A private investigator helps define what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to records and databases.


We had a chance to speak with one of the investigators in Trustify’s network, Lee, who works in California to ask some questions about what private investigator can and can’t do on the job.  

Is there one myth Lee could bust? “Probably disregard everything you see on television about private investigators, because on television and movies private investigators can do a lot of things that in real life you just can’t do, they’re not legal.”

With that in mind, let’s get into what private investigators can and can’t do.

1. Can Private Investigators Break the Law? No.

A private investigator is no different from a nurse, or a teacher, or a grocer, or any other profession when it comes to obeying the law. There are certain techniques that investigators execute that may seem suspicious, but they are working within the law.

Licensing bodies also govern the behavior of private investigators. Except for Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota and Wyoming, every state requires a private investigator to be licensed by those state’s standards. They aren’t all the same and just because an investigator is licensed in one state does not mean they are licensed in another. Investigators have to “play by the rules” and can lose their licenses if they don’t adhere to the codes of conduct set out by their licensing body.

Private investigators cannot impersonate law enforcement (we’re not sure why people think they can) and will refuse a case if a potential client asks them to do something unlawful.

2. Can You Have a Private Investigator Follow Someone? Yes.

Surveillance is a popular request. “So, probably the most common request is surveillance of some type,” said Lee. “I’d say 90% are infidelity cases — trying to catch either a cheating spouse or a cheating girlfriend or boyfriend. Sometimes it’s someone is thinking about taking the next step, you know getting married, and they want to assure that the person they’re possibly going to marry is faithful.”

Surveillance is perfectly legal — so long as the investigator works within the law. Surveillance is the practice of closely observing a subject and documenting the interactions, locations, persons, activities the subject is involved in. Private investigators can only conduct surveillance on public property, so the stereotypes of stake outs and following subjects are mostly correct.

“So, in surveillance cases — there’s really two types: there’s a fixed surveillance where you’re sitting up on a residence or a business or whatever and you’re not moving. Or there’s a mobile surveillance where you’re trying to follow somebody,” Lee explained.

If a client is forthcoming and can let the private investigator know what it is they want accomplished in the case, that will likely lead to a successful outcome. “To do a proper surveillance, you’ve got to have all the information that you can prior to going out on the surveillance. You know, photos of your subject, any vehicles they may use, information about their daily routine. I always tell my clients: ‘the more information I have on the front end, the more productive my surveillance will be.’”

Lee also explained that successful surveillance cases — at least mobile surveillance cases — are often not just a one-person job. “So, really, to do a surveillance case properly, you need more than one investigator, you need probably a minimum of two. I mean you can do it with one, but you stand a much greater chance of losing the person.” He said that the additional private investigator is usually someone that they have a relationship with and can call on to help out with surveillance or any number of different cases.

“One of the things you want to do is you want to make sure you’re not bumping into them (the person being followed) — so you’re not right behind them if they’re traveling in a vehicle. You want to make sure you keep one or two cars between you and the subject.”

“If it’s a fixed surveillance, you know you want to find a vehicle that fits into the location where you might be surveilling from. You know you want to make sure that you’ve got the proper equipment to conduct a surveillance.”

We asked Lee about the actual act of surveillance and some questions we often get from clients at Trustify when it comes to “how” it’s done:

  • Are investigators allowed on private property? “You can’t trespass on a person’s private property just because you are a private investigator. A private investigator pretty much has the same rights as a private citizen. If you’re on private property to attempt to, you know, interview someone, of course, that would be allowed.”
  • Are investigators allowed to take photos of someone from the street? “That’s allowed because you’re in the public domain. If you’re not on their (private) property but have a telephoto lens, you can take pictures of them outside of their residence. You can’t really take pictures of inside their residence if you’ve got a lens that would let you peek through a window. That would be considered trespassing, probably.” 
    “If you can get a view from off of private property, then you’re not technically trespassing because there’s no expectation of privacy when you’re in your front or your backyard.”

Speaking of surveillance… where does using GPS tracking fall in?

A private investigator helps define what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to surveillance.

3. Can a Private Investigator Track Someone With GPS? It Depends.

That depends on the state, Lee explained. “A private investigator can, in certain circumstances. And that’s really dictated by the state law,” he said. “So in California where I’m located, you can use GPS tracking on a car, as long as the party that’s requesting (the tracking) is on the title to the car. So, for instance, in an infidelity case a husband is wanting his wife’s vehicle tracked via GPS. As long as he is on that title for that particular car, he can give you written permission to place a GPS tracker on the vehicle.”

4. Can a Private Investigator Hack Into a Phone, Computer, Social Media Account, Email Account, Etc.? No. 

Lee confirmed that most of the requests he gets are based on what people see on TV.

