Monday, March 27, 2023

For me, as a New York-based private investigator, two recent stories dominated the close of 2022: Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX’s stunning multibillion-dollar downfall and George Santos’s farcical and fanciful resume. Crypto traders, the broader financial markets, New York’s 3rd Congressional District and the American people. All appear to have been duped. And these stories come on the heels of what feels like increasingly outrageous and damaging acts of public deception.

We live in the ultimate age of information and yet, we repeatedly fall prey to falsehoods put forth by charismatic charlatans almost as easily as our pre-Internet age ancestors. I vividly recall learning about Sabbatai Zevi, Jewish history’s most notorious false messiah, who lived in the mid-17th century, when I was a student in an Orthodox Jewish high school. How absurd, I thought, that large swaths of the Jewish community believed his messianic claims, and continued to believe them long after he died, even though he had publicly converted to Islam and engaged in other disqualifying behaviors. (Perhaps fittingly, his followers, who still number in the tens to hundreds of thousands, are called Donmeh, or crypto-Jews.)

I recall thinking that Zevi could only have enjoyed such widespread support in a pre-information age, when word spread slowly and rumors circulated relatively unchecked. My classmates and I thought that in contemporary times we would have myriad resources to investigate the claims of a self-proclaimed messiah, including modern modes of communication and the all-encompassing Internet that could be used to verify credentials. (I realize now I had no idea how vast my resources really were: the Wayback Machine, social media, press reports, litigation filings. The list goes on.) The ideology and practices of a modern-day Sabbatai Zevi would surely be exposed as inconsistent with those of rabbinic Judaism in no time.

Today we are frighteningly aware that the information age has not inoculated us from misinformation in all sorts of contexts—the political, the financial, the medical, and so on. “Alternative facts” are everywhere. The news is rife with individuals who get away with deception and get ahead with swagger. In the most ironic of twists, the Internet age has made us uniquely ripe for deception, with some social media giants engaged in a constant battle to combat malignant lies on their platforms.

The lesson here is that we as a society need to scrutinize “facts” more closely than might feel comfortable. And to hire professionals to seek out the truth when needed because we are fortunate to live in a time where the facts can be corroborated. I was struck by political researcher Tyson Brody’s opinion piece about Congressman Santos in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago (http://bit.ly/3XL19wC) in which he walked through the steps opposition researchers take when looking into candidates. Brody noted how the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s research book picked up on some of the sketchy details of Santos’s past, including his past evictions and that his purported charity was unfindable in an IRS database.

But it was the more stunning falsehoods of Santos’s resume that went unchallenged during his campaign, including his educational background and employment history. Those are huge holes in Santos’s story, which were not caught by opposition researchers, perhaps because it’s hard to imagine that someone would conjure up the entirety of their life experiences out of thin air but also because it’s difficult and time-consuming to vet such things, when there is little evidence in the public domain to challenge somebody’s assertions about their background. “You’d be shocked to know what a 20-something given enough time and direction can find out about a person,” Brody writes. “But oppo researchers are not private investigators…”

Santos’s resume would have fallen apart when tested by the rigor of a good investigator, trained to uncover truth, verify facts, and dig tenaciously until a coherent, complete narrative emerges. No professional investigator would be satisfied closing out a report on a person’s background that relied substantially on the subject’s own self-reported claims in resumes or biographies. Likewise, thoughtful due diligence would have identified seemingly inappropriate real estate purchases in the Bahamas by FTX employees using corporate funds, apparent conflicts of interest between FTX and its sister hedge fund, and that the company’s lead regulator had previously been employed by a gaming company that was investigated for fraud.

I recently had a conversation with a prospective client who questioned the utility of investigative services, asking, “What can you tell me that I can’t find out from Google?” Likewise, when I speak to people at Shabbat meals about what I do, they sometimes respond along the lines of, “Ooh, I also love stalking people on Facebook!”

If only it were that simple.

I am grateful, however, to live in a faith community where truth is and always has been valued as an absolute virtue, a community that believes that truth is one of the world’s three pillars and that “Moshe is true and his Torah is true.” I am also grateful to work in an industry that is mission-driven in its pursuit of the truth and uniquely suited to combat the era of misinformation in which we find ourselves.

Adina Holzman, a resident of Teaneck, is an associate managing director at Quinlan Partners (quinlanpartners.com) in New York, where she helps clients obtain information, intelligence and evidence to identify and mitigate risk, shape strategy and achieve success.

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