EP 112: How a Professional Investigator Finds Hidden Assets - Interview with Philip Segal, Founder of Charles Griffin Intelligence

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"We always say that our clients know more than they think they know about their spouse's or their ex-spouse’s finances.” - Philip Segal

Who can you hire to help you find your spouses hidden assets? Philip Segal, founder of Charles Griffin Intelligence LLC, is an expert at tracking down your spouse’s attempts to hide money from you. If you have suspicions, Philip is one of the people to call. If you think there may be money stashed somewhere, this is an episode you don’t want to miss!

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To learn more about Philip Segal:

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Shawn: Today on the show with me I have Philip Segal. He is the founder of Charles Griffin Intelligence, and also author of the book The Art of Fact Investigation: Creative Thinking in the Age of Information Overload. Philip, welcome to the show.

Philip: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Shawn: Why don’t you give us an introduction and tell us about your background, also specifically what you do in divorce cases?

Philip: My background is that of a journalist. I was a financial journalist primarily, for nineteen years. Lastly, the finance editor of the Wall Street Journal in Asia. Then, in midlife I became a lawyer, and I now do fact finding work sometimes for other lawyers, sometimes for companies or just individuals. It’s a great mixture of the kind of digging the journalists are trained to do, with the legal work that you learn to do in law school. The kind of work that we do in divorce cases, primarily comes down to asset searching. If you are getting divorced and the other side says “Oh I don’t have any money.”, “This is how much I can give you.”, “We better settle on this.”, and if you think no, the key is usually a woman thinking he has a lot more money than he admits to having, I don’t want to settle I want to make sure he’s got what I think he’s got, then they might call us. We do asset searches; we do investigations of all kinds. In divorce cases we’ll do asset searches and we’ll try and figure out how much money the person is hiding. Sometimes after divorce when somebody fails to pay support, fails to pay alimony, we’ll go around and figure out how much they’ve got and if there are any assets we can go seize for failure to pay. So that’s the kind of thing we do for family law.

Shawn: Got it, that makes sense. I hear all the time, almost everyday from someone that they think their spouse is hiding some money from them and potentially in large sums. Of course the challenge is, it’s hidden. If someone gives you a call and they say, “I think my spouse is hiding money,” or “I’m getting a divorce,” or “I’m in the divorce process,” how do you start looking for those types of assets?

Philip: You have to take a completely fresh look at the person. We always say that our clients know more than they think they know about their spouses or their ex-spouse’s finances. No one will know more than the wife the kinds of names he might give a company, the kinds of hang-ups he might have, the kinds of places that he’s attached to, that he might have wanted to go buy a property or the street he grew up on, and that’s what he might name his company after. Those are really good bits of information to get. On the other hand, people who keep their financial affairs completely secret from their spouse for five, ten, twenty years, really don’t give that spouse a whole lot of information on which to go. So we always like to take a fresh look at every person that we investigate so that if the spouse says that, “I’m sure you’re not going to find anything outside of Georgia. We’ve both lived in Atlanta all our lives. We don’t travel very much, don’t look outside of Georgia.” We like to look outside of Georgia. Maybe not on site but we’ll take database looks to see. Frequently, husbands end up surprising wives, and there will be a condo in Miami the wife never new about. I once had a husband who had bought a three million dollar mansion, unbeknownst to his wife. He had left the papers lying around stupidly, for him, but we discovered that he had a company that he had formed and we looked and saw what that company owned and it owned a mansion. You have to really try not to assume that you know too much before you begin.

Shawn: I think that makes a lot of sense. I know some people listening will say, and maybe even some attorneys might say “Well that’s what the discovery process is for, I’ll just subpoena the records and from there I’ll have all the information.” You have a great section in your book as to why that might not be the case. Why doesn’t the traditional legal process that almost every family attorney or every family law is trained in, why doesn’t that work in that situation?

Philip: The discovery process doesn’t always work because it’s predicated on the idea that people will tell the truth. If they to you “I want you to tell me every bank account that you’ve got,” and you don’t hand over evidence of every bank account you’ve got, it’s up to the wife’s attorney to subpoena the banks that they haven’t told us about. The other side is not going to hand over information that you don’t specifically ask for. You can’t just say you want everything. You want to say you want the accounts in this bank, or you want the accounts in that bank. You can say I want everything but you won’t always get it. When people sometimes hide assets they’ll do it through a side company. If you don’t know to ask for the records of Alpha LLC., which is the ex husbands big company through which he owns his Las Vegas property, they’re not going to hand you the documents relating to Alpha LLC. You won’t know to ask for Alpha LLC until you do some investigation. That’s why discovery is indispensable, but you need extra help to tell you about the things to ask for that they’re not going to help you with on the other side.

