Ask the Guy Who Worked at a Private Investigation Firm

It came up in another thread that I used to work for a PI, and despite my protests that I never had my own license and spent very little time in the field, there were still requests that I start this thread. So, with the caveat that this may not be nearly as interesting as people had hoped, here you go. I’ll do my best.


despite the fact that I have nothing to hide from (and don’t except to in the future) I am still fascinated by stories of people starting over in life by creating a new identity, hiding in plain site as it were.

what do you know about this? there are lots of books about it but reading various samples and reviews makes it sound almost…dull.

can people make themselves “disappear” with all the ways we are currently tracked these days?

I never dealt with anything like that in my time, but based on the sort of information we used to track people, I’d guess that a simultaneous change in name and location, combined with using a fake social, would make it extremely difficult to be tracked. You certainly hear stories every so often about fugitives who have made new lives for themselves elsewhere and go years and even decades before someone recognizes them.

What were the majority of the case types your firm dealt with? Insurance fraud, cheating spouses, missing persons?

We did very little work for individuals, and definitely no cheating spouses. Whenever someone would call asking for us to follow their spouse, my boss would tell them to save the money and get a divorce, because at the point they’ve made a decision to call us, their marriage is already over. He truly believed that.

For the most part during my tenure, we were hired by law firms to be their investigative arm for the defense of white collar crimes. This involved a lot of meetings with lawyers, tracking down potential witnesses, and conducting interviews.


what happens when you are doing surveillance and you have to pee really bad?

Only went on surveillance for one case, and only for a couple of days. There were multiple teams of us on the same surveillance, so we’d rotate the occasional break.

I don’t recall ever asking any of the guys what they did when they were a single-team surveillance, but I’m guessing that Gatorade bottles were involved.

What kind of business did you do the most of? Background checks? Insurance fraud? Dirt digging?

As far as spouses cheating, I heard another investigator did that line of work say if you think there’s a problem enough to hire a PI, there usually is.

What methods did you employ to track people down?

What was your most interesting case?

Again, it was primarily white collar criminal defense work. We did do a fair share of fraud work, although not all of it was insurance fraud. I recall that we did work on the government side of what was at the time the largest housing fraud case in the state’s history.

I think that may well be true, but that only emphasizes my boss’s point, I think. I realize that for some people, it’s extremely important to prove that they’re right, but really, if your suspicions have already reached that level of ugliness, what do you think you’re going to salvage?

A lot of the time, we already had some information on the witnesses we were looking for (such as a former address or a social), and the electronic databases that were on the rise at the time could provide you with a full background for someone based on just about any piece of information you had about them. The challenges were when you had to find someone with a name like Joe Smith in a city the size of Los Angeles, particularly when you had to be surreptitious about your investigation. That’s when you ended up doing drive-bys of home addresses and making phone calls to neighbors and such to try to narrow your results. When I first started, a lot of those databases would allow you access to DMV information, as well, which was really helpful. But eventually (and probably wisely), laws came about that prevented ordinary folks (and even PIs) from accessing DMV and voter registration info unless you could show you had a specific law enforcement purpose. Even today, programs such as Westlaw and Lexis Nexis, which have similar people-tracking databases, force you to state your purpose for running certain searches, and can restrict your results based on your answer.

As for my most interesting case, that’s an easy one. I spent all four years of my investigative career working on this case, including sitting at the defense table with the lawyers for what turned out to be a three-and-a-half month trial. I participated in several witness interviews, worked on a lot of the analysis of the evidence and wrote reports related to that, and I helped put together a database of a bunch of material that we used in real-time at trial. I also spent many, many hours with my boss at the FBI’s offices meeting with their lead investigator and copying electronic evidence that they gave us access to ahead of trial. It was a fascinating case and my first exposure to a criminal trial, and it lead to my being a paralegal today.

How did you get into the PI line of work? I assume you went to college for it? I’m curious :smiley:

By accident, like most of my jobs. :slight_smile: I was working for a Mailboxes, Etc.-type outfit where we provided a number of miscellaneous services to customers. Among the services was transcription work, and it happened that the owner of the business (someone who did some very sophisticated forensic computer work as a side business) was good friends with the PI I ended up working for. Because I was a pretty fast (105wpm) typist, he often brought his interview notes, which he dictated onto microcassette, into our business so I could transcribe them and turn them into formal reports. He got to know me and my work fairly well.

