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Inside The World Of A Real Private Investigator

February 12, 2010

When you think of a Private Investigator (PI), you probably imagine a suave and serious chain-smoking character, often wearing a fedora, and pretending to read a newspaper as he spies seedy characters leaving dingy bars and getting in the back of cabs. That’s because through a rich presence in fiction and pop culture, the Private Eye has become a symbol for the jaded anti-hero, the savior from the shadows, the last resort when all else has failed. And while some of these clichs are drawn from reality, there is much more to the story of the modern-day PI.

So put down that Sherlock Holmes and turn off The Maltese Falcon, because we’re taken a look into the real world of the Private Eye.

Not Your Grandpa’s PI

Modern PIs do much more than tracking down the missing husband of melodramatic femme fatales – these days, the clients that utilize their services extend to large corporations, lawyers, banks and politicians. A number of PI’s even take to specializing in certain areas or professions with which they have experience.

For instance, a growing section within the field of Private Investigations include the cyber-PI – people hired to track down cyber-criminals and hackers. Other areas of specialization include loss-prevention specialists, such as hired by hotels and casinos, fraudulent work-claim specialists and marital infidelity investigators.

Additionally, many contemporary PIs work just as much from their desks – obtaining records online, making phone calls and researching the target- as they do in the field taking surveillance and questioning contacts. But that’s not to say that all aspects of a PI’s work has changed. Most PIs eventually find themselves using classic surveillance techniques such as following targets and taking photographs to obtain information outside the realm of Google.

Tricks of the Trade

Despite the varied specialties within the field of PI work, their purpose is almost always the same – collecting and analyzing information. So how do they go about obtaining this sometimes coveted information? It depends on the case.

For cases involving the investigation of an individual, a PI might use a variety of different records – some public, some not- such as tax records, voter registration, real-estate transactions and court records. Generally, there is much information available to the public, but a PI might have connections or methods that allow them expedient access to the relevant documents that would otherwise be difficult to obtain.

However, some information can’t be obtained through records and that’s when a Private Eye must resort to groundwork.

An example of this is when someone is trying to find evidence of a spouse’s infidelity. In this case, a PI might be forced to spend hours surveying the movements of an individual over the course of entire days. This might involve questioning acquaintances of the target, following them to work or taking pictures of suspect behavior.

Another example involves the investigation of a fraudulent injury claim. With the number of work-related injury lawsuits on the rise, sometimes a good PI is a company’s only option when making sure that the litigant isn’t playing golf the day before he’s wheeled into court with a broken back.

But what if a PI’s best efforts at traditional surveillance techniques prove to be fruitless? Fortunately, there are more “creative” methods available.

The Wrong Side of the Law

When a detective’s work requires more extreme measures to obtain information, they must be careful not to fall on the wrong side of the law and end up in jail. Even without being hauled to prison, if they acquire their evidence in an illicit manner, it could be unusable in the court of law.

One controversial technique used by PIs involves pretending to be someone they’re not for the purposes of gathering information. An example of this includes a PI pretending to be a coworker or friend in order to find out a target’s whereabouts. In the PI world, this is known as pretexting and can be a dangerous game to play. In some states it’s outright illegal, but in others there are very clear boundaries.

For instance, it is a felony in the United States to falsely present oneself as a government employee or police officer. Additionally, using pretext to access financial information or phone records is in direct violation of Federal Law.

Another area where PI work clashes with the law pertains to citizens arrests. Though most states allow citizens arrests under certain circumstances, if improperly executed one could find themselves being charged for kidnapping. So before considering a citizen’s arrest, a PI must make sure they’re well versed about the laws pertaining to their particular jurisdiction – otherwise, that PI could find themselves investigating the dimensions of their prison cell for the next few years.

So You Want to Be a Detective!

So you have the Private Eye itch and you think you got what it takes to be a detective? Well before you stencil your name in a door and start snooping out cases around town, there are a few things you need to know.

For one, most countries require you to obtain a license in order to officially practice as a PI and it’s recommended that a PI have experience in the field of law enforcement, insurance, the military or intelligence. And though there are no official education requirements, it is highly recommended to have a Bachelor’s degree in the areas of criminal justice or police science since most corporations will not hire a PI unless they have obtained a formal college education.

Finally, an aspiring PI must be aware of the challenges involved in this line of work. While you might be anxious to don your fedora and pop the collar on your peacock coat, it’s important to realize that a PI’s work is often tedious and requires long irregular hours, sometimes lasting days on end. And while snapping that conclusive photograph or obtaining that crucial piece of evidence might sound thrilling, keep in mind that there are others who feel the same way, which is why the PI field is so highly competitive.

So before making that final step towards “detective,” make sure you have the right motivation, education and expertise needed to make it as a Private Eye.

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