Insights |Investigations

25th October 2021

Asset tracing: A guide

Whether you are acting in a personal capacity or on behalf of a business, you may require tracing services to help you recover unpaid debts or find someone’s undisclosed assets as part of litigation / a claim.

What is asset tracing?

Asset tracing is the process of locating financial assets, property or valuables through formal investigations. Investigators undertake detailed research to determine a subject’s asset profile and whether that profile is sufficient to meet their outstanding debts or potential claims. Asset tracing can spearhead investigations in finding additional evidence such as unknown associates and lifestyles which can lead to a greater understanding of the target’s activities. Once the research has been conducted, the investigators then identify assets and can assist in asset recovery litigation and collections processes.

Asset tracing services can be extremely useful if a client is wondering whether a claim is worth pursuing. There is no point in a client spending good money after bad only to get a pyrrhic victory; therefore, conducting asset tracing prior to the commencement of any litigation is a worthwhile practice.

Tracing assets before escalating a case to litigation can also save clients’ money. Possessing a clear understanding of the subject’s asset position can provide leverage in early-stage negotiations and may negate the need for expensive litigation.

When further expertise are required, forensic accountants can be utilised to follow the paper trail; forensically analysing bank statements and transactions to pinpoint where money has flowed and, ultimately, how the layering and laundering process has taken place.

Both investigators and forensic accountants use digital forensics and numerous software tools to assist with the processes. Together with open-source intelligence (OSINT) and human intelligence (HUMINT) sources, a full picture can be obtained.

Tracing assets is not easy and requires the most skilled investigative professionals in the field. ESA Risk’s investigators have great experience and knowledge of asset tracing, understanding the way assets are identified through both covert and overt means. People may try to hide from insolvency and debt but usually there is an audit trail which we can find. Cash assets, however, can be moved around the world in seconds, and each country operates their privacy laws differently, making assets a lot more difficult to identify and recover, but by no means impossible.

The process is even further complicated by the constant movement of fraudsters and debtors themselves, in evading payments or concealing assets. Money could either be converted into other assets or hidden in fictitious companies and trusts. The dissipated assets may then be sold, used or transferred into offshore accounts across borders via online platforms, making asset tracing a task that heavily relies on technology, resources and investigative experience. The initial intelligence-gathering phases are usually undertaken electronically, but having a global network of intelligence agents who can undertake in-country investigations is a must.

Asset tracers have access to confidential global databases and deep web tools, where they can build out the asset puzzle, identifying the lifestyles and behaviours of the individuals they are looking for. Whether it’s checking if they’ve been on holiday to their villa recently or purchased a new boat, investigators can access intelligence and trace the assets required.

A guide to how asset tracing works

1. Identification

Asset tracing commences with full background intelligence research undertaken through online data sources. Investigators examine financial information and digital records, such as emails of the targets. Then by forensically analysing commercial databases and social media platforms, investigators obtain intelligence. Intelligence agents, who are in the field, can then further conduct covert enquiries to help build the intelligence profile.

Researchers constantly examine open-source public records, including those of real estate, licensing, criminal court proceedings and the civil court. Certain data sets are restricted, however, with the correct strategic legal approach and understanding of data protection laws, in many circumstances restricted data can be legally obtained.

2. Conversion

Investigators must turn intelligence gathered into meaningful information and obtain proof that traced assets are connected to the targets and are ultimately recoverable. This process can require speed. However, in certain cases – especially complex cross-border cases – it can take time to convert the intelligence into evidence. Access to information and data in certain countries can be challenging, as systems aren’t digitised. In addition, careful planning of surveillance teams and systems can take time, as understanding the lifestyle of individuals can be time-consuming, especially when ethical social engineering is a strategy.

Sophisticated fraudsters also use tools and techniques to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, and that is where expeditious investigations are required. Working with on-the-ground, in-country resources and local authorities assists the pace of investigations and ensures that asset tracing is a process that is swift, personalised and confidential. They can assert disclosure or search orders, as well as freezing onshore accounts, if necessary.

3. Recovery

A good litigation strategy should be in place from the outset to allow the investigators to understand which assets the lawyers would like to go after. It is also important to understand how the litigation and investigations are being funded and whether litigation funders are required. While investigators identify the assets, expert lawyers in litigation, debt recovery or insolvency are required for clients to obtain the most likely chance of successful recoveries. At ESA Risk, we have access to both experienced lawyers and litigation funders who will be able to assist in such recoveries.

Asset tracing services from ESA Risk

When it comes to tracing assets, we are the experts. ESA Risk’s team will deliver concise but comprehensive results which will enable you to make the decision on which way to proceed. With a network of trusted partners covering every part of the world, our investigation capability – and therefore yours – is truly international.

To instruct us on an investigation or for more information on our asset tracing services, contact Mike Wright, Risk Management & Investigations Consultant at, on +44 (0)843 515 8686 or via our contact form.


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