At some point, he had a falling out with his secretary at the time, and he wanted to fire her. He came to me and said that he had a replacement in the wings, but that it would be a couple of weeks before that person could join, so he asked if there was anyway I could come and act as a typist for the interim, which would allow him to fire the current secretary immediately. I agreed.

During my first week there, the aforementioned housing fraud case came in. The client had supplied the firm with literally hundreds of social security numbers that had been used in the case, and they wanted the firm to determine which socials were legitimate, as opposed to the ones that were fake (generally, socials belonging to dead people or people who otherwise were clearly not the same individuals who had filled out the paperwork). The firm went out and purchased access to an online database that would allow searching by social (DBT Online, I think?). And Friday afternoon, the investigators sat down to start running all of these hundreds of reports. Except that they couldn’t figure out how to use the software, and there was a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth and a number of other things old-school PIs do when they’re frustrated.

Feeling a bit brave, I asked if I could take a shot at it because I tended to be pretty good with figuring out how to use software. They let me, and I figured it out, and I ended up working with them until about 11pm that night getting all the reports run and getting them what they needed to report back to the client. They were…pleased. On Monday morning when I showed up, the boss called me into his office and asked if there was any way I’d be willing to join their outfit as an investigator, and with the blessing of my old boss, I did just that. No formal training, no educational background. I just fell into it by being in the right place at the right time and filling a technology need. Simply put, I was lucky. It worked out for all sides, I think.

This, I can answer. I knew a woman that hired PI’s (in more than one city) to tail her philandering husband as he whored around the southeast while on business trips. She’d already made up her mind to divorce him; she just wanted to show up in divorce court with plenty of evidence that he was cheating because in the state they lived in the courts tended to, well, nail the cheating party when it came time to hammer out a settlement.

I really admired her ability to keep her head and stay so calculating – I think a lot of women would have just blown their top and left.

When it comes to fictional detectives, which authors get it right and which don’t? Are there common misconceptions about PIs that can be traced to erroneous depictions in novels?

With insurance fraud, did you ever have to set up hidden taping, or request businesses to turn over security video records? I know of one person who was fired due to being on medical leave due to being unable to perform certain job activities (including reaching at/above shoulder level), but the employers obtained casino footage of this person playing the slots for several hours straight.

Pack heat?

Did you ever know she was trouble from the minute she walked into your office? If so, did she or did she not have gams that wouldn’t quit?

What are the chances that someone working for such a firm or owning such a firm, would use their resources to keep tabs on people from their past? Know anyone who did such a thing? Did you ever use resources to locate someone out of simple personal interest?

I’m afraid this is where I start letting the thread down. Other than sci-fi, I can’t think of any detective novels I’ve read – it has never been a genre I’ve had a lot of interest in. Since we all worked as a team, I think my experience was that there was a lot more huddling and reasoning things out than individuals having brilliant deductions out of nowhere. But I don’t know that I can speak for other investigation agencies, though. I think my boss was considered a little bit of an odd duck even by his contemporaries, so I don’t know how standard my experiences would have been.

I know that my boss worked on cases where he looked at other security video, but that was before I got there. As for setting up hidden taping, that happened on the one surveillance case I referred to earlier. The whole goal was to try to videotape this particularly individual doing something that he wasn’t supposed to be able to do. However, in the entirety of the couple of days we were following him, he only left the house once, and that was for a trip to Toys 'R Us. So we captured hidden video of him walking around the store shopping for a gift for a young relative. Very exciting stuff. :smiley:

No, and no one in our firm did, either. My boss was very against it. He felt that if we were ever involved in a confrontation, it was better to not escalate a situation. And again, I was really a desk jockey, so even if other folks had, I doubt I ever would have.

Yes, but she was a coworker, and I was married at the time. :slight_smile:

Certainly, to the last question. I think that a lot of people take advantage of resources they have in their office (ever use the copy or fax machine for something personal?), and I don’t think our office would have been any different. Keep in mind that 90% or more of what we had access to was publicly available information, and the advantage for us was that we had a lot of those public sources at our fingertips. I don’t have any recollection of anyone doing anything inappropriate or stalkerish with the information, and if they were, I don’t know that they would have shared that with the group as a whole. The only thing I specifically recall doing myself was looking up the ownership of the apartment building I lived in at the time because I was having some neighbor issues, and I wanted to issue a complaint beyond the building’s in-house management.