We Know: How To Search For Someone's Assets

Whether you're involved in a divorce, you're assessing a potential business partner's financial worth, or you're trying to determine the creditworthiness of someone you're lending money to, you may find it necessary to verify someone's assets. This can be a complex and sometimes messy process.

How Do You Get Started?

First, you should write down everything you currently know about the person whose assets you are seeking. This includes everything they've told you as well as anything you've gathered along the way. Do not take anything you've been told as the truth; instead, you must verify it all.

With work, you'll be able to get a reasonably good idea of someone's net worth; and if some of the assets they've claimed do not check out, you'll have found out another important piece of information.

Where Should You Start Looking for Assets?

The easiest assets to find out about are real estate, vehicles, boats, aircraft, and other material objects that must be registered for tax purposes.

Real estate sales records, starting in the county assessor's office where you believe the property to be located. This is where you'll find tax records, property transfer records, and liens.

Business bank accounts can be located through DUNS Number lookup Million Dollar Directory, or from the company's annual report.

State DMVs will do a name search on motor vehicle records, and some will run tags and tell you who owns the vehicle. Some states charge a fee for this, while others require written permission from the vehicle's owner.

Boats up to 27 feet will be registered with the DMV; boats larger than 27 feet will be registered with the US Coast Guard database by name of owner or by vessel registration number.

The FAA maintains a listing of licensed airplanes in America.

The SEC's EDGAR website maintains information about public companies. This includes Form 13-D, which identifies owners of more than 5% of any publicly-held company, and Form 13-F, identifying institutional managers with equity assets of $100 million or more.

Stock in private companies is difficult to search, but not impossible; try Lexis-Nexis, PR Newswire, Crains Business Publications (probably available in your library), or the appropriate Secretary of State's office. This sort of asset search, however, may require a professional.

Personal bank accounts are much harder to search for; you can try mailing a check to the subject for a few dollars, calling it a "prize;" when it's deposited, you'll have the bank routing number on the back of the cancelled check. It is illegal, however, to try to find out the size of someone's bank account without their express permission. This sort of search should definitely be left to a professional.

Business bank accounts can be located through Dun's Million Dollar Directory, or from the company's annual report.

Where Else Can You Look?

You can often find lists of someone's financial assets in civil or criminal litigation records or in probate.

  • Divorce records generally have an exhaustive list of assets.
  • Bankruptcy records must by law list all assets.
  • Tax evasion records
  • If the subject has recently inherited assets, try probate court records.

Collectibles are notoriously difficult to find; the best way to find them is in insurance policy addendums and riders, generally attached to the main homeowner policy.

The method used by most information brokers to get this information is the credit report. Information brokers have access to skip tracing and credit information ordinary people can't access without special permission.

Off-shore assets are really tough, you can determine that someone has them by looking at information like travel agency records, passports, telephone records and hotel receipts to identify overseas travel. These can often only be found by subpoenaing records. If your subject is actively hiding assets, you may find items like real estate that's been purchased under the names of relatives (most asset tracers agree the wife's maiden name is a favorite), or the names of friends and associates.

What Should You Not Do?

Though there are many ways to search for financial assets, there are also things not to do.

  • Never use false pretenses, like making phone calls and misrepresenting yourself as a financial institution. Whether you practice it or hire a private investigator to do it, it's a federal crime.
  • Never assume that just because an asset is listed in the subject's name it belongs to him in entirety; you must assess how much equity is really in it.
  • Never attempt anything illegal to locate someone's hidden assets. It is invariably more trouble than it's worth.

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