As investigators, the art of canvassing as part of an investigation can be an extremely valuable tool. We can learn a wealth of information by conducting a thorough and detailed canvass. Sometimes a canvass alone can resolve unanswered questions on a case. And, often a good canvass reveals new questions and leads for follow-up, taking the investigation in a different direction. Personally, canvassing a neighborhood or area, while time consuming, has always been one of the most rewarding facets of conducting an investigation for me. More often than not it has produced substantive information to aid in answering questions during my investigations.
Whether done overtly or covertly, canvassing essentially amounts to just getting out there and talking to people in a neighborhood, at area businesses, etc. A good investigator must possess skills and training in the art of canvassing.
Depending upon the provided budget, the canvass can be conducted over the phone or in person. When budget is a concern, travel time and mileage can exhaust funds more quickly. For these scenarios, much or all of the canvass can be conducted over the phone. The investigator simply conducts the proper database checks to identify neighbors, nearby businesses, etc. and then follows through with contacting each of them. That being said, in my experience the best canvass results are still gleaned from speaking to people in person. It can be difficult to get people on the phone to begin with, and once on the phone they will tend to be more apprehensive about sharing information. Whereas a canvass conducted in person tends to make the individual more comfortable and willing to have a conversation, as well as more forthcoming with information.
There are a number of different case scenarios where canvassing can be beneficial. Let’s discuss a few of them and how they can shape an investigation.
Skip Tracing & Locates – Often we are called upon to locate an individual for a variety of reasons. The individual may be a witness to an incident, an unresponsive party to a case, an individual whom papers or court documents need to be delivered (served) to . . . and so on. When the individual cannot be immediately located at known residences or a place of employment, conducting a thorough canvass of neighboring residences, businesses, etc. can produce new leads as to where the subject of the investigation may be located. The same strategies can be applied to investigations to locate and recover vehicles, large pieces of equipment, etc.
Theft & Burglary Cases – These investigations nearly always involve a neighborhood or area canvass to first determine if the loss actually occurred. If information obtained during a canvass suggests the incident may not have occurred, the investigation can take a whole new direction. A thorough canvass will help reveal activities prior to the incident, such as the insured removing items prior to reporting a loss or other suspicious activities that require follow-up. The canvass can also assist in identifying eye-witnesses for recorded statements to support the claim. With the growing use of home surveillance equipment, there is a greater likelihood a neighbor may have captured the incident on their exterior surveillance cameras. Many times beneficial information can be obtained, and even valuable information for law enforcement to pursue arrests and possible recovery of the stolen items.
Fire Losses – A neighborhood canvass in a fire investigation is a must. Typically, there are a number of witnesses and a high potential for good information pertaining to the incident, as well as the activities prior to the loss. Information regarding the occupants and contents of the property can be obtained and particularly whether any of the contents were removed prior to the fire loss and why. This will help to verify the condition of the property prior to the loss as well. Time is always of the essence in these investigations as evidence can be lost, witnesses disappear or become unresponsive, facts and details of the incident become less clear, etc. It’s important to lock these details in as soon as possible and secure recorded statements of such.
Workers Compensation – Canvasses regarding workers compensation claims are more sensitive in nature and can be handled overtly or covertly, depending on the client’s needs. The canvass is typically centered around the claimant’s activity level, mobility, work activities, etc. both prior to and following the reported injury. Many times the canvasses are utilized in conjunction with activity checks and/or surveillance efforts, to document the claimant’s activities with video footage. If surveillance efforts are planned, then the canvass typically should be conducted in a more discreet and covert manner, to make every effort not to alert the claimant and potentially jeopardize the surveillance efforts. At what stage the canvass occurs during the surveillance efforts may vary depending on the claim and what questions need to be answered.
Property Damage/Loss Investigations – A thorough canvass during these investigations can help to pinpoint the cause of the damage and to first confirm the claimed incident did indeed occur. It can help to reveal the true condition of the property prior to the incident and also identify repairs, improvements, alterations, etc. made to the property along the way. For example, during a suspected fraudulent hail claim involving roof damage, a thorough neighborhood canvass can help identify if the incident occurred, who has been on the insured’s roof, any suspicious activity observed on the roof or at the residence, repairs made, etc.
Accident/Scene Investigations – Conducting an area/scene canvass following the accident can be crucial to identify important facts surrounding the incident. These can be conducted following auto accidents, auto/pedestrian accidents, slip and fall injuries, etc. Ideally, the canvass should be conducted as soon as possible following the accident, as the events will still be fresh in the minds of eye-witnesses. The canvass can reveal details possibly not provided by the parties to the accident. Recorded statements can be obtained to lock in these details. During the canvass, nearby businesses can be canvassed to determine if surveillance footage depicting the incident may exist. Time is of the essence there as well, because most businesses do not retain video footage for more than 30 days at the very most. More likely, they may only have footage of a few days, with the video footage set to loop after a certain number of days and record over the previous footage primarily for storage capacity reasons. Acting quick and securing any available footage can be quite beneficial to the investigation.
These are just a handful of scenarios and the instances we tend to see most, where a thorough canvass can benefit an investigation. As I’m sure most investigators will attest to, each investigation is unique and how we approach the canvass is tailored to meet the needs of the investigation.