By Cynthia Hetherington

This past year I had the privilege to address The Canadian Institute of Chartered Business Valuators on the topic of online and cyber investigation applications. CBV is intensely interested in work efficiency, excellent content, and the resources that can support those endeavors. Our session was a great success and was included in the CBV Journal of Business Valuation 2020 Edition. This new blog series is based on an excerpt of the session and article. I hope it provides beneficial knowledge to information professionals, accountants, researchers, and those cyber-curious truth seekers who, like CBV, value efficiency in their productivity.

Today in Forensic Accounting

In today’s data-intense, digital world we’ve all gone cyber in our endless quest for answers. Everything in the forensic accounting world, business valuations, and accounting involves data collection and fact checking. We are all invested in analyzing large datasets, finding anomalies, and extracting key information and insights.

Despite the variety of cybertools at our disposal—from optical characterization and recognition software to AI technology—an entirely different set of digital tools is proving especially useful to forensic accountants in tracking down and tracing the actions of people. The easiest to access and most readily available are open source, social media sites, search engines, and databases—some free, some not. That said, fee-based tools can hasten the investigative process, making it even more intelligent.

Following the resource tips described in this Hg FactSheet will help the forensic accountant gather critical intelligence on people, historical topics, or events through public and not-so-public records without resorting to subterfuge or subverting security protocols. Understanding how these searches work—the data infrastructure or physical architecture of how information is disseminated, collected, captured, and stored—is crucial if obliged to explain your methodology to a client or testify as an expert witness in court. If uncertain about the authenticity of the information you’ve gleaned from open sources such as Facebook or Twitter, it is important that you state that clearly in a report, particularly if it serves as the basis for your analysis.

Why Start with People?

The quest for answers generally starts with people for the simple reason that companies and institutions don’t run themselves—people do. The focus is on exposing the fraudsters and schemers behind the crimes and products for which they need to be held accountable. Their social-media presence—whatever size the footprint—can reveal plenty to those with the right tools and know-how to uncover their misdeeds.

With so much information being shared often carelessly with little regard to privacy, discretion in the social media realm has largely gone out the window. Name it and it’s out there waiting to be found: Business contacts, videos, photos of your subject’s family and friends, homes or facilities, interests and extracurricular activities, academic records, business histories, travel itineraries, even drug habits.

Thanks to work-from-home orders, many professionals have found themselves operating from our second bedrooms, dining room, or living rooms. Today’s Zoom meetings can prove a real tell, or point of exposure, as can YouTube videos, because you may find yourself on someone’s home turf. Of course, you’ll be looking over their shoulder and evaluating everything in the frame.

Become Familiar with Popular Social Media Platforms

Whether following the money or tracking down hidden assets, conducting due diligence on persons of interest requires a familiarity with and presence on the most popular social media platforms used the world over: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. These are your main points of entry. As part of your investigative protocol, be sure to open accounts in your name on each of these sites. Keep your profile honest but bare bones—only enough information about yourself or the institution you represent to let people know you exist.

Worth recognizing is the fact that China—a notable exception—blocks Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other popular social media platforms. While a Chinese national living and working in North America may be visible on many of the social networks just mentioned, he or she is also likely communicating much more freely with family, friends, and business associates back home on non-Western platforms. Where relevant, searching these alternative country-specific sites is a must.

China’s Popular Social Media Platforms

China Platform: Type = North American Platform

WeChat: Privacy Group Chat = Facebook

Sina Weibo: Microblog = Twitter

Tencent QQ: Instant Messaging = WeChat

Tencent Video: Video Platform = Tiktok

Baidu Tieba: Subject-focused = Google

Douban: Music, Movies & Chats = Reddit

Zhihu: Q&A = Quora

Meituan: Consumer Purchases = Yelp

Toutiao: News = Reddit

DouYin: Music, Movies & Chats = Tiktok

It should be noted that while social media users in Singapore, the UK, and India share most of our North American site preferences, they also frequent sites unique to their country of origin. Unless you are a native speaker, resources such as Babelfish and Google Translate will help you understand the foreign content posted by these individuals.

Like what you’re reading? Hg’s entire FactSheet, Online Intelligence Tips for Forensic Accounting Investigations, is also available to download for free.


Are you an analyst or investigator looking for advanced OSINT training on risk assessment and risk monitoring? If so, check out Hg’s webinar series, where you can attend live sessions and receive CEUs or watch previously recorded sessions to beef up your investigative skills.


With over twenty-five years of global experience tracking down the money, Hetherington Group conducts asset investigations unique to your needs. Our seasoned analysts excel at locating money, funding sources, hidden assets, and forfeited or missing resources critical to your business decisions and family legacy. Learn how our team can assist you in securing your legacy and financial future. 

Cynthia Hetherington, MLS, MSM, CFE, CII is the founder and president of Hetherington Group, a consulting, publishing, and training firm that leads in due diligence, corporate intelligence, and cyber investigations by keeping pace with the latest security threats and assessments. She has authored three books on how to conduct investigations, is the publisher of the newsletter, Data2know: Internet and Online Intelligence, and annually trains thousands of investigators, security professionals, attorneys, accountants, auditors, military intelligence professionals, and federal, state, and local agencies on best practices in the public and private sectors.