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.