Quantcast

Meet the Super Sleuths Who Track Down Assets Big Spenders Want To Keep Secret

Asset-recovery specialists are equal parts Perry Mason, Nancy Drew and James Bond. Their speciality is finding the things owners would rather keep to themselves.

Adobe Stock

It was the names on children’s bedrooms that gave it away—everyone knows how territorial kids can be, staking claims with a dogged ferocity. The bedrooms themselves were inside a luxury property in London, worth tens of millions of pounds; Anna Gumowska had been trying to connect it with an elusive, ultra-high-net-worth individual. She’d had little luck. Gumowska checked the land registry, where all homes in London must be logged, but that was of little use. Like so many of London’s priciest properties, this home was owned by an offshore shell corporation. “Most of them are now,” she says. “It’s a common way of holding very expensive property.” She had sources, though – good ones, too – who insisted the apartment was owned by that person, so she was determined not to give up.

Gumowska isn’t a Private Eye. Rather, she is an asset-recovery specialist, an elite operative who works solely in the upper echelons of the world’s wealthiest. She and her peers are equal parts Perry Mason and Nancy Drew, with a dash of James Bond or even Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure. They find out who owns what, and where—and whether that asset should be forfeited as a result of any outstanding court order (and do whatever it takes in the process). Their skillset is far-reaching, whether flying to the Caribbean to charm a record-keeper into letting them comb through an archive or knowing which search engine always bests Google in terms of facial recognition—it’s Yandex, the Russian-language portal. That search engine is a reminder that the work of asset-recovery specialists is timelier than ever, especially amid the recent spate of sanctions against Vladimir Putin–associated oligarchs from across the Western world.   

In the case of the luxury London property, Gumowska and her team tried social media, trawling the accounts of the family for more clues. They found one helpful snap, clearly taken from a balcony in that same block—the window frames matched up, as did the view. It held little legal clout, though. “Lawyers could argue someone just went there to a party as a guest,” she explains. Then one of her team thought to check not the land registry but rather the local council—London’s answer to America’s counties. Had any permits been filed requesting changes to the home, she wondered? Sure enough, they had, and those plans only included a detailed layout of the apartment, but annotations on each bedroom matched up with the family’s names. That was a smoking gun for Gumowska, who now had ammo enough to pursue her case. 

Growing up, Gumowska didn’t exactly dream of becoming an asset-recovery specialist. “I never considered a career in it because I didn’t know it existed,” she says. She studied Russian and political science as an undergrad before working at a few think tanks. Anna read about the work of investigations and monitoring company called K2 Integrity, and, intrigued by the premise, got in touch. Her timing was fortunate, as the firm needed a Russian speaker to help with a large project. That was 10 years ago, and Gumowska has slowly risen through the ranks since then. She’s now a senior managing director at K2 Integrity based out of London. 

Anna Gumowska Headshot

Anna Gumowska, senior managing director at K2 Integrity  Asset Recovery Specialists

Typically, she explains, cases might involve two ultra-high-net-worth individuals, perhaps former business partners whose relationship has soured. One might come to K2 Integrity and ask the firm to verify how many assets the other truly owns: does he have US$100 million to forfeit, the client might ask; should I decide to spend US$1 million on a court case pursuing him for that much? The firm might also be tapped after a court judgment, when the loser is laggardly in payment and K2 is drafted to help with enforcement. “It’s about how you find assets against which this judgment can be enforced—let’s say, a private jet somewhere. That jet may get impounded as part of the legal process or confiscated as a security for that judgment,” Gumowska explains. “It could be anything from jets to yachts, property, shares in companies—we’ve confiscated wine, art, anything like that.” (Arresting a yacht is a surprisingly old-fashioned process: Just nail a piece of paper from a court to the mast, and it’s effectively prevented from casting off from that mooring.) As you might expect, high-net-worth divorces often involve asset recovery specialists at some point, too.

Much of Gumowska’s work at K2 Integrity involves untangling webs of offshore companies, though she emphasises that such structures are not innately dishonest. “There’s an overwhelming narrative that if you have an offshore company, you must be a bad person. That’s not the case.” That may be true, but anyone keen to conceal assets—from the law or a disgruntled soon-to-be ex-spouse—will find them very handy, especially when incorporated in certain jurisdictions. Much of the Caribbean, for example, makes Gumowska’s tasks much trickier, since laws there typically don’t require disclosure of shareholders.

The other problem in the Caribbean is more prosaic. “Very often the records are not digitised, so you’re at the mercy of a clerk somewhere who maybe might get to your request in the next fortnight,” she says, noting that her pre-pandemic life often involved jumping on a plane somewhere in the world every other week—and hoping her in-person charm might speed up the process. In the EU, there are similar problems in Cyprus, where she estimates only around 60 percent of corporate records have been digitised amid a backlog of admin. Even in the US, certain states have laws that make unraveling corporate networks harder than others. Delaware is notorious for this, Gumowska says, but Wyoming is a close opaque second. “In those places, you’re not going to find a smoking gun piece of paper that says, ‘Anna is the CBO of a certain entity,’” she laughs.

Even in a largely digitised world, the Internet doesn’t hold every answer, even on the deep web. Gotcha-style social-media posts, like that snapshot from the balcony, are increasingly rare, as people of means have grown savvier about protecting their privacy. European GDPR rules also enshrine a “right to be forgotten” online, which allows people to request that Google and other search engines remove references to them. Certain wealthy individuals go so far as to hire professionals to scrub the Internet clean of any evidence that they even exist, as with one person she was investigating, himself a Google alum. “There was nothing about them, so they must have taken some action to have their name removed,” Gumowska adds. “That’s not as prevalent yet as it will be, but that’s definitely on the rise.”

