CLOSE
Original image
iStock

12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Private Investigators

Original image
iStock

In the movies, private investigators are often depicted as gun-toting outlaws who get results the police can’t by knocking down doors and shaking down suspects. In reality, licensed PIs don’t usually have to nurse any broken knuckles. They tackle insurance fraud, infidelity, and corporate impropriety by diligently combing through records and trailing persons of interest, using experience garnered from backgrounds in law enforcement, loss prevention, or the military.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have to occasionally go undercover, or think fast when they’ve been spotted. Check out these 12 lesser-known facts about what it's like to be a detective for hire.

1. THEY WORK UNDERCOVER.

Slipping into a new job for investigative purposes isn’t limited to law enforcement. Jordan Smith, vice president of investigative operations at Pilum Defense Agency in Boulder, Colorado, says his firm frequently pursues cases relating to corporate or business fraud by getting one of their PIs hired at the company to see what’s going on. “If you’re a company with a retail location that’s missing deposits, we can go in and see what’s happening for ourselves,” he says. “Right now, we have someone at a hospital to see who might be stealing prescription drugs. Sometimes we can send a certified fraud examiner to work as an accountant.” The best part? “We can get paid the employee rate as well as for the investigative work we do.”

2. BEING CATFISHED? THEY CAN HELP.

Online dating has been a boon for PIs: people intertwined in internet romances sometimes begin to have suspicions about whether the person they’re corresponding with is telling them the truth. “They’re wondering if the person is who they say they are,” says Brendan Burke, a PI with Gilliam Burke Investigations in Edmonton, Alberta. “It gets to the point where they begin asking for money. We had one case where someone was claiming he owned businesses and properties he didn’t. Typically, the client is an older woman who’s divorced and looking for attention. They want to believe. But if you think you’re being scammed, you probably are.”

3. THEY PEE IN BOTTLES.

A key element of surveillance work—typically done to observe behavior like infidelity, or unwarranted physical exertion in the case of worker's compensation—is remaining undetected. That means not getting out of a parked car constantly, and handling personal business during a typical 12-hour spy shift any way you can. When it comes to bathroom behavior, Smith says, “You need to go before you get there. But we’ll bring a pee bottle.”

For number twos? “We just hold it. I’ve never not held it.”

4. THEY’LL GO DUMPSTER DIVING.

Despite having a wealth of information available both online and at public records locations, detectives sometimes find their best resource is a trash can. “Once something is thrown away, we can collect it,” Burke says. “It depends on your local municipality. But we’ve had success with it. With one child custody case, we were able to find evidence of drug use—crack pipes and powders.” And yes, it’s gross. “We use face masks with some Vicks rubbed into it.”

5. THEY’LL CREATE FAKE FACEBOOK ACCOUNTS TO CHECK YOU OUT.

For intel, nothing beats "friending" a case subject on Facebook. Since subjects probably won’t accept a request from a PI, some opt for creating fake accounts. “It’s safe to say most of us have a few different accounts,” says Skyler Crowley, a private investigator in Florida. “Some guys like blondes, some guys like redheads. Whatever gets us in. My fake accounts are exponentially more popular than me.”

6. THEY CAN FIND OUT HOW MUCH MONEY YOU HAVE.

Depending on their location, it might be permissible for PIs to get access to your bank accounts—not to manage your funds, but to find out exactly how much money you have to see if you might be withholding assets during a divorce or other litigation. “It’s a trade secret, but we do have ways of finding out where someone has an account and how much money is in it,” Smith says. “It’s generally not admissible in court, but it’s info we’re allowed to give to attorneys.”

7. THEY GET ASKED TO INVESTIGATE THE PARANORMAL.

Every so often, someone will confuse Burke for a Ghostbuster. “The most unusual request, I think, was from someone who thought their TV was haunted,” he says. “That’s … well outside of what we do.”

8. SOCIAL MEDIA IS LIKE ONE GIANT DATABASE.

Having a social media profile is probably bad news if you’re trying to stay off a PI’s radar. “It’s a gold mine of information,” Smith says. “People like to document their entire life. I’ve seen people who were supposedly ‘injured’ at work posting pictures of exercising. I’ve also been able to figure out what vehicles a person owns because of photos online.” And remember, even when you delete something it might still be retrievable. “Nothing just goes away,” Smith says.

9. THERE’S A TRICK TO FOLLOWING CARS.

Non-paranoid people aren't generally suspicious of someone following them, but there’s a good way to avoid detection when PIs want to track a car on the road. “When we have to follow people, we use two drivers,” Smith says. “That way, they’re not seeing the same car behind them all the time.”

10. CLIENTS AREN’T ALWAYS FORTHCOMING.

Sometimes PIs get hired for jobs without getting the full story. “One guy called me at midnight for me to do surveillance that night on his house because he was out of town and his teenage daughter was home alone,” Cowley says. “I thought it was very weird and last minute but I wasn't going to turn down the job. He called me every 10 minutes until 4 am. Eventually he asked me to get out of the car and sneak up to the windows to see if another man was with his daughter. That's when I realized something more was going on there. It turns out the man was separated from his wife and was extremely jealous of her new boyfriend. He wanted me to watch them. I said no.”

11. THEY HAVE INFORMANTS.

Some PIs have a good enough rap to convince some of your associates that informing on you is in their best interests. Once, Smith was having trouble getting information on a woman who had custody of her children and spent most of her day in her apartment. “I was able to convince her landlord to call me two to three times a day with information,” Smith says. “It resulted in custody going to the father.”

12. SOME OF THEM AREN’T CRAZY ABOUT THE PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR LABEL.

Some detectives might not tell you they’re detectives, using terms like “legal investigator” instead to help ward off any stereotypes from pop culture. “Some PIs I know don't like to use the term because there’s a certain image of being shady, like a Philip Marlowe character,” Burke says. “But I find that most people think it’s interesting. It’s nothing I shy away from. I operate legally and ethically, and I’m proud of the work that I do.”

All images courtesy of iStock.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
quiz
arrow
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image
SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES