Clients who hire us for asset searches always want to know what we find. As often as not, the big news after an asset search is when we don’t find something we should be seeing but are not.

When someone is concealing the truth, they often put in place a lie to throw you off. One of the best ways to figure out if someone is lying is to ask yourself, “is this likely?”

Remember the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme? The people who managed not to get burned turned away from Madoff because of what they didn’t see:

  • No major accounting firm auditing what purported to be a multi-billion-dollar fund.
  • No independent custodian.
  • No regulatory filings in the last couple of years that reflected billions of dollars in holdings.

Computer programs are terrible at telling you what they should be seeing but are not, which is why so many investors never clued in to the Madoff risks that many experienced professionals noticed.

When we do an asset search, we are always on the lookout for what doesn’t make sense. In the past three years, we’ve seen the following:

  • A man who claimed to put no money in any financial institution, yet whose computer showed a browsing history at two-dozen brokerages. You can keep your money out of banks, but still on deposit with Schwab or TD Ameritrade. Next step: 24 subpoenas to those brokers.
  • A divorcing husband’s loss-making entity that did no business (zero sales) yet persisted in paying one employee $75,000 a year. And, bank accounts showed the business paid plenty of taxes.

Both of these fit the common scenario in divorce: appearing to have fewer assets that you really have. In the first case, the husband hoped to get money out of his brokerage after the divorce was final. In the second, the company may have been in partnership with another company that was holding back the first company’s share of the profits until after the divorce. The second company could also have been owned by the husband or trusted friend or relative.

As with the Madoff fraud, a computer program did not point to either of the divorce cases above and spit out a “High Risk” or “Possible Asset Concealment” result. Instead, both findings were the product of hours of slow and careful research.

The next time you wonder why an asset search takes hours and not just the feeding of a few names and numbers into a database, remember: Databases tell you (sometimes) what’s there – not what isn’t.

Finding assets can be satisfying work, but frustration sometimes comes in realizing that a client’s lawyers haven’t been asking the right questions in their depositions.

We have written repeatedly that getting bank account information without a court order is illegal (other than discovering it on a shared computer or in records lying around). When we are looking for assets before a lawsuit has been filed, getting at bank records is a long shot, and what we look for are banks and brokerage accounts our clients’ lawyers can ask about when the time comes for discovery.

But how unfortunate it is when a client has been through discovery, or perhaps has a divorce agreement the former spouse is cheating on, and we find out that the lawyers never asked the right question.

The right question involves not just what someone makes, but what a company may be paying a company that employs that person or that beneficially owned by that person. The right question might be: “we see that your Oklahoma company paid taxes in seven other states. Why? What activities has the company had there?”

Not long ago, a woman came to us and asked us to find out where her ex-husband is working. We found convincing evidence that he was still employed at the same company as he had been during the divorce. At the time, his boss had been deposed and told our client’s lawyer that the ex-husband was making a paltry amount of money.

This seemed unlikely given his title and his history of high compensation. When we looked at the deposition transcript, it turned out that the boss had never been asked about beneficial ownership of companies.

It can work this way: instead of paying Mr. Jones his full salary, it pays Mr. Jones a small amount of money so that Mr. Jones can look as if there’s not much money to go after. The real money goes to Alpha LLC, a company Mr. Jones controls. Alpha LLC may have an agreement with the company that it will supply Mr. Jones’ services, for instance.

Companies don’t care how they pay you as long as they account for all of their payments and withhold the right amount of taxes and other government payments. If they are public and Mr. Jones is a major executive, they may have to disclose the compensation arrangement in securities filings. But if they are private, they don’t have to tell you about those payments to Mr. Jones’ side companies, trusts, or other vehicles.

Unless of course they are under oath and you ask them.

For women wondering whether their ex-husband (or soon-to-be ex) is hiding assets on them, rest assured that you are not alone.

According to a new white paper put out by Francis Financial, a wealth-management firm that specializes in advising women, 63 percent of women the firm surveyed “felt strongly that their husband was hiding assets during the divorce process.” The firm says this was among the first such studies focusing on women who have divorced or are in the process of divorcing.

Where to begin if you are one of those women? The study said that many who thought they were being cheated out of assets “had to grapple with the decision of hiring a forensic accountant,” and this may be an advisable step.

But as we often tell our clients, a forensic account is someone you may wish to hire after you are sure you have looked everywhere for the missing assets. As we wrote last year in How Investigation Helps Forensic Accountants, “where we can offer help is to find entire new companies that Wife and her accountants (forensic included) did not know existed.”

