All You Need to Know About Private Investigators
Any first encounter with a contemporary private investigator is never as thrilling as one might expect. This is mostly because we still expect to meet Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, or at least Veronica Mars. Movies, TV shows, and novels have romanticized the image of private investigators who are usually illustrated as mysterious people working from dim-lighted offices in the shady parts of a town. The truth is not as poetic as we would want it to be but the job of a private investigator is definitely a fascinating one.
However, unlike in novels and movies, private investigators need to respect the rights of the persons of interest and make sure they operate within the rules. And this is not only for the sake of ethics! Evidence obtained without respecting the rights of the person under investigation can get dismissed, and the private investigator may face federal charges.
While PIs may have more freedom than the police, courts, and legislators when conducting investigations, they don’t have special powers! Especially when it comes to surveillance. They can’t do much more than the average person to dig up dirt or skip trace someone. But they do have access to more legal resources and expert knowledge!
The laws that regulate a PI’s activity differ from state to state, but certain general rules have to be obeyed by all private investigators. Keep reading to learn about how private investigators work.
Private investigators need a license to do their job
It’s true that anybody can become a private investigator if this is their dream. But they always need to have the proper license to be able to be self-employed or work for various security services, detective agencies, financial institutions, or other businesses. Private investigators have to qualify and pass the PI exam to open their own agency or find work in the field. Many private investigators have previous work experience in law enforcement, the military, or federal intelligence, and they basically choose to become private investigators in a second career, but there are also newbies who just know they have this calling.
According to the United States Association of Professional Investigators, many private investigators specialize in civil investigations, criminal investigations, security, missing persons, investigative ethics, and even terrorism and intelligence. They also learn new skills like evidence collection, pursuit driving, firearms training, surveillance, arrest procedures, and use of force laws and codes.
GPS tracking and wiretapping are not an option for PIs
Unlike the valiant private investigators we see in TV shows and movies, private investigators always have to follow the law. There are no shortcuts, breaking and entering, or hacking is accepted in this business. While in the fictional world all this stuff might seem rather cute and worthy of praise, in the real world, private investigators have to obey the rules.
Yes, they can follow a person, but they’re not allowed to use GPS or tracking devices without previous approvals. The law varies from state to state, and there are states where GPS is legal to use as long as the vehicle’s owner permits you. For example, a husband suspects that the wife is having an affair and the wife uses his car to drive around. The husband can hire a PI and approve the use of GPS on that car because he is the rightful owner.
Most states make it very clear that it is illegal to record a conversation without at least one of the parties knowing about this. So, wearing a wire and recording the conversation is illegal even for a private investigator. As a result, intercepting phone conversations, texts or emails falls into the same category of “not allowed.” However, it is not illegal to eavesdrop on someone’s conversation. Private investigators are free to follow someone and sit close to them so they can listen to their conversation.
Private investigators use cool equipment to get the job done
PIs use various gadgets to make their job easier and facilitate access to evidence. They can use laptops and computers, biological evidence collection kits, GPS receivers, fingerprint evidence kits, and digital audio recorders. Private investigators also put to good use video cameras, scanners, binoculars, telescopes, and even night-vision goggles. This equipment helps them legally search databases, reports, public records, and tax filings, as well as conduct surveillance, run undercover operations, and conduct background checks.
However, private investigators are not allowed to hack into devices. Whether we’re talking about phones, computers, emails, social media accounts, or even bank records, medical records, or travel reservations, private investigators have no right to hack into any of them. Once again, it might be an entertaining thing to do in the movies, but in real life, private investigators need to find alternate ways to search for information. What private investigators are allowed to do is take advantage of the mighty internet and various databases. And they know exactly where to look and what to look for to solve all the cases that come their way.
Cameras are a private investigator’s best friend as long as they are used according to the law. Private investigators are allowed to take as many photos as they want if the subject of their investigation is outside their private property. There is no expectation of privacy there. The moment the person of interest steps on their property, in their house, in their backyard, or anywhere else that’s considered private property, the photoshoot needs to stop.
Trespassing and impersonating law enforcement are not in the PI’s playbook
We don’t know why most fictitious private investigators carry a little trespassing kit to break into someone’s house and not think twice about the consequences! In real life, private investigators are absolutely and 100% not allowed to trespass – even if the house is unlocked. The same goes for the subject’s cars too.
However, most states allow private investigators to search through a person’s trash bin if the trash bin is not on their property anymore. It’s not a pleasant job, but a private investigator has to do it if they think something of value might hide in there.
While a private investigator can’t impersonate law enforcement or a public official to get access to information, they are allowed to lie to get someone to talk to them. They can pretend to be an old friend of the person of interest, a cable guy, or other similar characters. It is not against the law as long as the PI doesn’t legally compel someone to talk to them or provide legal documents, like financial or phone records, social security numbers, etc.
Private investigators do more than just follow unfaithful partners
It’s true that private investigators are often on a mission to find the whereabouts of unfaithful partners and spouses, but this is not the only reason they have chosen to become PIs. As a matter of fact, private investigators can solve an impressive variety of cases. From finding missing persons and skip tracing to serving legal documents and testifying; private investigators can help both individuals and companies solve cases and find solutions to their problems.
The range of activities they perform depends also on their background. If they have a business degree, they can become corporate investigators, if they have experience with patents and trademarks, they can solve intellectual property theft cases, while certified accountants can help with financial investigations. Private investigators also conduct insurance fraud investigations and solve cases related to workers’ compensation fraud.
Basically, private investigators are brilliant at gathering facts and evidence, putting them together, and finding answers to their clients’ questions while respecting the law and following their passion.
This article was originally written on November 26th, 2018, it was updated on July 29th, 2021 to reflect current trends and changes.