Shawn: Alright. That makes sense. I want to challenge you a little bit. We live in the age of google and google knows everything –at least it seems to –why can’t I just google search for Alpha LLC, google search my spouses name, and get the information that way?

Philip: For one thing, I always tell people to “google yourself” and see what percentage of yourself, and all of your personal financial affairs come up in a google search. If you google yourself, will your bank account information be up there? Will every house you ever owned be up there? Will every person you’ve every worked with be up there? If you have a bunch of different companies will all those be up there? In almost no case will there be more than three or four percent of everything you know about yourself on a google search. If a google search on you is not very helpful, why would it be that much more helpful on anybody else? Even the most famous people, you’re not going to know that much using a google search, and there are a few reasons for that. Number 1, google has only been around since 1998 so any records that relate to anything before 1998, google wasn’t even there. Google is playing catch up. Number 2, most legal documents in the united states are not scanned and available on the internet. You have to go to court houses to find them. If they’re not on the internet google can’t show them to you.

Most importantly, for an asset searcher anyway, if anybody has got any kind of cleverness around how he’s going to hide assets, he’s not going to attach his name to a secret company that he uses in order to hide assets. If he’s trying to hide the assets, he won’t do that. You’ll have to find the company a different way. Maybe an association with an address that is associated with him, or maybe an association with a lawyer who he’s used to set up a lot of his other companies. Google is not going to make those leaps for you. Google is a very good starting point but it’s not going to do the thinking for you and it’s not going to connect all the dots for you. When you see four thousand pages of google results, you actually start clicking. After about ten pages it stops and you really don’t get very much. If google did it all no one would ever need to hire us, and they do. So I guess google doesn’t do it all. As I said, google yourself. If it doesn’t work for you, why should it work for anybody else.

Shawn: I think that makes a lot of sense. Speaking of googling myself, one of the first advertisements that will pop up if I type in my name or your name will be some sort of people search database. It will say “Look and find out if Shawn Leamon is a criminal.” Or if Philip Segal is cheating. Some sort of crazy attention grabbing Ad that will lead you to a people search database and will see, or claim to find out if you have a criminal record or something like that. Are those useful tools? Do they have limitations? Should we be looking at those kinds of things?

Philip: I don’t use them even if someone is paying us. We use databases that are more expensive than that. I’ll just give you one example. To do a proper criminal search in the state of New York it costs sixty-eight dollars. You put in the person’s name and the person’s date of birth and you’ll get a thorough criminal record search in all counties in New York state. That’s sixty-eight dollars. How is it possible to spend thirty-nine ninety-five and get a nationwide criminal check? It’s not possible. Those databases that are that cheap are cheap for a reason because they’re largely garbage.

Now and again, just to make sure I’m not talking out of my hat, I will pay the two or three dollars and try and see who has the cell phone that I had. It will say sometimes to put in any cell phone number and you can you figure out whose cell phone this is. I’ll put in my own cell phone number and it will tell me that a Dentist in Rochester, NY, has that cell phone, which is not true because I have it. I do that now and again just to make sure that things haven’t changed under my feet. As far as I know, they haven’t. You just don’t get the kind of value that these people promised. Sometimes they can give you some correct information. What they will not be is exhaustive. They’re so error prone that I don’t even use them, no matter what kind of budget I have in a search, I won’t even bother with them.

Shawn: Alright got it. So the short version is it sounds like if I’m suspicious, I’m going to have a hard time doing this myself using the most common methods that I see bandied about.

Philip: I think that’s true, although, even if I gave you all the databases that I use, with their passwords, you might still have trouble doing this at the beginning. There is a methodology to it. There are tricks that we play on ourselves that tend to stop the investigation before it should really continue.

