The daughter of two foreign correspondents who moved every few years, Abby Stanglin’s exposure to different people and cultures sparked an interest in human behavior that now drives her job as an investigator for K2 Intelligence. She joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s office right out of college, serving a two-year term as an investigative analyst, supporting prosecutors in organized crime and terrorism investigations. A desire to do the same sort of work in the private sector led her to K2 Intelligence.
When we think of the words ‘corporate investigator,’ you don’t exactly fit our stereotype, yet that’s clearly what you are. What are we missing? What does a corporate investigator do these days?
A lot of it is research—digging through public records, trying to get at the truth, at the full story about a situation. In that sense, I have to think a lot like a journalist or an academic researcher and also operate discreetly. People hire us because they know we’re thorough, they know we’ll think creatively about getting at the facts, but at the same time we’ll help solve their problems out of the public eye.
Do you have a favorite type of case? What cases bring out the best in you?
There are so many different aspects of the job, each investigator gloms onto something that fits his or her personality. I like asset searches, especially those cases when a person or company is trying to hide money or property from someone else. I like the challenge of going up against people who have engaged in criminal activities and those who are particularly creative in concealing what they own. They don’t want their money found and they might stash it anywhere in the world. I like finding it.
So it’s not so much a ‘Whodunit’ as a ‘Where is it.’ Right?
Are there other types of cases you like to focus on?
I’ve always been interested in art and art history, so I’m naturally drawn to cases that involve artists and collectors. The art market is really opaque—minimal transparency to speak of—and there are all kinds of shady business deals happening all over the world. The same tools and approaches we use to confront other kinds of frauds and disputes also work well in the art space, so this is definitely something that speaks to me personally.
I also like unravelling corporate frauds and threats, investigations where a company comes to us because an employee has stolen funds or walked off with trade secrets or they've received anonymous correspondence. It often gives me a chance to observe the inside of an organization, get exposed to the culture of a company. Sometimes I get access to internal documents, such as emails, so I can see how people operate and communicate with one another. I’ll also go onsite and get people to tell their stories—get them to bring up things they didn’t even know they knew. It’s always an interesting opportunity to use a mix of sources to identify patterns or revealing details that can ultimately help us solve a case.
Has there been a change in where threats come from?
We’re seeing an increasing number of online threats to people who are particularly vulnerable and high profile, like celebrities or high-net-worth individuals. These include threats from so-called ‘keyboard warriors’ who use Twitter to attack such these individuals and their families. I try to figure out who’s behind that type of activity.
How do you find these “keyboard warriors”?
Some are good at covering their tracks, some aren’t. But somewhere along the line, they often make a mistake. They might reveal something in a profile or a photo. They might accidently have revealed some personal information on an archived website from five or ten years ago, when they weren't as careful as they are now. If we have even one data point like that, we are often able to back into other social media profiles that contain other identifying information. Maybe it’s their first name or their geographical location. We have powerful social media monitoring tools, so if they make those kinds of mistakes, if they trip up even once, we’ll pick up on it.
Who decides what happens to the culprits?
It's ultimately up to the client. Some clients want to confront the suspect. Some want to get law enforcement involved. Some are concerned about the impact on their reputations and want the matter handled discreetly. Some just want to know what happened and to make it stop.
Are you able to help clients prevent such negative situations from happening?
Definitely. A big part of the job is advisory. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a celebrity these days, with people consistently trying to discover and share your personal information. We set up their devices to be more secure. We remove information from those pervasive online databases where their contact info and family members’ names are exposed. We help them get smarter about security. A lot of people don’t know exactly where they’re vulnerable. We help them understand that and do something about it.
What sorts of tools are in your toolbox?
The tools we employ depend a lot on the case—whether written sources, human sources, physical surveillance, or otherwise. We’re also constantly considering new ways to find information. We're good at finding out new ways of finding things out—we’ve created, for instance, proprietary databases to help us surface social media profiles. We’re always looking to use new tools and sources to both understand a subject more extensively and to add to the efficiency of our research.
Do you ever find yourself thinking like a criminal?
There’s definitely a space you get into when you’re deep into a case—a skeptical kind of mind-set. You have to get in someone else’s shoes. You know they’re pulling something. So you need to consider, “What are they doing and how are they doing it? How would you do it? What would you do if you had to cover your tracks, if you didn’t want to be found?”