Tips and Tricks for Finding Email Addresses

At signFor a recent project I had to scour the Internet for email addresses of corporate executives. You’d think this would be a relatively easy task. After all, work email addresses are public information, and executives have assistants to sort through and filter their communication so they’re not inundated. But I quickly discovered that email addresses are precious, hidden gems to be excavated via advanced methods.

I found some direct contact information through Hoover’s and through running simple searches in Google, but not as many as I’d hoped, so I revved up the search. First, I ran a search in Google and Bing using the following syntaxes:

Google: “*@companyname.com” OR “email * * companyname.com”
Bing: email NEAR:2 companyname.com

This brought up a few email addresses so I could see the pattern for that organization’s email addresses. Often press releases have the direct email addresses of the marketing or PR team lead.

Once I ferreted out the pattern, I ran a Google search with that pattern using the target individual’s name, to see if it appeared anywhere legitimate. I also tested the validity of the email address at MailTester.com or VerifyEmailAddress.org.

Unfortunately this method isn’t foolproof, as executive email addresses don’t always follow the format for the rest of the company’s employees. (To learn about how executives hide their email addresses, see this article.) But I was able to get 90% of the addresses this way. For the other 10%, I called the company’s switchboard and turned on the charm. In a couple of cases, I had to try different methods on different days, but I finally got what I needed.

Finally, for public companies, don’t neglect public filings as a source. I found some of my targets’ contact information this way.

Do you have any tips for locating hard-to-find email addresses? Please share them in the comments.

UK Investigative Research Resources

FreePint, an excellent site for research and information management resources, news, and reviews, runs a regular feature called “My Favourite Tipples,” usually written by a practitioner with expertise in a particular research niche. The latest post is by Neil Smith, a UK investigative researcher, who identifies a few indispensable tools for open source intelligence research and backgrounding individuals. The post, as well as his website, are well worth taking a look at, especially for UK sources.

Photo Fakery and the Challenge of Verification

Another week, another fake photo making the rounds in social media and raising outrage and/or hilarity. This time it is a photo of a gold toilet said to have belonged to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Problem is, the photo has been around since at least 2012, and while the Ukrainian president may indeed be guilty of accumulating outrageous luxuries, there’s no evidence that the gold toilet belongs to him or anyone else in Ukraine.

Earlier this month, a number of Sochi Olympics photos went viral that were also fake or not attributable to Sochi. And you may remember this photo of the Egyptian pyramids blanketed with snow (for the first time in 112 years!) making the rounds in December.

pyramid-snow-grabjpeg-2929283

Pretty cool looking, but guess what? Fake.*

Hoaxes, rumours, misinformation, and fake stories and images have long found a welcoming home on the Internet, but with the rise of social media they get shared and disseminated even more quickly than before, sometimes by people who should know better. Sometimes verifying a piece of information is as simple as checking snopes.com or doing a Google search. Other times, however, it may take a bit more work to dig under the surface and confirm the veracity of a story or photo. This Storyful article is a good start for learning about some ways to verify images, such as checking the Exif data and cross-referencing with other sources like satellite images.

Storyful and a number of other news and non-governmental organizations such as the BBC and Amnesty International have released a free ebook called The Verification Handbook to help with identifying rumour and misinformation. While the book is geared toward verifying user-generated content in disaster and emergency situations, the tools and guidelines presented provide an excellent resource for all types of digital verification and investigations. And as the book’s editor Craig Silverman (of Regret the Errorstates, “We’re all media consumers and creators now. We can all be nodes in a network of truth or of falsehood. And we all, of course, want to have an accurate picture of what’s happening.” Learning how to judge the accuracy and credibility of information is one of the essential skills of the social media age.

For some great examples of how a skeptical and investigative mindset can be applied to photos and videos, watch this TED talk by Storyful’s former managing director:

*Fake and staged photos have a long history, going all the back to the early years of photography. For a fascinating story about how Errol Morris uncovered what may be the first faked photo, check out this Radiolab episode.
Photo source: Snopes.com

What House of Cards Teaches Us About the Value of Good Research

House of CardsWarning: some spoilers ahead!