People sometimes times think that they’ll put all these stuff into an expensive database and out will pop the answer. Kind of like on the old Star Trek when they could ask the computer anything and the computer would just give them the answer. Even these expensive databases don’t really do the job for you. They’ll give you little hints, little clues, but it’s up to you to make sure the databases are correct because they’re error prone, even the good ones. You have to back up on the public record what you see on the database. If the database say that Robert Smith owns a condo in Florida, even though he’s always supposed to have been a Georgia guy, and there’s a Robert Smith in Fort Lauderdale with a condo and you’re all happy, you think “Great! We’ve got an asset.” You have to make sure on the public record that’s the same Robert Smith that you’re investigating, or is it a different Robert Smith. You have to find a middle initial, you have to find a signature. You can’t trust these databases, that they will sort through all the Robert Smith’s and tell you that this is the one you’re looking at. They’re a starting point but you really need to be accustomed to putting in hours and hours of painstaking work to make sure that what the databases are showing you, is accurate. And also, how to go through dozens or hundreds of court cases and newspaper article, and licenses, and all the other records that you have to go through in order to find the little clues that will lead you to a residence, to a connection, and you hope, an asset.

Shawn: So it sounds like, from what you’re saying is that even if you have all of the tools of the trade, that only gets you so far, and there’s a lot of work in regards to the method and even knowing what to look for, and how to interpret the information that you might receive that will actually lead you down the line of finding something that’s potentially hidden.

Philip: Yeah. There’s an art to fact investigation. It’s partly a craft but it’s partly an art. If a master carpenter handed you his tool box, would you be able to build a beautiful house with those tools and that toolbox? If he said, “Here are my tools and here’s all the lumber. Here’s all the metal and here’s the wiring for the electrics. Go build a house.” You wouldn’t know how to do it. You probably wouldn’t. I wouldn’t because it takes a long time to practice, to know how to use the tools. Which is appropriate here? Which one is appropriate there? It’s the same thing as being a lawyer or being an accountant. You can’t just have a manual and then say that you’re going to go do it. There are fine points to doing it and every case is different. It’s certainly helpful if you know what the tools are. Some people are better at it than other because you need a kind of curiosity, you need a kind of patience, open mindedness so that you don’t close the investigation too quickly. You have to have to be able to go down a couple of different paths at the same time because you don’t know which one is going to be the most fruitful, keep them in mind, keep it written down as to which ones you’ve looked at, abandon the bad ones and go further on the good ones and hope that you get somewhere. You can’t look at every factor in the world, there’s too many, there’s billions. You have to take educated guesses. All that comes with practice.

Shawn: I think that makes plenty of sense. We forgot to define something at the very beginning of the interview. I want to talk about it now. When you say asset search and when we discuss asset searches and hidden money or hidden assets, it’s more than just, someone has a bank account somewhere right?

Philip: Correct. Bank accounts are about the hardest thing to go find without a court order. In the United States it’s illegal. If you hire me to say, “Go find my ex wife’s bank account,” there are people out there who will go and find out what the bank account is that your wife might have. They’ll do it in a way that is illegal under federal law. You can’t find out what’s in the bank account of a person who has an account that is not your account if that person doesn’t give permission, or if a judge doesn’t issue a court order to the bank to review that information to you.

People always want the easy “get me cash” because when you think about assets you think about a balance sheet; cash is the easiest thing to get if you know where it is. The problem is you don’t know where it is, and even if you do know where it is, you need a court order to go see how much is in there. If I know he always banked at JP Morgan Chase, and I know the branch where his account was, I still can’t walk in there and get the balance information. Furthermore, he might have emptied the account out.

What we try do is things that will lead to cash, as well as the things themselves that might be valuable. It’s much easier to find a condo, home, an RV or a nice car that someone owns and see where the loan came from. If they financed that thing, chances are they bank at the bank where the financing came from. Then you have the condo, which you can send a sheriff over to grab once you have the judgment. Also, you have a clue as to where the banking happened.

Similarly, if somebody went bankrupt eight years ago, bankruptcy records are great and they can sometimes show you where the person had his bank account. If he’s from a small town there are not many banks and chances are he might still have an account, there. That’s the kind of thing that you try and get at. You try and get at the easier things that will give you hints as to where the cash is. Once you have a court order you can then issue subpoenas. There is still a trick to finding out where the person banks. Even if you have a court order, you may still need to look at the hard assets to get a clue as to where to subpoena because you can’t subpoena every bank.

Shawn: So this is really complicated, is what I’m getting at from the outside. I get it. I get the message that there is a lot of different potential moving pieces if someone is hiding assets from you or tempting to hide assets. What’s the process if someone gives you call? How do you get started?

