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A Deal with the Devil chronicles the journey of two investigative journalists as they search for answers about one of the longest-running mail frauds in history. The scam centers around a mysterious psychic named Maria Duval, whose name and face have become infamous to sick and elderly victims all around the world, who have sent in millions of dollars in response to bogus promises made by letters allegedly signed by Duval. Global investigators have spent decades trying to stop the fraud, but when those efforts failed and they couldn’t determine who this woman was -- or if she was even real – authors Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken made it their mission to get to the bottom of this notorious scam once and for all. Their hunt takes readers on twists and turns as they discover key orchestrators of the fraud hiding away in places like Monaco and Thailand, and as they get farther than any law enforcement has -- even traveling to France in an attempt to confront the psychic herself. Investigative reporter Bethany McLean called the book “a personal how-to guide for investigative journalists, a twisted tale of a scam of huge proportions and a really good read.” NYU Journalism Professor Adam Penenberg, who famously exposed journalist fraudster Stephen Glass, said, “Journalists Ellis and Hicken out-sleuthed professional law enforcement in unraveling the mystery of a $200 million global scam. What they have wrought would have made a gripping novel. The fact that every word is true is what makes this book downright shocking.” Other endorsements came from NBC business anchor Ali Velshi and crime fiction writer Megan Abbott.
In CNNMoney’s initial five-part investigation, they took readers along on our journey each week as they peeled back the layers of one of the world’s longest-running scams and ultimately exposed the global network that has kept it alive for decades. Even international investigators had been stumped. They had been unable to shut the scheme down and were not even sure whether the French psychic Maria Duval, who was the face and name of the scam, was a real person. But after months of reporting, CNN managed to zero in on the scam’s original masterminds, untangle the complicated and shadowy business web that has kept the scheme alive, and tell the unexpected story of psychic herself -- providing a rare window into how this massive fraud has been able to go on for so long. And in their second installment, they exposed a little-known Canadian company named PacNet, which has made schemes like this possible. By cashing the checks sent in by countless victims -- not just for the Maria Duval scheme, but for dozens of heartless scams that have preyed on the elderly for decades -- this tiny payment processor had been quietly profiting from global fraud for years. In this world, con artists perpetrate the fraud. PacNet deposits the checks. Not only did this series document just how many scams PacNet had processed payments for, but it also detailed the close-knit network of global scammers that specifically prey on the elderly, and the companies that help them do it.
CNNMoney’s report, The Secret World of Government Debt Collection, exposes an industry rife with political corruption, aggressive tactics and legal loopholes. In this world, forgotten tolls can snowball into hundreds of dollars in debt and unpaid speeding tickets can land people in jail. We found that thanks to legal exemptions, collectors working for government agencies typically don’t have to follow the main federal law that regulates the debt collection industry, and state consumer protection laws often don’t apply either. All of this opens the door for steep fees that other debt collectors couldn’t dream of charging, and allows them to threaten consequences as dire as arrest. The report focused on one of the industry’s biggest players, Texas-based law firm Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson. Through our reporting, we uncovered this little-known firm’s massive influence and controversial political ties. For example, Linebarger spends more on state lobbying than Texas giants Exxon and Halliburton, and it pours millions of dollars into political campaigns. It even has current elected officials on its payroll and has become entangled in multiple bribery scandals. CNNMoney discovered it is also currently linked to an ongoing FBI investigation. But Linebarger continues to rake in lucrative government contracts, making its top executives and founders rich while the debtors it goes after are left scrambling to pay its steep fees. And because firms like Linebarger are powered by government agencies, consumers are left with little recourse.
After a scathing report from the Department of Justice finding rampant policing for profit in Ferguson, the city touted changes to the police department and court system, while lawmakers heralded a new state law aimed at limiting the use of court fines as revenue generators. But we didn’t want to take the city’s word for it, and in an exclusive analysis eventually discovered that even after the DOJ report, the city continued to issue thousands of warrants over the same kinds of minor offenses the DOJ had highlighted. We also found that the problem goes far beyond Ferguson. Policing for profit has raged on in Ferguson’s neighboring towns -- keeping many of the area’s low-income residents stuck in a cycle of court debt and jail stints. Like a pastor who was jailed countless times for minor traffic tickets, a 27-year-old who has spent more than a decade trying to pay off tickets she got as a teenager, or a young mom who was arrested over not having a residency sticker on her car.