Background Checks Down Under

Australia has a lot of great things going for it: Untamed wilderness, Vegemite, Crocodile Dundee, and of course the (often shirtless) Hugh Jackman. But when it comes to doing background checks down under – as I had to do for a recent case involving a lawyer who had some questions about her new boyfriend – I found that criminal records in Australia are much more closely guarded than they are here in the U.S.

This wasn’t the first time that I had to tackle foreign red tape: I often take for granted the access that private investigators, journalists and all other citizens have to information in the United States via private databases, public record and the Freedom of Information Act.

It is possible to do a long-distance criminal records check – but it takes substantially longer. There is a procedure to request a police check, but you have to fill out forms and register for access.

Figuring out marital status is harder: The records are arranged by territory, and requests can be made over the counter, but only the people who got married (or those with their consent) can order certificates online. A number of commercial websites claiming to provide marriage records for a fee have sprung up, but the government warns that these are scams.

Bankruptcy was easier: The Australian Financial Security Authority has a National Personal Insolvency Index, and according to the website it provides the following information:

An ‘extract’ of the NPII shows name and other personal information that identifies a debtor, the type of insolvency proceeding, the date it started, the administration number and the name and contact details of the trustee or administrator of the proceeding, as well as:

  • creditors’ petitions
  • debt agreements
  • personal insolvency agreements
  • bankruptcies
  • insolvent deceased estates
  • control orders and authorities.

According to the website, personal information is also included, such as:

  • the name, date of birth (if known), residential address and occupation of the person as disclosed on documents accepted by the Official Receiver
  • the person’s previous names and aliases, if known
  • the type of proceeding, the date it started and the administration number
  • the name and contact details of the trustee or administrator of the proceeding
  • the current status of the person and/or the proceeding (eg whether a person is discharged from bankruptcy or whether a creditor’s petition for a person’s bankruptcy is in progress).

Information on a company including business names, financial status and audits can be found at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

Information on military records and many different types of historical documents are maintained in the National Archives – and if you can’t visit in person, they take requests via email and give price quotes related to the specific information provided.

Is the Death Master File on life support?

The Social Security Death Master File may be maintained by the government, not the Grim Reaper – but it remains a valuable investigative tool. When a person dies, funeral homes, hospitals and /or families report the data to the Social Security Administration. In 1980, a court ruling ordered the government to make the DMF data publicly available – and until last week, anyone who paid the fee could access the 86 million names.

Now Congress has approved a provision that will limit access to ‘certified’ users for the three years following a person’s death. Supporters say that this ruling will help avoid cases of fraud – and identity thieves swiping social security numbers of recently deceased individuals.

The Social Security Administration site reads: ‘Subscribers must have a legitimate fraud prevention interest, or have a legitimate business purpose pursuant to a law, governmental rule, regulation, or fiduciary duty in order to be certified under the program.’

I’ve spent a huge part of my career detecting fraud, and I completely sympathize with families who have had sensitive data stolen. But as an investigator, I know how invaluable the Death Master File can be to cases.

In the past month alone, I have used it to confirm that a client’s long-lost relative was deceased, help with a probate case and help to determine the identity of a criminal who was using multiple social security numbers.

The site now says that in order to register, ‘certified users’ must pay a $200 certification fee and sign a user agreement. If they are approved, they can then pay per number of online searches. The amount ranges from $600 for up to 1,000 searches to over $7,000 for the entire file on CD Rom.

I personally feel that the ruling is short-sighted. The Death Master File helps researchers complete family trees, PIs solve criminal cases and journalists write accurate stories. Perhaps if the IRS wants to crack down on identity fraud, they should focus on protecting the living victims of identity fraud rather than limiting information about dead people.

The National Technical Information Service (NTIS) is creating a temporary certification program, so this is a developing story.


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