Philip: We take the name of the person we’re looking at to make sure there’s no conflict and that person isn’t our client in this or another mater. Then, what we do is we have a questionnaire that we like to give people. It’s four or five pages and it asks a lot of questions about the person we’re going to be looking at. As I said, at the beginning, the spouse often has information like names of friends, every phone number the person ever had, every cell phone number, every office number, all the different addresses, maybe the ones that he hasn’t had for five years. Maybe there’s a record from five years ago of a company that was formed at that address, at this old cell phone number, every old email address. Everything you can remember about the person we want to look for. When it’s a marriage situation there’s a lot more information than when it’s a “I want to sue someone who didn’t pay his bill.” We get all that information and we do a quick look on the databases and then we say how much we will charge you for a preliminary asset search which will look at every public record we can get our hands on, every database, newspapers, social media, licensing, securities records, everything that’s out there that you can grab without having to talk to anybody. That’s what we’ll do first.

On the simplest cases this can run under two thousand dollars. More complex ones run more. If someone has eighty buildings and they’re all partially financed, that takes a long time to sort through and see how much equity there is in each building. If someone had a four chain drive cleaning or two car dealerships in a town that didn’t seem to go very far then it’s going to be more affordable. You still have to look and make sure that they didn’t surprise you with anything that you had no idea they had such a company in Nevada which owns a property in California, or something else. That’s how it gets started, and once the budget is approved we get going. We’re very proud of the idea that we don’t go over the budget that we promise. We do it in writing and if it’s a budget that you can afford, we know that we will get you that memorandum without going over that budget that you won’t have to pay, because there’s a contract. Then, if we’re lucky, we’ll find enough information for you to go ahead and get the assets without having to do any interviews of former employees and former colleagues.

The more expensive stuff really comes at the beginning. The interviews are not as expensive. We don’t like to interview people in the first phase. We like to really do our quiet homework. If you interview people, say a former colleague of this person you’re looking at, they could tell the person that “Hey I got a call. Some investigator is looking at you, looking around.” and that could maybe get the person alerted to the idea that he needs to hide assets better than he was. This is the reason we do the public record and internet looking first. Sometimes it’s all you need and the person doesn’t even know we’re coming.

Shawn: Phil, this is awesome information and I appreciate the insight. I know we’re just barely scratching the surface. It certainly gives us a good set of information, tools and things to think about, particularly if people are in a situation where they suspect their spouse is hiding assets. What is the best place for people to learn about you and your services?

Philip: Well, they could go to the website which is Charlesgriffinllc.com, they can look at our blog called the Divorce Asset Hunter, which is devoted just to the very thing we’ve been talking about today; divorceassethunter.com. They can call us at 212-332-2845 and the book that you mentioned that deals with just with fact investigation is called The Art of Fact Investigation and they can pick up a copy at a bookstore or Amazon. There’s an E-book version of it on kindle, and I’m happy to chat briefly with anyone who wants a little bit more information about how we work and what it might cost.

Shawn: Excellent! Well Philip, thank you so much for coming on to the show.

Philip: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you for listening to the Divorce and Your Money Show. Visit us at www.divorceandyourmoney.com for 1-on-1 coaching and a full transcript of this episode. If you enjoyed the show, please take a moment to leave a review on iTunes, as it will help other people discover this free advice.

Shawn Leamon, MBA, CDFA

Dallas, Texas

Shawn C. H. Leamon is Managing Partner of LaGrande Global, a firm that helps successful families manage large financial transitions like divorce, inheritance and selling a business.

He earned his Bachelor of Arts from Dartmouth College, double majoring in Economics and Philosophy, and his Masters in Business Administration at Spain’s IE Business School.

Before founding LaGrande Global, Shawn helped manage $1.1 billion in client assets at Bernstein Global Wealth Management. He also worked as a credit research analyst at J.P. Morgan. He is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, and he has been an advisor to numerous high-stakes divorce cases.

Shawn is the author of two well-received finance books: Managing Private Wealth: Principles, and Divorce and Your Money: The No-Nonsense Guide, both published in 2016.

In his spare time, Shawn is an ultra-endurance athlete and has competed in events as long as 24 hours. He is an Eagle Scout and a member of the Alumni Board of Greenhill School.