The role of private intelligence companies in combating complex economic crimes

Private intelligence companies play an increasingly important role in combating serious economic crimes and in tracking stolen assets. Their analysis capability lies at the heart of the intelligence process. The intelligence received need not only be used in targeting the suspects in an investigation, or tracing their assets, but may also be used in a more strategic manner to develop assessments of threats and tactics to deal with those threats, allocate resources and provide an overall more effective response to them.

The use of intelligence disciplines to investigate complex criminal investigations is increasingly becoming the international norm. Although intelligence provides a platform for many different aspects of an investigation, it has a particularly prominent role to play in combating serious economic crimes, like massive asset misappropriation and corruption. In the case of complex economic crime investigations where there is often a myriad of personalities and different complex financial vehicles, frequently used in different jurisdictions, the use of differing forms of intelligence has become a ‘must have’ instrument, and proved critically important to initial research into allegations of criminal activities but also subsequently in substantive investigations.

There is great deal of conjecture on what precisely intelligence is, and as a result, raw information is often perceived, incorrectly, as intelligence. Information received from disparate sources such as public available records, mass media, informants, telephone complaint lines or banking records is just raw information with little context and often, therefore, no intrinsic value. It is the drawing together of such raw data, assessed for validity and reliability, and its analytical processing that provides the all-important intelligence product. Analysis lies at the heart of the intelligence process.

As the product of an analytical process that evaluates information collected from many diverse sources, one of the main challenges is how to package the product in a manner that provides meaningful value to a greater understanding of the way in which criminals and their enterprises work or how they conduct their criminal activity. In the context of serious economic crimes, and the tracing of assets derived from such crime, intelligence is the key to understanding how criminal proceeds flow and, ideally, where the proceeds are. All assessments of information provided should aim to describe the reliability of the source and of the information provided, to distinguish between reported facts and comment and to provide as much detail as possible.

It is evident, therefore, that the intelligence received need not always be just hard information for use in targeting the suspects in the investigation, or tracing their assets, but may also be used in a more strategic manner to develop assessments on threats and strategies to deal with them, allocate resources and provide overall a more effective response to such threats.

The goal of a large number of criminal activities is to generate a profit for the offender who carries out the activities in question. All over the world, these offenders do not wish to allow the detection of the proceeds of their criminal activity. This explains why offenders and many professionals offering their services try to launder the proceeds of crime – to disguise the illegal origin.

Private intelligence companies play an increasingly important role combating serious economic crimes and in tracking stolen assets. Most importantly, a successful private intelligence organisation needs to be able to conduct very complex intelligence operations: it needs an excellent analytic staff (analysis lies at the heart of the intelligence process) and needs to rely on an international network of business partners and affiliates located in multiple countries to ensure extensive information gathering. This network can also help in conducting intelligence operations once a clear link to the respective foreign country has been established. Not all private investigators are able to operate so extensively.

Identifying the individuals and companies involved in massive asset misappropriation or corruption schemes is the first step of any investigation, aimed at gaining an overview of what private and professional relationships exist between the parties involved. Furthermore, it may provide insight into the financial and proprietary conditions of, for example, a potential business partner.

As not all the parties involved are known from the outset of an investigation and may only become apparent during the course of research or enquiries, the gathering of intelligence on parties involved is an ongoing part of any investigation. The research for intelligence on the parties involved takes place in public registers and databases, such as commercial registers, court filings, rating agencies, business databases, phone books, asset registers etc.

At times, simple OSINT research can lead to extraordinary results. However, if no information is available through these sources, the required information can be captured by on-site inspections and conducting interviews with third parties, e.g., business partners, witnesses, creditors and other stakeholders.

Great care should be exercised to ensure that information obtained in the course of the investigation has been obtained lawfully. Examples of illegal sources of information include dishonest pretext calls, infiltration, information obtained in breach of data protection laws (for example Bank Data, SWIFT records) and hacking – illegally obtained evidence is sometimes admissible before the civil court but the court will decide how much weight to attach to the information and may also consider whether to exercise its discretion and disqualify it as evidence, given its provenance.

The outcome of the intelligence gathering process should be an overview ‘the big picture’ where all the different leads to the parties involved are included.

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