data is used legally for the purpose of examining for fraud, researching a litigant, criminal investigations, and credit applications. Professional public record aggregators in the United States include: Thomson Reuters CLEAR, LexisNexis Accurint, Transunion TLO, Tracers, Microbilt, idiCORE, and Delvepoint. Though the specialized professional aggregators are retrieving content from the same sources—that is, public records—each has a strength and weakness which should be considered when shopping for a service from this market.

Deciding to subscribe and pay for a fee-based aggregator is a professional choice that starts you on your business intelligence and open source searching. Consider that there are strengths and weaknesses for each provider and, if possible, subscribe to at least two in order to cover as many aspects as possible. Review the products with these issues in mind:

  • Currency of data: For the data you need most, find out if the service is a live feed, updated hourly, daily, weekly, or otherwise.
  • Relevancy of data: Some aggregators have very strong motor vehicle records and weak UCCs. Purchase based on your need for the most relevant data.
  • Ease of use: You should be able to plug and play your searches.
  • Customer service: As paid services, you should have help when you call.
  • Price: You are paying for convenience to pull the data together quickly and make it easier to search.

To be safe, an analyst should research data aggregators on a country-by-country basis to meet the needs of the due diligence investigation. It is possible to access such data in a foreign country, depending on a country’s laws, but in short, nothing compares to the United States and its vendors such as LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters for getting addresses, telephone numbers, and other key data.

Researching via Google (“public records * COUNTRY”) will develop some leads to meet your needs in that country. Do trust a .gov website over a .com website for government information. Commercial entities can and will do a good job with public records, but if you are unsure if the source information is developed and sold by the country itself, look for the government body to ascertain you are not buying fraudulent, fabricated, or stolen data.

Public Record Free Resources

Putting the aggregator databases to the side, a lot of information can still be gained with search engines (such as Google) and open source sites (such as BRB Publications). If you Google your name, you should not be surprised to come across unprotected data such as your address, telephone number, friends list, or even mentions of your approaching birthdate. BRB Publications books and digital offerings provide access to data from 28,000 government agencies, including 5,800 accredited post-secondary schools, and 3,500 record vendors. Free and easy to use, it is an open source investigative researcher’s treasure trove of information.

Beyond BRB Publications, you can search for public record sources using the following example: Search in Google for “Maine secretary of State” and find among the returned search results www.maine.gov/sos.

Free resources are plentiful but should be vetted for their value. Always choose .gov sites over .com to stay as close to the actual public record versus a resold version of it, which may be dated or unvetted.

SOCMINT Resources

The type of public information found on social media can best be culled from fee-based sources. These tools do not gain special access into closed and protected accounts but gather information from open and shared profiles, such as Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, and other popular social media platforms.

Using a professional tool can be advantageous because you can configure it to gather precise content based on your needs. For example, if you need to locate mentions of your client’s brand in Spanish within a two-mile radius of Tel Aviv, there are multiple products—many of which Hg analysts have reviewed—that can home in on that specificity and produce useful results: Dataminr, Liferaft Navigator, Cybertoolbelt, and DarkOwl. These products, costing a few hundred dollars a month and upward, cover everything from multiple venues, languages, and platforms, among many other specific outputs. The best approach for purchasing these resources is to determine your expectations and request a sample search from your vendor of interest.

A variety of investigative professionals find these SOCMINT tools useful to their client work. Security officers, for example, use these tools to monitor high profile events such as red carpets, which are soft targets for adventurous fans or stalkers. Audit and accounting professionals are able to track their client’s assets in real-time as they are discussed on social media. Valuation experts can monitor current trending or topical discovery of their products/stock, or other assets. And investigative journalists can track down leads across the globe in the comfort of their personal offices.

No-cost Social Media and Open Source Monitoring

Fee sources allow for monitoring, e-mail alerts, and convenience. However, if you only use the service for an occasional look-up or tracking of a brand/product/asset, then free open source tools are a great option. A combination of the free tools coupled with the fee-based resources is recommended for any practitioner.

Free tools in this area may have different strengths: Some will monitor for a brand or product, others for a social media account, still others may capture keywords. Some examples include: Hootsuite, IFTTT, and Claz. Experimenting with free sources is an excellent way to monitor or increase your awareness on a topic.

Fee + Free

The question of fee-based databases versus free searches is answered by need. If you have no rush to locate your business intelligence, much of the information you seek can be discovered on the free side. However, an investigator’s efforts should be spent on the case—not trying to discover sources for said case. Professional sources should be implemented when it is feasibly and legally possible, and free sources should always be considered.

It is common to combine professional search tools with SOCINT to narrow down key content on an individual when writing up a report. Statements made on social media accounts can often be validated via public records. For example, a comment on Facebook about home construction woes could be validated with a work permit at the local housing authority. Prior to open sources and social media, much of this type of “hearsay” content was discovered through surveillance, neighbor interviews, and trash pick-ups. Today, investigators can sit at their desks and gather much of their intelligence from self-reports on a variety of social media platforms. The investigator’s ability to locate the online profile, monitor the activity, capture the key elements, and then verify the statements made there takes keen observation, critical thinking, and an open mind.