“They think you can hack into anything. People want either their spouse, girlfriend/boyfriend, maybe a business associate — they want their phones hacked into.” People have also asked to have Facebook accounts hacked into to see what kind of messages they are being sent, Lee says. “It predominantly comes down to hacking telephones and computers.”

Hacking a phone, computer, etc. is still illegal, even if you know how to do it. And the only way it would be legal is if you had permission from the owner. “A private investigator, even if they had the skill set to hack into a cell phone to get records, texts, or other data, legally they can’t do that,” Lee says.

5. Can a Private Investigator Get Bank Records? No.

Some private investigators have fine-tuned their researching skills to manipulate a variety of databases and know the ins and outs when it comes to accessing public records. However, bank records are protected. “A private investigator can’t get the bank account details or statements, or balances,” Lee said. (Although, the exception is if they are working directly with an attorney.)

6. Can a Private Investigator Get Travel Information like Hotel Reservations or Airplane Tickets? Not Usually.

When it comes to travel information, i.e. plane reservations, hotel reservations, car rentals, etc., Lee says it’s not impossible — but it is very, very difficult. “It’s not prohibited, it all depends on you know if they’re willing to share that information with you or not. But most of those companies don’t freely give you that information.” (Again, although, the exception is if they are working directly with an attorney.)

7. Can a Private Investigator Get Medical Records? No.

Medical records are not accessible due to HIPPA laws, however “as far as finding out if someone has a medical condition, like pregnancy, if a private investigator got out and talked to associates of a person who may have that condition, and they wanted to share that information, that’s not protected... If someone is willing to share it, a private investigator can get it.”

It’s important to note that even if someone had access to that information, it may not be admissible in court. (Again, although, the exception is if they are working directly with an attorney.)

8. Do Private Investigators Work in Conjunction With the Police? Sometimes.

Investigators are sometime hired to give a “second opinion.” In early 2018, for instance, a prominent Toronto couple was found dead in their home. The police ruled it a murder-suicide, but friends and family weren’t convinced and hired private investigators to conduct an investigation.

According to Lee, private investigators often come in after police have worked a case. “Especially on a cold case, where maybe it’s not going anywhere and a client wants to have a private investigator take a second look and see if something’s been missed,” Lee added. “Maybe different witnesses weren’t interviewed. Private investigators don’t have any police powers, but they can still go out and talk to people.”

In either situation, investigators are working with the police, learning what they can from the official investigation as they conduct their own. But both parties are in search of the truth, not to diminish either party. Sometimes, private investigators are an option when the police are overwhelmed with their current caseload.

9. Can Private Investigators Find a Lot of Information Online? Yes.

Private investigators have honed research skills, including researching official records as well as a variety of databases. They know how to conduct deep web, social media account and dating website searches.

“I would say what you’re going to find on Google is just a small portion of what’s available,” said Lee, explaining how an online research case works. “ Not only the world wide web, but even knowing where to look not via Google or Bing or any of those other search engines. The information you get (on Google and Bing) is very limited. There’s a lot more information that a good private investigator knows where to look (for) and how to access.”

According to Lee, part of what makes a private investigator good at web searches is the fact they don’t rely on any one database. “A good private investigator has lots of different databases that they access. Some that are proprietary and others that are just available on the open web, if you know where to look. It really depends on what your expertise is.”

However, investigators cannot abuse these resources — it would damage their professional reputation, and could violate the law. Any violation could result in having their license revoked.

Thinking of Hiring a Private Investigator? Remember:

  • Always make sure you’re dealing with a licensed investigator.
  • Share every bit of information that you have with your investigator when you start your case. This prevents wasting time uncovering things that were already known and may even help further the case more quickly.
  • And remember that private investigators are there to help solve the problem and that they are objective. They will answer questions and help you. They might not get the answer you want, but it will be the truth.

If you’re looking for more answers about private investigators, we have a handy FAQ that we compiled with some more in-depth answers.

Private investigators are here to help you solve your problems. And getting down to the truth while providing you with the trust and safety you deserve is part of what separates investigators in Trustify’s network from the rest.


Videos by Stacy Blackburn

Danny Boice
Danny Boice

Private Investigator Cost Calculator

Use our free calculator to instantly estimate how much your case is likely to cost. Enter in your information below to receive an estimate in your inbox in minutes.

Get Connected With a Private Investigator

Tell us about your case and get connected with an experienced investigator near you. If you need information, we can help.

  • We handle all case types, including infidelity, person location, and surveillance.
  • Our network has investigators across the USA.
  • Each investigator in our network is carefully vetted for professionalism and experience.
Learn More

Learn About Adultery Investigations

Trustify has a network of licensed private investigators with years of experience available nationwide. Learn more about starting an investigation with Trustify.