How difficult is it to trace someone who has absconded to another country?
March 7, 2010 8:01 AM   Subscribe

How difficult is it to trace someone who has absconded to another country?

Recently my father encountered an old friend: the guy was a senior lawyer, who had been stripped of his practicing licence, and forced to close down his firm when a partner absconded with a client's money, amounting to a cool few million. The partner had previously been practising in a branch of the firm located in another state, which was why my father's friend was unaware of the hanky-panky until it suddenly happened.

I then asked my father why his friend had done nothing to trace the whereabouts of the partner. He said that the friend did report the matter, but expected that the police would do little (and it really was so), because:

1) The matter wasn't political in nature, and;
2) It's almost impossible to trace someone who's run off to a different country.

This begs me to ask: Really?

I understand if the police would do little, but I find it hard to believe that it is really that impossible to hunt a person down, especially with all the privileges you have as a member of the police force. I certainly understand the difficulty of tracing high-ranking members of Al-Qaeda what with their layers of hierarchical anonymity, but this is just one person, a former practicing lawyer, and one who went out of the country by flight, no less?

I understand that you might not find a person wherever he goes, but is it really impossible to at least find the country that he has gone to? Wouldn't such information be in the immigration records of the countries he departs from and arrives at? Furthermore, if he absconded to another country using a mere visa, his presence at the other country could certainly be traceable, especially if he wanted to buy assets or perform transactions (even routine ones, like banking) of some sort? Because he can't be carrying all that money by hand everywhere.

If anyone is familiar with how this tracing thing works, please do explain. While it may not help my father's unfortunate friend, I would at least like to learn how tracking down people in the real world works (as opposed to the movies).

Please let the explanations be as technical as it need to be; I want to know the full details.
posted by wz to Law & Government (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The answer depends upon your location.

In the US, local police agencies have little in the way of resources or time to follow international criminals; this is primarily the purview of the FBI, with whom a local agency may have limited or no contact.

New York City's police department is different than pretty much any other local police department, in that it has counteterrorism officers located in certain other countries, who work with local intelligence officers, but these officers probably don't have much to do with financial crimes.

And, in any event, a loss of a couple of million dollars, while significant to your friend, really isn't a whole lot of money, in the grant scheme of things.
posted by dfriedman at 8:40 AM on March 7, 2010

especially with all the privileges you have as a member of the police force.

Your privileges as part of a local police force pretty much evaporate outside of your territorial jurisdiction, and certainly outside of your home country.

And aside from that, it's a question of resources, both in terms of the financial wherewithal to hunt someone down overseas, uncertainty in terms of how your efforts would be received by the authorities in that country (not well, in many if not most instances), and lack of knowledge about the country, where to look, etc.

Federal authorities have far more resources, know-how, and international relationships to accomplish something like that. And given the reach of federal power into pretty much anything involving banking, the feds would almost certainly have the authority to go after a lawyer who absconded with a client's money. But whether they wish to do so is another question entirely.
posted by jayder at 8:42 AM on March 7, 2010

Also bear in mind that there are a lot of porous borders in the world.

If the fugitive flew into, say, Amsterdam he could then relocate to anywhere in the contiguous EU without leaving a mark on any immigration form. And if he was an EU citizen (which many Americans are), they wouldn't even come looking for him.

And in most countries in the world it is still quite possible to rent an apartment or house with cash. I'm sure that if the authorities of whatever country he was living in were looking for him, he would eventually slip up enough to be found. But that's very different from being found by someone (in law enforcement or not) looking from another country.

A New York cop can't exactly call up the Macedonian Ministry of Health and ask for all records matching John Doe to be turned over to them.
posted by 256 at 10:21 AM on March 7, 2010

It may be difficult to trace someone who's fled across a border, but couldn't the police issue a warrant through Interpol (which I understand was created to handle circumstances like this)? I don't know about how those work, but I imagine one could at least lead to some clues, since it could draw the attention of the local authorites to him.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:36 AM on March 7, 2010

This depends, to some extent, on two things:

1) How careful the person absconding is
2) The resources available to the person looking for them

1) If the person is travelling on a US passport in their own name, then the US authorities should at least know what country they are in. If they are travelling on a false passport then this avenue becomes significantly more difficult. It means you are looking for clues, not a specific name.

