MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
These days, businesses face increasingly complex regulations and heightened scrutiny by prosecutors, and that's led companies to hire investigative firms to help them keep watch over their employees. The idea behind this business of corporate monitoring is to stop misconduct before law enforcement picks up on it. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, these corporate detectives for hire are seeing good business and finding new ways to snoop.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: We all know our employers have access to tons of data about us: every person we email from our company email account, every phone number we dial from our desk. But what if you found out every bit of that vast ocean of data was being analyzed so that your company could build a profile of you? That's what Matt Unger is hired to do.
MATT UNGER: So we've got a list of people here and we're highlighting in red the ones whose behavior is departing most from their usual baseline behavior.
CHANG: Unger is like the computer-geek-in-chief for K2 Intelligence. It's an investigative firm in Midtown Manhattan that specializes in the art of corporate monitoring. Unger is no ordinary gumshoe. What he's showing me now is literally counterterrorism software developed by the government that's been repurposed to catch insider traders.
UNGER: When we see here that this guy, Kevin, all of a sudden started calling the 410 area code where he never did that before, and he stopped answering emails. He's being less responsive to his peers.
CHANG: What Unger is looking for are sudden changes in behavior. Sometimes those changes don't mean anything. But when people are up to no good, they usually start acting a bit differently. His software can instantly see when two people who usually only email each other suddenly slips to phone communication for a few days. And if one of them does a big trade during that time, well, that's something to check out. Unger's boss, Jeremy Kroll, says more companies are asking for this monitoring especially with the uptick in insider trading convictions the last couple of years.
JEREMY KROLL: Two years ago, when we started to talk to clients about a preventive solution vis-a-vis insider trading, we got a lot of nodding heads and saying that's really interesting, but no one was biting.
CHANG: Now, what's emerged is a multibillion dollar corporate detective industry aimed at ferreting out not only insider trading but also money laundering, bribery, embezzlement and fraud. Kroll's firm is where former CIA agents find second careers. Same with ex-prosecutors, cops and investigative reporters. And they're landing big name clients like JP Morgan Chase and Brookfield Properties. The corporate monitoring business is looking so promising, K2 wants to expand. So this month, it acquired Thacher Associates, a company that has spent years monitoring construction projects for fraud. Toby Thacher is the CEO.
TOBY THACHER: There's no question today that corporate America is much more concerned about turning a lens on itself. This is not just out of a heightened level of concern about ethics, it's self-preservation.
CHANG: Fines for breaking the law can run into the billions of dollars. Look at HSBC. The bank agreed last month to pay a $2 billion fine to settle allegations it was helping Mexican drug cartels launder money. Jeremy Kroll says pay him the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars now and he'll help you save on the back end.
KROLL: I think the smart CEOs and boards are saying it's not a question of whether something naughty is going on in our company, it's a question of where and how often.
CHANG: These firms say most of their monitoring happens out in the open. Employees are informed about their presence. These monitors help companies design codes of ethics and financial controls to prevent waste and abuse. But some employment law experts say they're concerned these firms could be hired to do other things like spy on communications among union organizers or hunt down whistle-blowers. But K2 says they've never been hired to do that. In fact, Thacher says his business requires standing up to companies.
THACHER: There have been situations where we have found that principals of companies have engaged in kickbacks, embezzlements, fraud, steering of contracts, where the company felt that the principals involved were too important to the company to risk exposing this to law enforcement or regulatory entities.
CHANG: So Thacher says he resigned in at least two of those cases. Credibility is everything in the industry because so much business comes from the government. Sometimes companies are forced to hire outside monitors as a result of settlements with regulators. That happened to HSBC and to Standard Chartered, a London bank that was also accused of money laundering. Now the federal government is considering whether to require hedge funds to report suspicious transactions. And that will only mean more business for all the private corporate watchdogs out there. Ailsa Chang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.