I’ve been watching House of Cards, and like a lot of people, I’m morbidly fascinated by Frank and Claire Underwood’s evil machinations as they connive and kill their way to becoming the most powerful couple in the free (ha!) world. One thing that has struck me is how absolutely crucial good research is to their success.

The journalists in the show, of course, do a lot of digging as they try to uncover the truth behind Peter Russo’s death, but it’s the investigative research that Doug Stamper, Frank’s trusty assistant/dirty-work-doer, does that underlies major plot points and propels Frank’s career aspirations forward.

We see this in action as early as Chapter 2 in Season 1: Stamper uncovers an anti-Israel editorial that ran in the college newspaper that Michael Kern, the proposed candidate for Secretary of State, edited. When the story gets picked up by the media, the ensuing controversy for Kern seals the nomination for Frank’s preferred candidate.

Another point at which research helps Frank outmaneuver others is in Chapter 12, when Doug’s sleuthing reveals that, contrary to what President Walker had claimed, he and the billionaire Raymond Tusk are actually close friends. He discovers this by digging up the travel schedules of each man and identifying a number of instances where both men were in the same city at the same time (the president’s schedule would be publicly available, but I’m not sure how he could’ve gotten Tusk’s schedule; we’ll overlook that unexplained detail…). With this knowledge, Frank is able to remain in control in his interactions with Tusk, who, as he discovers later, is playing him.

Doug Stamper may be inscrutable and a bit creepy, but he’s a damn fine researcher. He has that magical combination of qualities that makes a good researcher: he’s smart, focussed, diligent, and detail-oriented, but also able to think outside the box and connect the dots. Frank’s success depends as much on Doug’s ability to dig up valuable gems that he can use to his advantage as it does on anything else. I’m only a couple of episodes into Season 2, but no doubt there will be other examples of Doug’s indispensable research.

Good research can make the difference between a successful leader and an also-ran. Good research provides knowledge, and knowledge is indeed power.

Photo source: House of Cards’ Facebook page

Be Safe Online in 2014

ones and zerosOver at Slaw, Dan Pinnington has a series of posts (which originally appeared in LAWPRO Magazine) about protecting yourself online from the myriad scams and security risks that can afflict the unsuspecting or careless internet user. He tackles the dangers lurking in email, how to recognize and avoid surfing dangers, and how to avoid infections with anti-virus and anti-malware software. The posts are aimed at the legal profession, but anyone who needs a basic introduction to online security can benefit from them.

Just what can criminals do with your hacked email account or computer? Brian Krebs has a couple of eye-opening posts describing the value of a hacked email account (iTunes accounts sell for $8 each!) or a hacked PC. This post provides some excellent advice for defending your PC against attacks.

For additional reading, Lifehacker has some good articles on online security as well. And if you’re a Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome user (you should be), here are some resources for securing your browser:

So start the year off right by reading up on cybercrime and taking some simple steps to make sure you don’t fall victim to it.

Photo source: Mario & Amanda, Flickr

Digging for Data

graphsWhen searching for data and statistics, usually the best approach is to first consider who would be interested in the information. If you can identify the organization or group that has a need to know the information in order to operate, or is mandated to collect and disseminate the data, you are halfway to finding the data, or at least to assessing whether the data exists.

But what if the information is obscure or the source nebulous? Until recently, conducting this kind of research on the web was difficult, if not impossible. Advanced Google syntaxes are useful, as is adding the word “database” to your search terms, but these methods go only so far since Google doesn’t index the deep web, where such information usually exists. A few search engines, however, have recently made this kind of research much easier.

Zanran is one such search engine. The clever idea behind it is that images often contain numerical data. The search engine finds these images and indexes the surrounding text. It currently extracts tables and images from HTML, PDF, and Excel files and promises to add PowerPoint and Word documents in the near future. It’s a good resource for finding obscure statistics, or at least identifying possible sources by finding related information.

Quandl, another search engine for data, is impressive in its scope, transparency, and ability to download datasets in a number of formats. It has so far indexed 8 million time-series datasets from 400 quality sources. Scroll down to the bottom of the page of results to see information about the frequency of the data, the date the search engine retrieved the data, a link to the original source, and other relevant information.

