Digging dirt, Internet style - by Deb Radcliff

With a few tools and keyword searches, you can find readily available information on an entity you're unsure of - before you give them any money or business.

Part I

While the Internet offers white collar criminals a higher level of anonymity than they have in the physical world, it can also provide information that leads you right to their doors. For instance, several years ago when a hacker showed me a server hosting kiddie porn hidden behind an ‘under construction’ Web page, we were able to deliver to the FBI the point of contact and the street address in Sparks, Nevada where the server was located.

This information is useful not only for investigators working cases, but to anybody wanting to know more about a person or business they’re about to get involved with.

In a recent instance, when my sister was getting ready to invest in a personal wealth investment firm offering her a too good to be true rate of return and raising other red flags, I collected all the business names and Web addresses she could give me. In about an hour’s time searching on the Web, it became clear that the personal wealth investment firm operated numerous shell companies with strong ties to a dubious character that had ‘professional scammer’ written all over his online persona.

The initial information on who and where the players were located was easy enough to siphon off who-is lookups, domain dossiers, and trace route information. My favorite stop, because they have a bunch of helpful lookup tools all in one place, is CentralOps. Check all the search boxes, type in the Web address and it spits up the site’s IP address, who’s hosting, who the site’s registered to (with address and phone number), what services it’s running, what other companies are tied to that registrant, their associated IP addresses, and a host of other information useful for tracking down someone on the Web.

Not all of the information is accurate, mind you, and much of it isn’t relevant. But in the case of the guys going after my sister’s money, it was enough to see that three or more ‘partners,’ claiming to be personal wealth advisors, lenders and investors, are all working in the same office building in St. George, Utah, while purporting to be completely separate entities. It was also enough to show that the guy who registered the personal wealth generation site was associated with other scam-related Web businesses, including guerilla marketing, pricey ‘grant guarantee’ services, and so on.

Reputational search is another important way of finding information about a person or entity before you give them your business. This was, in fact, how I discovered that the person who registered the personal wealth site was more than likely a serial fraud with multiple aliases.

Click Here for Part II

Deb Radcliff is a veteran, award-winning security writer and vp of publishing for the information security think tank, the Security Consortium, in San Jose, Calif.