Despite Gumowska’s London location, K2 Integrity was actually founded stateside by renowned private detective Jules Kroll. The PI vet is widely acknowledged to have invented the idea of asset recovery as a business via his first firm, Kroll Inc, 50 years ago. Kroll sold that to Marsh McLennan, then started all over later with one of his sons, Jeremy; the other son is well known for his namesake sketch show – and it’s easy to see where the comedic son gets his wry affect.  

Jules Kroll

Renowned private investigator Jules Kroll founded asset-recovery firm K2 Integrity. 

Asked to describe what his firm did, the senior Kroll noted a moment of stardom for the company when Carmela Soprano handed Tony a business card for it at the height of the series’s fame. “She said ‘They solve problems for people’ but of course, that’s the last thing Tony wants to do – he’ll solve it in his own way. They did get permission to use our real name,” he recalls. Kroll tells Robb Report that the business of asset recovery has boomed in the past decades in part because there are so many more rich people – and those who’d like to join their ranks, by fair means or foul. “Look around the world – not only is there more wealth, and more people of great wealth, but they display it,” he says. “There are great temptations for people who would like some of it for themselves.” 

London, of course, has become the de facto hub for that booming group of global rich – especially those with grubbier sources for their fortunes, as the recent book Butler to the World: How Britain Helps the World’s Worst People Launder Money, Commit Crimes, and Get Away with Anything documents. No wonder it’s also the hub of asset-recovery services, too – the eight-person Sparten Group, another top player in the industry, is based there, for example. But it isn’t simply skullduggery that put the English ahead in this sector, according to K2’s Gumowska. Thanks to the legacy of empire, English law is the basis of many legal systems worldwide, especially those in the Caribbean. Because of that, English courts are willing to grant what are known as worldwide freezing orders more readily than many other jurisdictions. These serve as legal shortcuts across courts in different countries, allowing plaintiffs to deploy a single verdict everywhere.

What’s more, the rule of law in Britain is perceived as unimpeachable and impartial as judges here are not appointed via a political process. The world’s well-heeled are fond of jaunts to the capital, too, which leaves them liable to the UHNWI equivalent of process serving, according to Christopher Bogart, CEO of Burford Capital, another prime mover in the asset-recovery sector. “All court cases start by needing to establish jurisdiction somewhere, and I probably can’t get jurisdiction over you in Iowa, because I guess you’re not a frequent visitor there,” he tells Robb Report. “People like this travel all over the world but through London fairly often.”

Bogart has an impressive résumé, including a stint as general counsel at Time Warner Inc. and as a litigator at white shoe firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore. He founded his firm in 2009 with a twin purpose: it will not only conduct asset-recovery investigations but also underwrite the pursuit of such assets via court cases in exchange for a cut of the winnings (K2 Integrity might underwrite cases, too, though it doesn’t use such a formal mechanic, as Kroll explains: “It’s not the essence of what we do – the percentage of time we’ll do that is one in 50.”) That could be helpful, for example, when a wealthy couple splits, leaving one partner cash-poor until their agreement is hammered out.  

Christopher Bogart Lifestyle Headshot

Christopher Bogart, CEO of Burford Capital 

Bogart has deep expertise in litigation, of course, but he bolstered the ranks of his asset-recovery experts by acquiring Focus Intelligence Ltd, a specialist firm, seven years ago. Michael Redman was a director there and is now a managing director at Burford. Like Gumowska, and so many of his peers, Redman is based in the UK. He describes their profession as conducting “jurisdictional arbitrage.” Typically, his team might become involved when a client has received a judgment or award in a case in one country. That award could then apply to assets in another country, usually owned by a shell company that’s based in a third territory. “You’re taking what you can from one place and making the most of it in another jurisdiction, maximising the leverage you have to seek a settlement or get a recovery on the case,” Redman says. One common misconception, he adds, is that people think winning a judgment is like being in a casino – you just have to cash it in. “It’s just not the case. People don’t really realize that just because you’ve got a bit of paper saying you’re entitled to something – how do you get that something? It’s a completely different world,” he says.

Redman’s team’s role is often to think laterally around a problem that might stump even high-flying attorneys. “If you present an English lawyer with an international problem, they view it through their own lens – just like, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” he laughs. His 18-strong division has developed what he calls “quasi-proprietary” data-crunching software to do just this, as in a case where they were trying to confirm the connection between one man and a plot of land. “There was no way to put them together, until one of our guys figured out how to do it – he’s very good at looking at two sets of publicly available data which, on their own, don’t give you the full picture, and finding ways of putting them together.”

As in Anna Gumowska’s case where planning permission unlocked the case, Redman says that often a careless note here or there can be crucial, including whoever signed such applications for planning permission. “Sometimes, people just get lazy, and one time in one thousand, they file something they shouldn’t and accidentally mention a name,” he explains, “That demonstrates beyond the balance of probabilities who owns this place, and how much it’s worth. You can then use that to execute against the property.”

Gumowska agrees, pointing to another case where the team was poring over a raft of offshore companies, reading out the quirky names. One copied the model name of a famous sports car and the interest of the team’s petrolhead was piqued. Were there any other companies named after other models from the brand? There were, and that realisation quickly unearthed a series of companies that were ultimately proven to be linked.

“We look for patterns because we’re all human, and it makes it easier for us to remember things,” she continued, noting another example involving subway-station names in London and New York, “However complex the structures might be that aim to obfuscate ownership of assets, they were ultimately created by people. And if they’ve been created by people? They can probably be unraveled by people as well.”

Read More On:

More Finance