Thanks to Hollywood blockbusters and binge-worthy TV shows, there are tons of myths about private investigators imbedded into our culture. Flashy cars, law breaking, computer hacking -- we’d hate to break it to you, but that’s not how it works on the job.
We know that private investigators are usually hired when something is, for lack of a better term, wrong. But It's important to have realistic expectations when you hire one. Yes, private investigators can help you in situations where there are no other solutions, but they simply aren't magic workers, and they can't break the law.
In this post, we'll cover some common misconceptions about what private investigators can and can't do.
1. Can Private Investigators Break The Law? No.
Well, no. “We’re regular people, with regular powers,” says Brian Willingham, the president of private investigation agency Diligentia Group. “We have expertise in gaining information, but we certainly don’t have special powers that say we don’t have to abide by the law.” Sure, private investigators can crack a case that a normal civilian can’t. But that doesn’t mean they have superhuman powers. In fact, they're just ordinary people.
What makes private investigators different from your average person, however, are their experience, tools, and resources. Usually, this comes from years of working on the police force, military experience, training as an apprentice, or earning a state official private investigator license.
Not every state requires a license, but Trustify Sales Manager Sam Rosenberg says it helps them avoid harassment or stalking charges while sitting on a house or following a person of interest. After all, they aren’t cops and must follow the law like every other citizen. As such, there’s a lot of red tape private investigators can encounter.
2. Can Private Investigators Hack into Computers or Phones? No.
While private investigators have the know-how to obtain public records for personal and corporate investigations, phones and computers are subject to the law - and to technical limitations (you might remember the FBI strugging to break into a iPhone last year).
When it comes to investigating phones, email accounts, bank accounts, and social media profiles the only way to access them legally is with the owner's express permission. Sometimes, this causes issues as people tend to think these are the only ways of getting the information they are looking for.
For instance, what if a husband wants to see if his wife is cheating on him? Surely he can just check the phone records to see if she’s calling someone else.
"If he’s paying her phone bill, then technically it’s his account. But even in that situation, he would have to get a subpoena to see that. Without the subpoena, he could see the outgoing and incoming phone numbers, but he needs the subpoena to see the content" says Mike, one of Trustify's Investigation Experts.
Even snooping through your partner’s phone has its limitations. It might be legal in some circumstances, but it may not be admissible in court. If you want evidence of your partner’s affair, you’ll have to get undeniable proof without breaking the law. That's where surveillance comes in...
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3. Can Private Investigators Follow Someone for You? Yes!
Surveillance is often the best way to get the evidence you're looking for without getting into legal difficulty. “If you think your husband is cheating on you, we can’t get the text message, but we can put surveillance on him and follow him to see if he is cheating" says Mike.
How does surveillances work? Usually private investigators “sit on the house, to see who’s in the house, who’s going to the house, figure out who’s there, and follow the person from the house to a different location.”
But stake outs only go so far. They can only be conducted on public property. Sam points out if they get caught on private property, and someone asks them to leave, then they must leave.
And if their target leaves? Well...“Mobile surveillance is where we follow a person,” Mike explains. “That’s more exciting, [since] you have no idea where they’re going to go or how they’re going to get there.”
That sense of unpredictability, though thrilling, can make the surveillance complicated. Private investigators must follow a target through crowds, onto subway trains, and if it gets chaotic, the private investigators might even lose them.
But with all their years of experience, private investigators are professionals who “think on their feet and adapt to circumstances very easily,” Mike says. They make it look easy, even when it’s not.
Modern methods also make surveillance cheaper, and less about hanging around in cars than it used to be. Modern investigators can set up remote cameras, or even track vehicles using a national database.
4. Can Investigators Be Action Heros? No.
Okay, that one might be obvious, but on screen private investigators are heralded as heroes with sports cars and fancy technology who will do anything — even break the law — to solve the case.
Brian Willingham, the president of private investigation agency Diligentia Group, assures us a day on the job is not like a Magnum P.I. episode. He doesn’t drive a Ferrari, he doesn’t live on the edge, and he never breaks the law.
But while Hollywood puts a glossy shine on PI life, they also make solving a case seem lightning fast. It doesn’t work that way. Private investigators spend long hours on the job tracking persons of interest to crack the case.
“Don’t believe what you see on TV,” Trustify Private Investigator Network Manager Mike Hunter advises. “We’re very good, but we’re not going to find the radical extremists in 60 minutes with commercial breaks.”
Instead, for cases involving surveillance or deep research, expect at least a few days or more to have your answers from your private investigator.
5. Can Private Investigators Find Most Information Online? Sort of.
It's not as exciting as following a potential cheater through a city, but researching is a highly useful skill that private investigators have for all sorts of cases, from skip-tracing (where they will locate someone) to asset searches.
Because investigators have access to resources and databases that an average civilian doesn't, not to mention the experience and know-how, they can often find out things that others can't. Looking into the background of a potential nanny, finding adoption records, or locating an ex-spouse to serve them alimony papers can often all be accomplished without an investigator ever leaving their computer.
Knowing this, you shouldn't put private investigators in a box. If you've spent hours searching for something and you keep hitting dead end after dead end, it may be time to employ a private investigator to look into the matter. Private investigators routinely use human intelligence, interviews, and even paper records to get things done.