But - their preparation before leaving and their behaviour after they leave can give clues. This person is keeping is money somewhere. Unless he has found a nifty way to launder a few million dollars, there is a trail of sorts.

Secondly, if this person remains in contact with former associates or family, there will be email, postal, telephone records linking them. This isn't the stuff of movies - it's one of the main reasons why crimes bosses in hiding and witnesses under protection slip up.

Which brings us to 2)

If the person is travelling in their own name, then you're looking for that name. If not, you have to focus on people or things to which they have a link.

If one assumes they are travelling in their own name, then the question becomes at what point will they enter into an official system in the foreign country. This isn't a given. Illegal immigrants can and do live off system for years. Many countries poorly maintain records, or have easily bribable officials.

It is most likely easier to search through US-based information. But - there is a lot to sift through - who to look into, what information to check and what periods to look into (bearing in mind someone may lie low for weeks, months etc), and almost all of the information isn't available to Joe Public. Cannier investigators have ways of [illiegally] accessing some personal data like phone and bank records, but unless the person trying to hide - or their family - are really, really careless there won't be a smoking gun that can be unearthed quickly.

The quick route is to find the weak link - the person who still has strong emotional or financial ties to the person trying to hide, but who doesn't have the nous or the incentive to cover their tracks well. If the search is being conducted officially by law enforcement then fine. If not then it will be expensive and most likely illegal.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:38 AM on March 7, 2010

Response by poster: Assuming that a enters the country on a travelling visa, once the said visa expires, he must leave, or otherwise be considered an illegal (for overstaying), yes?

Do immigration officials (or similarly empowered authorities) go out and search for these illegals, or post wanted posters, etc? How do such officials ensure that the people who come leave when they should?
posted by wz at 11:09 AM on March 7, 2010

Assuming that a enters the country on a travelling visa, once the said visa expires, he must leave, or otherwise be considered an illegal (for overstaying), yes?

Do immigration officials (or similarly empowered authorities) go out and search for these illegals, or post wanted posters, etc? How do such officials ensure that the people who come leave when they should?

Again, the answer to your question depends entirely upon the country in question. Some countries may have the resources to deal with this kind of issue and will pursue it, others may have the resources but prefer to spend them on other things, and other countries simply don't have the resources.
posted by dfriedman at 1:26 PM on March 7, 2010

It isn't necessarily difficult to trace the location of someone who has fled a country - it just might not be particularly useful to do so.

Extradition treaties generally require that there is a strong possibility the person for whom extradition is being sought would be convicted of the charges they are facing if returned to the country seeking their extradition. If the laws of either nation have been breached during the investigation of the matter, any evidence collected may well be inadmissible.

Much of the kind of information you are talking about is highly protected in many nations and cannot be disclosed to third parties without a court order. By and large, another nation's courts are not going to approve the disclosure of that information without compelling reason. There is no absolute obligation on any nation to enforce the laws of another, much less to compromise their own legal standards in order to do so.

The real question is whether a strong enough legal case against the "absconder" could be mounted for extradition to be a viable option - a case which was put together by US law enforcement agencies and validated by US courts. Locating this person could be very easy, but locating them in a manner which would not compromise the legal case against them could be extremely difficult. Obviously, this is not a consideration when trying to locate protected witnesses.
posted by Lolie at 2:25 PM on March 7, 2010

How difficult is it to trace someone who has absconded to another country?

A couple fled New Zealand with several million dollars of illegally-obtained money last year (it even made MeFi). They got to China, and they've vanished from the sight of the New Zealand legal system. So it's quite feasible.

(Of course, it's also possible they tried to launder it through Triads and are at the bottom of a river as well, but the point is no-one who's talking to newspapers has any idea.)
posted by rodgerd at 11:17 PM on March 7, 2010

Mod note: This is a comment from an anonymous responder.
I have been involved with the case of someone accused of child abuse who fled to a country known for its underage sex trade. Even though the police had information early on as to where he went, it still took over ten years before they could start extradition procedures.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:35 AM on March 8, 2010

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