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Open Source information

It is extremely hard having worked for the federal government and having all the databases imaginable at your fingertips, to entering the world of private investigations and attempting to develop background information for clients.  Hard, but not impossible.  I find it does take more time and attention to detail.  The Criminal Justice Information Systems, including NLETS, NCIC, TECS and their companion systems  were excellent tools, for Official Use.

I discovered the open source database treasures while still employed with the Federal government.  Though TECS was a great tool for the government, it didn’t have everything I needed.  I had asked senior management in our agency, to install the internet at my office, so I could search for additional information while at work.  Of course they didn’t see any use to be gained by having the internet.  

I began using the internet at home to search for things I couldn’t find in the official databases.  In 1996 I began an investigation into an organization that was smuggling tons of narcotics into the United States and to other countries.  One of the subjects of my investigation was in TECS.  However, it listed his last address in the United States.  He was allegedly wanted by the United States Marshals for narcotics violations.  His name came up in my investigation repeatedly, and it began to bother me that I couldn’t locate him.  He had left the U.S. years earlier and for some reason didn’t leave a forwarding address.  One evening I decided to run his name through the internet.  I will admit he had a common name so I did have to go through numerous articles before I found the “idiot” had placed an article on the internet, with his picture, and current location.  It didn’t take long to confirm this.

On the same case, I had been provided information on a sailboat used by the head of this organization.  Unfortunately, all the source had was the name of the boat, and some interior photos of the vessel.  As with most vessel names, it too was common. The vessel was not in TECS and I needed more information to place it on lookout.  There were too many U.S. documented vessels with the same name for the Coast Guard, or anyone else to search through.  I again went home and later queried the vessel.  There were thousands of entries on boats with the same name.  I was very fortunate because as I went through several pages, I found a vessel with the same name, that had interior images almost identical to the ones the source provided.  The site listed every detail, including the manufacturer, length, width, draft, RADIO CALL SIGN, and HULL NUMBER.  Needless to say, I entered her into TECS along with the information.  I then scheduled a meeting with my supervisor, and his supervisor.  I took this and other documentation to the meeting and explained that we needed the internet at every office.  I got mine set up immediately.  

After beginning my career as a private investigator, I was determined to use “open source” information instead of paying for databases.  I have been extremely lucky in that regard.  I will occasionally cross check my information and check to see if I could have developed more with a paid database.  In almost every case, I have been able to find information for clients, and other PNAI members by going through all available open sources.

In 2003, I was asked by another PI to assist in identifying assets located outside of the United States.  The PI had access to several paid databases but was stuck.  The client knew that millions of dollars had left the United States but could not identify the location.  I ran several checks, and with 15 minutes identified the subject and the assets were in a foreign country.  

Another PI, who had queried pay databases, asked me to locate an individual living on the East Coast.  After sifting through pages of online documents, I was able to find the subject’s address along with a current telephone number.   

There is a great deal of information available on line, for free, if you are willing to look for it.  I know I have told other PI’s about this and I still get the occasional call asking me to help find someone, or find information about them. In another case, a PI was tasked with doing surveillance on a subject without being given a picture, or good background information.  I was able to find photos of the subject through open sources.  

There is the occasional search that I can’t find what I am looking for.  That also happens with paid databases.  

In 2005, I was retained because of a loss, a large sum of money, and local law enforcement wasn’t interested in investigating.  I met with the client and discussed the matter.  There was a suspect, but, no evidence.  The suspect allegedly had a background investigation completed by an international firm.  I left the client and returned to my computer.  Within 5 minutes, I called the client and directed him to the open source search engine. I explained how to enter his query using the suspect’s name.  

I asked him if he would have  even allowed this person on his premises if he had known this.  He said, “NO”.  The client asked me why the security company didn’t find the information in their background investigation.  I simply told him I couldn’t say.  

However, always remember DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ, VERIFY. I will tell clients that when I provide them with database information.  There are no guarantees, without adequate follow up investigation. You need all the facts! On December 23, 2009, I received a call about an individual who was dating a 21 year old girl.   The girl’s mother was concerned because she felt the individual was lying to her.   I was provided his name and a city and state in which he resided.  I ran a few open source checks.    I did find a subject with the same name, with an address within a five block radius of the address provided.  The subject was a listed sex offender in the neighboring state, and had listed the same address I found. I said, DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ, this may not be him or the incident might be explained away.  I provided information on how to query through the appropriate search engine.  I suggested the parents should go to the county seat and review the case report.  I suggested they first confirm this was him.  Then review the file very carefully, to ascertain his age, and the age and  sex of the  victim.  I explained that at the time of the offense the suspect was 21 years of age.  I stated that it was possible that the subject might have had sex with a female under 21 years of age and the state, he was charged in, might consider her as a minor or child.

About Donald Bambenek II

Mr. Bambenek retired from the United States Customs Service as a Senior Special Agent on May 3, 2001. He had been assigned to the Seattle Office of Investigations, working in Seattle, SeaTac airport, and the seaports of Seattle and Tacoma from January 1993 until his retirement.

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