Three Case Studies in Business Intelligence

Reviewing the background of the company and its principals and associates is essential when establishing trust between two or more entities. Reputational concerns, fiscal responsibility, and management’s capabilities to deliver on contract are a handful of fitting reasons to utilize business intelligence, OSINT, and SOCMINT tools when conducting a due diligence case. Considering a merger or an acquisition, compliance laws, and other legal requirements may force the report to be conducted.

Business Acquisitions

Investigators also get involved in the practice of business intelligence to fact check the merits of a new client or acquisition claims. Intelligence gathered through open sources can be considered in the business valuation as plausible, possible, or impossible based on the assertions made by the company they are examining.

Case Study 1: Manufacturing Capacity

The manufacturer of a travel mug claims on its website that it produces 1,000 mugs per week. Client Jones is interested in learning more about the company’s production capacity and hires an analyst to determine the accuracy of such claims. The analyst sets to work, gathering OSINT/SOCMINT business intelligence from the company’s Facebook page—complete with photos of a single machine—and an OSHA inspection report of the machine filed with the county. Business intelligence reveals that the travel mug manufacturer has one license to operate a mug-making machine, with a specified production capacity of 250 mugs per week. Is the company producing travel mugs at an offsite location? Exaggerating its capabilities? Further investigation would be required to answer these questions and provide a report to Client Jones.

Asset Investigations

Asset investigations also rely on business intelligence and open source research to locate stolen, misappropriated, or lost finances. The key question to ask: Where is the money?

Using public records, an investigator can track down existing homes, vessels, other businesses, properties, and intellectual property. Concurrently, the investigator integrates OSINT and SOCMINT skills into the process by reviewing the target’s self-reported social media posts—keeping a keen eye out for the mention of luxury purchases, new friends, expensive tastes, gambling debts, and/or recent wealth.

Case Study 2: Lots ‘o Cash Flowing

Sally, a bookkeeper for the mug company, earns a $60,000 annual salary with little show of other wealth or income. Suddenly, Sally’s appearance begins to change. She arrives to the office wearing $1,000 shoes and $6,000 handbags. Her car gets upgraded from an older model Toyota to a new Maserati. Her kids are enrolled in private schools. Any one of these should be a red flag for potential fraudulent behavior. A review of Sally’s social media should be conducted to see if she mentions a recently deceased wealthy aunt or grand winnings at a casino—both of which could explain the sudden wealth. Using fee-based sources, the investigator may learn that Sally was recently divorced, from which she financially benefited greatly. Void of any public record changes or social media explanation of new money, a thorough audit of all of Sally’s accounts should be reviewed.

Business Competition

Competitive intelligence also requires the use of public records and intelligence for gathering information. Though we can consider this similar to due diligence, the focus of competitive intelligence is to develop market information in general, and company details specifically.

Case Study 3: Due Diligence

A peanut farmer in Georgia is interested in converting his fields to soybeans. He needs to understand the market for this new and unfamiliar crop. The peanut farmer will be interested in sales, trading markets, the competitors in his industry, what country outside of the U.S. is most likely to buy his product, and the cost to make that happen. Some of the information he will need includes: tax figures, export details, commodity pricing, and organizational news dealing with competitors’ interests.

The analyst working with the peanut farmer can access business intelligence databases that focus on market research. They are valuable assets to any investigative work because they keep industry news and literature organized and searchable. Obscure data, such as the Zoological Index in Dialog, dates back decades, whereas current data, such as the pharmaceutical pipeline, is also available from key searches.

With your business intelligence investigations, an investigator needs to remain well-read on the latest, trending OSINT and SOCMINT tools and service offerings. New vendors continue to create amazing new products for open source research which assist professionals with redundant and complicated tasks.


Cynthia Hetherington, MLS, MSM, CFE, CII, is the founder and president of Hetherington Group, a consulting, publishing, and training firm that leads in due diligence, corporate intelligence, and cyber investigations by keeping pace with the latest security threats and assessments. She has authored three books on how to conduct investigations, is the publisher of the newsletter, Data2know: Internet and Online Intelligence, and annually trains thousands of investigators, security professionals, attorneys, accountants, auditors, military intelligence professionals, and federal, state, and local agencies on best practices in the public and private sectors.

Ms. Hetherington can be contacted at (973) 706-7525 or by e-mail to cs@hetheringtongroup.com.

The National Association of Certified Valuators and Analysts (NACVA) supports the users of business and intangible asset valuation services and financial forensic services, including damages determinations of all kinds and fraud detection and prevention, by training and certifying financial professionals in these disciplines.

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