Locating the assets of a business can be incredibly difficult, because assets can be held in many, many ways. Among the many creative money management methods available, business assets can be legally held in a foreign country, as a corporate shell, or a personal trust. Some are liquid—cash or easily converted into cash. While some are intangible—lacking a physical presence and may be hard to place a value upon. And still others may be hidden—cleverly by choice to hide wealth or hard to find because of government financial protection laws.
Hiding business assets is so much easier than hiding personal assets, because one can create new umbrella accounts and shell companies to hide money. The only way to locate business assets is to start finding the ‘dots’ and then begin to connect them.
Typical assets controlled by a business include: Real Property; Personal Property; Investments and Trusts (Financial Assets); Intellectual Property; and Subsidiaries/Spin-offs.
In our 5-Part Industry Undercover series, we will examine how to conduct an assets investigation and offer some practical search procedures follows. This week, we look at motor vehicles and vessels (personal property) and provide examples of how to search for and investigate them.
Personal property can include transportation vehicles, and business equipment such as computers and machinery. Personal assets are classified as personal property.
Large companies will own some, or all, of these motor assets. The company car might be something as simple as a local contractor’s fleet of work vans or as imposing as a limousine with dedicated driver. While a company might not own an airplane outright, do consider it might participate in the fractional jet service.
The company water craft might be a weekend boat or a luxury yacht. Motor vehicles searches usually depend on which state you are searching. Motor vehicle records that contain personal information, such as an address or physical characteristics, are not public record. However, if you have a permissible purpose, according to the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), you can look up title and registration records. For example, a look-up by plate number will give current owner information, or doing a name search can lead to vehicles registered or titled under that name. A permissible purpose includes enforcement of a judgment, an existing court case, or an investigation involving anticipated litigation. It is up to the individual state to decide to adopt allowable permissible uses.
Many of the state agencies that oversee vehicle records also oversee vessel records—and DPPA restrictions apply here, too. However, a number of states have a different agency regulate and hold vessel records. These agencies usually also oversee wildlife and outdoor activities, including the issuance of hunting and fishing licenses—and many of these agencies do not follow DPPA, so their records are open.
Many of the state agencies that oversee vehicle records offer online access to record indices and sometime even to record images (a subscription is often required). This is a good way to find records for current and historical automobiles and vessels. If you don’t locate a car registered to the individual, do check the spouse’s name.
Conducting a search offline can be a great technique that potentially offers more leads to assets. Send a surveillance investigator to both the home and workplace of the individual you are searching or to the subject company’s location to see if there is a car or a fleet of vehicles present. You can look up the plate numbers by state and get the owner’s information as described above. If the individual has registered the vehicle under another name, or company name, this new lead may be the avenue to follow for other assets.
Vessels and watercraft weighing more than five tons are registered with the U.S. Coast Guard. Also search for larger vessels or search by lien or title, at the Coast Guard’s National Vessel Documentation Center.
If you are searching for yachts or luxury liners, it’s possible the vessels are registered in a foreign country, such as Bermuda. When searching for these large vessels as floating corporations, scan the business databases by the boat name. Also, search the Web with the boat name and any other indicators that you may have. It is possible that the company is selling or buying the boat and is showing photos of it online with all of its statistics. Finally, the vessel may be named in a UCC filing and will have an insurance policy.
In asset investigation or debt recovery work, have a clear starting point for your attack. Document everything—even the smallest detail—you find. Save all your files. A random mention of flying lessons on a social media page may, a few months later, prompt you to search for aircraft tail numbers.
Pair your excellent searcher skills with some of these professional tools reviewed here and watch how your report fills out.
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