DataMarket is a portal to free and proprietary datasets. It is aimed at the enterprise market, but it is free to search and create charts and visualizations of the public data. Find the list of data providers here.

Finally, the University of Auckland Library’s OFFSTATS is worth bookmarking. It is not a search engine, but a directory of official statistical sources on the web, organized by country, region, subject, or a combination of categories. It is a handy resource to consult for locating official sources.

These resources certainly make researching data and statistics easier and more fun. Know of other good statistics search engines or meta-sources? Please share them in the comments!

Photo source: Iman Mosaad, Fickr

The Ethics of Social Media Cyber-Sleuthing

social media

Without a doubt, social media and social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and countless others have become indispensable tools in conducting background investigations, due diligence, employment pre-screening, and other types of investigations. Pursuit Magazine recently had a good two-part series that covered not just pointers to some lesser-known social media sites, but also discussed the importance of adequately capturing and presenting the information found on these sites.

The articles also highlighted some ethical and legal issues around gathering such information, advising, for example, against using shady techniques like pretexting and password cracking to gain access to protected material. Additionally, in Canada, a number of laws – notably human rights and privacy laws – govern the types of information that may be gathered on social media and elsewhere, the methods used for gathering the information, and the decisions made based on the information.

To stay on the side of the law, it is crucial for organizations and investigators to exercise caution when researching, collecting, and disclosing personal information about individuals. The Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia has released some guidelines for social media background checks (PDF), identifying some pitfalls and issues to keep in mind:

  • Accuracy of information (Is it the right profile? Was the profile created by the individual himself or herself? Is the information current?)
  • Collecting irrelevant or too much information
  • Over-reliance on consent

Exercising good judgment when trawling social media sites isn’t just a matter of law and ethics; it can also save the organization from embarrassment, a lesson that the Toronto Star learned the hard way when it published false allegations against an Ontario MPP based on an old Facebook photo. The newspaper issued a rare front-page apology, citing an “egregious lapse” of standards.

Photo source: Jason Howie, Flickr

Roundup of Subject Guides and Directories

Gwen Harris’s post about the WWW Virtual Library — a directory of recommended web resources in various subject areas started back in the day by Tim Berners-Lee — inspired me to do a quick roundup of a few of the most useful and well-kept subject guides and directories I’m aware of.

In the early days of the world wide web, when the number of websites was small, directories were common and extremely useful in locating websites in an organized way. Perhaps the best-known one was Yahoo!, which was a hierarchical directory before it was a search engine (it still maintains a directory). Today, with billions of websites online, directories and subject guides are arguably even more important to help direct us to vetted, high-quality sources of information and save us from flailing around on search engines. As Gwen notes, however, subject guides/directories are a dying breed because of the amount of work involved in their upkeep.

Some of the guides that are updated regularly include:

  • The Virtual Private Library: A massive (almost overwhelming!) list of resources, branded as Subject Tracers, on a number of research topics. If you’re looking for comprehensiveness rather than curation, these lists are chock-full of links in various subject areas.
  • Toddington’s Free Online Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) Resources: A compendium to their paid knowledge base, this page lists links to useful resources in a number of categories, to help online research and investigative professionals.
  • University library sites: University libraries sites provide wonderful guides and pathfinders to reliable research resources. While the material tends to be academic and scholarly (obviously) and is often limited to the library system’s holdings, they can provide research direction for an unfamiliar subject area, and with a little resourcefulness, one can often access the material in other collections. The University of Toronto Libraries Research Guides and the Harvard Library Research Guides are two good ones, or search for “LibGuides” and your subject area of interest to find others.

What are some of your favourite subject guides and directories?

The Periodic Table of Business Research Databases

I just came across a terrifically handy tool from Alacra called the Periodic Table of Business Research Databases for identifying the right database for business-related research. There are a vast number of databases available on the market, each with its own focus and content depth. This tool provides a nice, quick and dirty overview of most of these information sources, identifying them by the various categories of research (company profiles, credit and investment research, market research, news, etc.).

Unfortunately it is missing some key Canadian databases, such as Infomart and Newscan, but I’ll be bookmarking it.