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What You Need to Know About International Investigations

Cross-border investigations may be costly, but the price of ignorance can be much greater.

Posted by Dawn Lomer on June 28th, 2011

When a major international investment bank hired Brian Willingham, investigator and president of Diligentia Group, to conduct a background check on a candidate being considered for a position based in the UK, he was able to save it from certain disaster. The candidate, it turns out, was being investigated by South American officials, the SEC and the DOJ for questionable investment transactions and had been terminated due a loss of confidence by a previous employer, another investment bank.

“It was interesting, because it had a US component and a South American component, and the person was a native Brazilian,” he says. “By working with  investigators in Brazil and doing our own work here in the US, we were able to come up with some good information that I think, in the end, saved this client from a potentially disastrous hire.”

Border Barriers

Companies requiring international background investigations of potential employees and business partners are sometimes unaware of the time and manpower requirements of these projects, says Willingham. It can take anywhere from two to four weeks to conduct an international investigation because, depending on the country in which the investigation is being conducted, it can be a manual process. “In the US and Canada, a lot of the information can be obtained electronically, either through the computer or over the phone,” he says. Retrieving information from courthouses or government agencies is fairly straightforward in North America, but in some countries it can be a manual process, and some information is difficult to obtain.

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“Having the right resources in those countries is obviously critical,” says Willingham, citing cultural and language barriers as obvious reasons.

“You have to know the right questions to ask,” he says. A resource in Hong Kong or Brazil knows what kind of information is legally available and how to get it. “You want to do it in a legitimate way that doesn’t break any laws or regulations.”

Depending on whether Willingham’s investigation involves a person or a company, the information sought may be different. “With individuals you’re looking for history of litigation, any potential derogatory news media, regulatory issues with state or federal regulatory agencies, financial issues, if they’ve filed for bankruptcy, if somebody has gone after them for financial reasons, a judgment or a lien,” he says.

When investigating a company, he would search similar issues, as well as government compliance and regulatory problems, among other things. “Every country is different. In most countries overseas criminal records are not considered public record. And in different countries different types of records are available.”

Overseas Privacy Issues

Privacy issues, always a concern when conducting background checks, become much more complicated when investigations cross international borders.

“I think one of the biggest examples of that is criminal history,” says Willingham. “Whereas in most countries criminal history is not considered public information, there are some countries, such as the UK and Australia, where you can get criminal information on a person with their authorization.” In these cases the investigator needs the cooperation of the individual being investigated.

In many countries, employment and educational history checks, which are key components to identifying reputational issues with officers and directors, require authorization from the individual. “In the US it’s pretty much routine and for most companies you don’t need a signed release,” he says.

“In the end, what you are trying to do is identify any reputational issues that would be a concern, so that a business can make a more informed decision about whatever business transaction they are getting involved with,” says Willingham. Whenever this process crosses borders it is neither quick, nor cheap. Nevertheless, it’s worth the time and money to ensure companies don’t partner blindly with disastrous results.

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Manager of Communications

Dawn Lomer is the Manager of Communications at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.

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