Research and investigation rules to live by

strategy for investigations

I recently attended the OSMOSIS conference in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, an event geared toward open source intelligence professionals (OSINT). In addition to great networking and a beautiful venue, the speakers were some of the best I’ve seen at a professional conference.

Even though many of the sessions didn’t exactly coincide with my specialty, there was a lot to learn at this conference. For example, I’m not a skiptracer, but Mike Dores’ presentation provided a wealth of information about public records research. He also explained credit header reports in detail, finally clarifying the mystery of the From and To dates on these reports.

In addition to some very cool tools and tricks for coaxing information out of open sources, I noticed that all the speakers offered some overarching lessons for any researcher or investigator – aside from those related to your subject matter knowledge. In my book, I call them Rules of the Road, or best practices or strategies that help you get the most out of your search efforts and deliver the best information and analysis as possible.

So, here are they are – 8 rules to live by for researchers and investigators. Let me know if you have any to add to the list:

Understand the “Why” – From Cynthia Hetherington‘s ethics session, always ask why your clients are looking for someone, which keeps you from stepping outside of your boundaries. Even if you’re not doing locates or dealing with an ethics issue, the first step in any case or research project should be learning about your client’s goals. It will add focus and help streamline the process – and make the client happy.

Keep your essential tools handyKirby Plessas starts every online investigation by opening several resources that she always uses, including Hunchly and CaseFile. In my practice, I use certain websites for just about all my research such as the various financial regulatory agencies throughout the world. So I open my always-updated list of links before starting and never waste time looking for what I need.

Create a process – It’s easy to get lost on the web and social media, and Josh Huff emphasized applying methodology to social media investigations. At Phelps Research, we’ve documented our processes and created checklists that we all use to avoid wasting time and money. Even when something unexpected shows up and we need to go off script , our systems help us get back on track.

Know your sources – In his excellent discussion about using public records for skiptracing, Mike Dores highlighted the importance of understanding the databases you’re using and the information that’s in them. What’s included? What’s not? How will that affect your results? And make sure to learn all their features, so you can get better results in less time.

Use multiple sources – Jay Forget from Tracers Information reminded us that it’s never a good idea to rely on just one source. All databases have errors, exclusions, and other issues that can affect your results. That’s why Phelps Research subscribes to a variety of information products such as LexisNexis, Dow Jones’ Factiva, ProQuest Dialog, Tracers, and more – and we even use Bing.

Get creative – Every speaker showed their creative side. From Josh Huff’s tip about checking out different versions of of a website, including mobile, to Amber Schroader‘s techniques for extracting data from smartphones and other mobile devices, it’s easy to see how it’s not always the paved road that gets you from here to there.

Save everything – Several speakers talked about the importance of preserving your research using Hunchly, screen capture tools, or even a simple Word document. Saving searches can save your hide later, and saving results – even those that seem unimportant at the time – will pay off in the long-run. You never know when you’ll need something, but remember to keep it organized for easy retrieval.

Know your boundaries – Another reminder from Cynthia’s ethics session, every researcher/investigator should familiarize themselves with the laws and ethics about what information they can access and what they can do with it. If someone’s selling bank records on the web, don’t go there – because it’s illegal. Check with database vendors about what’s permissible when using their products, and learn the basics of copyright law.

Stay knowledgeable – Every speaker offered additional sites for more info or professional development. Even after nearly 18 years in business, I still have a lot to learn. Databases change their features and content, laws governing our profession evolve, and there’s always new people to meet. That’s why I attend and speak at conferences like OSMOSIS – and why I’ll be back next year!



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