Pirates, explorers, and spies all share a common tool with professional investigators. Although not quite as clichéd as the old fedora, notepad and magnifying glass, maps and modern mapping tools are an incredibly valuable resource when it comes to conducting research, surveillance and even identifying locations of photographs taken on social media. As I stumbled across the Central Intelligence Agency Cartography Center’s collection of declassified maps, I couldn’t help but draw an immediate connection to the importance of their uses in intelligence gathering not just as it relates to national security, but also in the corporate investigations field.

Treasure Troves of Information

The wealth of information that exists in maps available through geographic information system (GIS) offices in counties and cities across the country is an invaluable resource when searching for a subject’s properties and other assets. Identifying someone’s assets can be an important part of a pre-transaction due diligence case in which clients are trying to gauge a subject’s financial stability and net worth, or a fraud investigation trying to ascertain where the proceeds of an embezzlement scheme may have been spent or invested. When we don’t have access to GIS data though, we have to be creative. For a market entry research project in an area without ready access to GIS data or a modern land ownership recording system, we identified land through topographical maps that a client could potentially use for the production of a commodity product that required a precise climate for growing, while at the same time ensuring it was grown in a sustainable way. With these maps, we were able to plot points to determine the size of a parcel and its exact coordinates. Once we had the coordinates, we were able to dispatch on-site resources to survey the areas to determine who owned the land and learn more about the area.

Tracking in Real Time

Should a case require surveillance or other field investigation, a map of the area should be one of the first pieces of information referenced when beginning the case. Where are the target locations? What are the most likely avenues of departure? Where is the best location for fixed surveillance positions? Is the area residential, commercial, industrial or rural? Not only do maps provide many of these answers in the surveillance-planning phase, but also on the ground in the field. Thanks to modern GPS mapping units, an investigator’s situational awareness gets an upgrade with constant knowledge of exactly where they are and what turns the subject may be taking up ahead. Real-time knowledge of side-streets for paralleling during mobile surveillance, and knowledge of upcoming shopping centers, businesses and other possible points of interest is a great advantage to the field surveillance investigator.

Fitting the Pieces Together

Although Google Maps doesn’t offer real-time images of locations, it does allow for some extensive research to be conducted on locations around the world right from your computer or even mobile device. By using Google Maps in a due diligence investigation, we may find that a subject’s office appears to be a run-down building rather than the 20th-floor office suite shown in its marketing materials. Maps and street-level views of addresses can also help determine where photos displayed on social media may have been taken. Are you able to identify a building number, business name or other small piece of information in the background of a photograph? A savvy investigator can sometimes use the smallest piece of information to zero in on exactly where that photograph was taken.

Give it a Try

Want to test your ability to identify locations and hone your geography and research skills? GeoGuessr is an online geography game based on Google Maps and Street View which drops you in five random and often remote parts of the world on Street View with the goal of identifying where you are. You can travel up and down the road looking for clues to your location like street signs (often not in English!) and other landmarks. Drop your pin on the map when you think you know your location and see how close you ended up. Try to beat my own high score here.

Pre-transaction Due Diligence: Is a Google Search Enough
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