It happens at least twice a month: someone calls our office and asks us to obtain bank account information for another person – usually an estranged spouse.
We reply that without a court order, we are not entitled to know the account number, balance or transactions history of anyone’s account without the account holder’s permission. It’s a matter of federal law. We can find an awful lot of assets and information that will lead us to where bank accounts may be, but the accounts themselves are off-limits.
Then comes the follow-up: If you can’t do it, why did an investigator do it for me last year?
Of course, this begs the question that if an investigator did it last year, why are you coming to us? Politeness prevents us from asking this question, and instead we tend to say something like, “If he did that without a court order, that was illegal.”
Why the Penn and Teller reference? It comes from what Penn says at the end of their wonderful show, which came to New York last summer for those of us who can’t get to Las Vegas.
To paraphrase, Penn tells people who have been baffled by the duo’s tricks for the previous two hours that if there is one thing we should take away from the show it, is that all of the “mentalists,” “mediums” and other such hucksters out there are fakes. Those people claiming special abilities are cheating because there is no such magic in the world – at least not the kind of magic sold for money.
This is the kind of magic that some people expect of investigators with “special databases” and “cutting- edge techniques.” Bank account information is not allowed, but somehow special computer programs can get it. It’s all legal, somehow. If it isn’t, why do people provide the service?
What we like to provide is a Penn and Teller kind of wakeup call: people who get the bank information of others without the consent of the account holders are cheating. They are breaking the law by fooling banks into thinking that the investigators are the account holders.
It’s not magic, and unlike Penn and Teller it’s not harmless entertainment. It’s an invasion of privacy and it’s against the law.