Some basics:

  • We don’t start just by looking at what a woman thinks are the places her husband is hiding assets, because if you know where the stuff is, you don’t need us. If assets are hidden you may be surprised at where they turn up.
  • We always like to give our clients a questionnaire that asks for all kinds of information about the person we’re searching. What might he name a secret company? What was the street he grew up on? Many hedge funds and private equity firms turn out to be named for the childhood streets of their founders. I know this because I always ask where these firms get their names.
  • Don’t expect us to come up with lots of hidden cash. People hear “assets” and think “cash” because it’s the first asset listed on any balance sheet and the easiest to use once you get it. The problem is that in the U.S., it’s illegal to get bank account information without a court order. What we can do is find likely hiding places of cash, based on business relationships and other legal sources. One client gave us the home computer she and her husband used, and we found that he had visited about a dozen websites of asset management companies. These were ripe for subpoenas at the appropriate time in the proceedings.
  • You don’t have to find every last penny to get some satisfaction. Once someone knows we have uncovered a significant portion of their hidden assets, their settlement offer can improve quickly. Some women have the means and the drive to litigate for years. Others just want a fair deal and to move on with money sufficient to take care of them and their children. Either way, asset investigations and a good forensic accountant are often worth considering.

It may all come crashing down, but if it doesn’t the cryptocurrency market is your newest headache in trying to find hidden assets.

Long written off by many as a joke, cryptocurrencies are still dismissed by many as a bubble waiting to burst. Just the other day, the Wall Street Journal ran this piece arguing that Bitcoin (the largest and original cryptocurrency) is way overvalued.

Launched in 2009, Bitcoin was worth almost nothing for several years. At the end of 2013 it suddenly rose to almost $900, but then fell and never got back to that level until January of this year. Now, Bitcoin is worth $4,600, supposedly driven upward by residents of countries not thrilled by the prospect of devaluation of their home currencies, confiscation/destruction of other property, or both: Venezuela, Korea, and China lead the way, but you can think of other good candidates.

Some true believers in Bitcoin think it should be worth $250,000 to $500,000 in 13 years, based on the idea that by design it can’t be inflated like paper currencies, and assuming cryptocurrencies get to just five to ten percent of the world’s share of payments (and that Bitcoin has about half of that cryptocurrency share).

Most famous as a means for criminals to transact business with little trace, mention of Bitcoin has been enough to get you laughed out of the room in polite company.

But what if $4,000 today could turn into $500,000 in 2030? Would your spouse want to take a chance with $25,000 to have more than $3 million later in life? Especially when it’s hard to trace? If so, read on.

Cryptocurrencies are really nothing more than entries into a big database that record your purchase. The database uses something called blockchain technology, which ensures that the records are decentralized. The record is spread all over the chain and most importantly, once a transaction is confirmed it can’t be changed. Blockchain is for real, and many law firms are investing in it as the future of contracting. You can read more about its world-changing potential in the recent cover story of Fortune Magazine.

How can you tell if someone owns Bitcoin or another crypto? There is no ownership record by name, necessarily. In the U.S. many websites that will sell you bitcoin have to take your name and other identifying information, but they will let you send the bitcoin anywhere you want — no names required. Privacy at other sellers is higher. If you buy bitcoin overseas, the transaction can be completely anonymous.

For asset searches, the first thing to find would be evidence of dollars turned into bitcoin. Have there been bank or Western Union transfers to places named Coinbase (or anyplace with the name Coin in the title), GDAX, CEX.IO? Any cash coming in from such places to pay a few bills?

Are there any records of such currencies inadvertently left around or on the computer you and your spouse may have shared? These currencies are in the end just strings of letters and numbers that look like this: 1F5tAaz5x1HUXrCTLbtMDqcw6o5GNn4xqX. If you see such strings, cryptocurrency could be involved.

There are two ways people most often hold cryptocurrencies. Either on the website where they buy it, or on an electronic wallet (which is really just a mini-computer the size of a thumb drive that securely records their currency id codes). You may find such an electronic wallet, but more likely you will see evidence of computer traffic with one of the virtual wallets on the web.

Keep an eye on Bitcoin. If the optimists are right, there could be millions of dollars of it to get if you can find it. The higher it goes, the greater the chance that the kinds of people who like to buy gold will have cryptocurrency too.