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By John H. Wood
There is a wealth of knowledge available from a wide variety of computer databases around this country that can aid the investigator in almost any insurance claims adjustment or investigation. The market is rapidly expanding and vendors are proliferating to address the expanding market. There are many ways to obtain and use computer online information. In this article I’ll share with you what I’ve learned.
When an investigator needs information, it can be obtained:
* directly from the original source’s database,
* by accessing that database through a gateway service,
* by requesting information from an information broker, or
* by requesting information from what is referred to as a value-added service provider
The direct access and access via the gateway service are usually made by using a computer to log onto the other system. Communications with the information broker and value-added service provider may be accomplished by any means (computer, fax, phone or mail).
An example of an original source is a credit bureau. These companies own the computer that contain the databases with the necessary information. Original sources may not allow just anyone to access Iheir databases. They may want only volume users and they may require high monthly lees. They may also have unfriendly computer programs that are not easy to access. Access-limiting restrictions are sometimes imposed because of liability. concerns (eg. the Rebecca Ann Schaefer case). In other instances, the motivation is that the big money is readily avail-able from the big players.
Gateway sources operate computer systems that allow access to the original sources through their (the gateway’s) computers. Gateway sources overcome the obstacles between the individual requester and the original sources. They pay the high month ly fees and address computer communication challenges. Access through a gateway may be direct, where the user first logs onto the gateway and is then connected to the original source.
Alternatively, the gateway may provide the user with a means to post requests for information that can be retrieved at the next log-on. Some gateway sources duplicate in full the records obtained from original sources. It is wise, however, to be aware of those gateway services that reformat and/or frequently eliminate some of the data. These providers may sell the same formatted/eliminated/mixed-and-matched data when a single search of the original source would have provided the full record. But there is nothing improper going on here — it’s called packaging and it’s used by many businesses to sell a wide variety of services and pro-ducts. CDB Infotek and NCI are examples of gateway services.
Information brokers handle the computer chores for the user. The user communicates with the information broker about what is needed and the broker takes it from there. Information brokers usually have shopping lists with set prices for each search. The user may select the necessary items of information. The broker selects the source and format in which the information will be returned. Its usually up to the user to interpret and analyze the information retrieved in the search.
Value-Added Service Provider:
• Similar to the information broker, the value added service provider may also have a shopping list. The primary difference is that the user does not have to use that list. He may simply tell the value added service provider what is wanted and the provider, in turn, uses its expertise to locate that information through the fastest and/or most economical means. This may involve searching several databases, interpreting the data as it’s retrieved, analyzing it and making determina¬tions about what other searches to conduct until the desired information is obtained. The value added service provider does all of this for his customer — with a single goal of delivering the information that is sought.
Value-added providers may generate special reports, detailing their searches and the information obtained. This is especially useful for developing good paper trails and for thoroughly documenting files.
Selecting a Source:
Except with the value-added service provider, the investigator needs to know how to interpret and analyze the information that is retrieved. The investigator should know what each number or letter means; codes are the information often used to interpret the information. He also should know what the original source of the information was and how accurate and current the retrieved data is.
The sophisticated computer on-line database researcher will always attempt to obtain direct access to original sources. In those cases where the volume, computer software or finances are not available to permit direct access, gateway services should be used.
It is wise to shop around because not all gateway services are the same. Some have better prices, others have more original sources. Special care should be taken when dealing with gateway services which are retrieving their data from another gateway service and reselling it. The double and triple markups this creates may make information far more expensive than necessary.
For those using any source other than a direct source, the chore of continually keeping abreast of new original sources, new gateways and changes in prices is not an issue.
This is a fast-paced market, with newer, faster and cheaper sources becoming available all the time.
If an original source is accessed directly, it may be possible to obtain credit bureau header information from a credit bureau for a couple of dollars. However, if the same information is sought through any of the other sources mentioned above, the user call expect to pay $7.00 or more for a single header.
The proliferation of vendors is pressuring those prices — so much so that I recently received a flyer advertising headers at $5 each.
MetroMail’s MetroNet is probably the largest single source electronic cross reference directory currently available. Through this source, a person’s or firm’s name, address or telephone number can be used to conduct searches. When a record is located it will usually provide the name, address, phone number and the number of years that number has been used by the subject. It will also identify whether the subject is a head of household or not. These basic searches (and much more thorough searches can be conducted of this original source database) may cost $ .50 to a few dollars — for those having direct access. Purchased from other sources, the same information may be priced at $5 to $20.
The mark-up that other sources charge, however, is not usually unfair. They probably have subscription or minimum monthly fees that the user does not have. They also have operating overhead and need a profit just Iike any other business.
In my opinion, cost is a minor consideration. No matter how much you pay for information, it is probably received faster and more economically than in the old days when it was necessary to go into the field to do all of the investigative work. Additionally, the user certainly has access to information now that he could not have obtained in the field.
The most important consideration is that usable information is obtained. One must therefore invest the time, expense and energy in learning how to conduct searches, how to establish direct access to original sources or gateways, and how to learn to interpret and analyze the information the searches produce. The other effective method, of course, is to skip these and the information broker –and instead use a value-added service provider.
My intent in writing this article is certainly not to upset some very good information brokers. The investigator should understand, however, that if the brokers are supplying raw data that the investigator does not know how to use, the money is being wasted. For instance, what do the dates mean after an address on credit bureau headers? What do the codes HOH or SEL mean on MetroNet records? The answers to these two questions are very basic, and the newest investigator who receives information should be able to respond with correct answers. If he can’t, he is probably not effectively and economically making the best use of retrieved information.
Because this is a relatively new field, and one that is changing all the time, there are no sophisticated training courses yet avail-able that I am aware of. There are seminars and such, but the field is too broad to do anything but provide highlights. The only ways currently available to learn how to do desk top computer researching — and to interpret the information obtained — is to either work closely with an experienced person or, through trial and error, self teach.
In an article as brief as this, only the high-lights can be provided. In a follow-up article, the most common searches (credit bureau headers and MetroNet) will be explained and an attempt will be made to delve into what is available and how to use it.
You may express your opinions by sending snail mail directly to The John Cooke Fraud Report or by sending them e-mail at email@example.com. E-mail can be sent to the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 70304.1221 @compuserve.com.
John H. Wood is the president of Wood & Tait, Inc., one of Hawaii‘s largest private investigation agencies. They operate their own value added service provider known as The Research Department.
© 1995 John Cooke Fraud Report