What’s In A Name?

Dr Fiona Swee-Lin Price, Director, Globalise Consulting


In 2007, when I was first asked to run training on Asian names for AUSTRAC, I was surprised. The program they requested was developed for university staff. The participants it attracted were customer-facing staff and administrators who entered names into databases and wanted to address people correctly. How was this material relevant for a government financial intelligence agency?

When I began speaking with AUSTRAC staff, however, I quickly discovered how relevant my training was to their work. Understanding international naming conventions helps immensely when investigating financial crime. My participants were learning how to use personal names to determine a person’s first language and country of origin and glean information that helped them connect aliases and identify potential associates and family connections. The sessions were also helping them understand and address challenges they often encountered when working with personal name data.

Criminal aliases

When someone operating under multiple names in several countries, it can be difficult to connect that person with the aliases they are using. Learning about the languages and naming conventions in significant countries can help investigators connect aliases more efficiently and reduce the incidence of both false positives and false negatives.

For example, in the presentation I gave recently at the recent FIU conference in Wellington, I included an entry from the Specially Designated Nationals list on ‘TSANG, Eric Kwok-wai’, for whom four further aliases were listed. An investigator who understood Chinese naming conventions would identify this as a Cantonese name from Hong Kong, and know that his alias “ZENG, Guowei” is a Mandarin name from Mainland China, providing clues about his movements. They could also deduce that he might use the alias ‘Eric Tsang’ or ‘Eric Zeng’ in English speaking countries and ‘Tseng Kuo-wei’ in Taiwan, even though these aliases are not included in the entry.

An investigator familiar with Chinese languages would also know that the three Chinese characters of this man’s name would be pronounced and transliterated differently in different

Chinese languages. The character romanised as ‘Tsang’ in Cantonese is romanised as ‘Zeng’ in Mandarin, which strongly suggests that ‘Tsang Kwok-wai’ and ‘Zeng Guowei’ are the

same name when written in Chinese characters. Finding out the characters of this man’s name would enable investigators to examine his activities in Chinese-speaking contexts and differentiate him from people whose names use different characters but look identical in romanised form.

Personal name data collection

Many of the challenges in financial investigation stem from how organisations collect personal name data.

In English-speaking countries, the systems used to onboard customers are set up for Anglo-Saxon names. Most only accept data in the Roman alphabet, and are built for names that contain two given names and surname. This can lead to inconsistent and poor quality data when onboarding customers whose names are written in other scripts, or don’t follow the given name/s+surname structure.

For example, Spanish names typically include two surnames— the father’s surname and the mother’s surname—and title+father’s surname is used when addressing someone

formally. However, if Rosa Garcia Perez were to enter her name into a form which provides the fields first name, middle name and last name, she might well enter ‘Garcia’ as her middle name. When the organisation addresses her incorrectly as ‘Ms Perez’, she might decide to modify her name, either by dropping ‘Perez’ and entering ‘Garcia’ under surname or entering both ‘Garcia’ and ‘Perez’ under surname. Situations like this can quickly lead to inconsistencies in personal name data that have important implications for financial investigations.

Working effectively with international names

Before working for AUSTRAC, the target audience for my training programs on names was organisations looking to communicate better with their multicultural customers and staff. I now recognise the value of my unusual area of expertise for people in financial intelligence.

A better understanding of international names would help investigators access information about the background, movements and connections of a person of interest and reduce the incidence of false positives and false negatives in investigations. It would also help investigators analyse poor quality data more effectively and provide insights into how data quality could be improved.

If your organisation is regularly facing challenges in these areas, I encourage you to get in touch about how I can offer support. The more your investigators know about international naming conventions, the more effective they can be when analysing personal name data.

Read more about identity and the ways to protect it with Pramodya De Alwis, from CentraPass in ‘the future of digital identity in a privacy preserving ecosystem‘.

Dr. Fiona Swee-Lin Price Author

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