The Making of a PI
In This Chapter
• Meeting Mr. Pinkerton, America’s first PI
• Getting your foot in the door
• Considering niches in the investigative field
• Honing your creative thinking skills
• Getting acquainted with the less-than-flashy side of detective work
As a PI, your most important client is the truth. You must be impartial in this pursuit. The irony is that your clients don’t always want the truth. Does a husband really want to hear that his wife has been cheating on him with his best friend for the last three years? Or does an insurance company want to find out that the person it’s accusing of insurance fraud is, in fact, telling the truth? The answer to these and many other questions posed by clients is a resounding no. Yet it’s your job to dig up the facts, present them to your client, and let the chips fall as they may.
Ultimately, you’re doing an important service for your clients even when you tell them things they don’t want to hear. Your clients need to know the bad as well as the good. Nothing is worse for an attorney than to be blindsided in court by some derogatory or hurtful piece of information that he didn’t know about—and should have. He needs to have all the facts beforehand, and that’s the private investigator’s side of the business.
In this chapter, I offer up a little 411 on the origins of private investigating and describe the most common types of work PIs do.
Allan Pinkerton is the father of private investigation in the United States. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1819, he began his career in law enforcement as a deputy sheriff for Kane County, Illinois, in 1846. Four years later, he opened his detective agency in Chicago.
Pinkerton played a significant role in the history of nineteenth-century America. Documented facts are hard to come by, but many historians contend that Pinkerton became aware of a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln while Lincoln was en route to his inauguration in Washington, D.C. Pinkerton overtook Lincoln’s entourage and persuaded him to change his itinerary, thereby thwarting the attempted assassination.
In 1866, the railroads hired Pinkerton to put an end to the great train robbery gangs, including the Jesse James gang (also called the James–Younger gang). Early on, Pinkerton’s agency didn’t fare so well with the James–Younger gang. At least two Pinkerton operatives were killed in their attempts to arrest the Younger brothers. John Younger was also killed in one of those gunfights, a fierce shootout in St. Clair County, Missouri, in March 1874.
But thanks primarily to Pinkerton’s aggressive pursuit, the railroad robbery gangs were out of business by the early 1900s. Many people believe that the Pinkertons sent a number of innocent men to jail in the train robbery gang cleanup; the term railroading came into use to describe law enforcement pressuring innocent people to admit guilt.
In 1999 Pinkerton’s agency was acquired by Securitas (which also acquired the next largest security agency, Burns, in 2000). Securitas is a conglomerate listed on the Swiss stock exchange.
Breaking into the Business
Although getting your foot in the door can take some effort, when you’re in the investigative business, you’ll find that it’s a lot more fun than a real job. People typically gain entry into the PI field through one of two doors:
• Working in an investigative position with law enforcement or the military
Even Mr. Pinkerton, the father of the PI business in the United States, did a stint as a deputy sheriff before starting his agency. But you don’t need previous law enforcement experience to work as a PI. In many cases, you don’t even need a license to do some investigative work. For several niches in the PI field, previous law enforcement training has no bearing on the work at all. Besides, in some states that require previous “investigative” experience before issuing a PI license, 25 years as a street cop doesn’t meet the “investigative” requirement.
In the following sections, I provide an overview of the various niches in the field, clue you in on the type of work involved, and indicate whether you need a PI license to do the work.
Retrieving Public Records
You can make an entire career out of retrieving courthouse documents. (See Chapter 5 for details about accessing records at county and federal courthouses). Document retrievers earn very good incomes by circulating through local courthouses, pulling documents requested by clients, and searching civil and criminal histories.
You can make several thousand dollars a month doing this work, and it involves little overhead. In rural areas you can earn twice the amount you’d make in urban areas. In most states, you don’t need a private investigator’s license to pull records.
With advances in technology, the field of document retrieval is undergoing significant changes. Many county courthouses now provide access to their records online, often for free. However, in some counties, you still have to show up at the courthouse and get the files in person; in such cases, you can charge $75 and up for a trip to the courthouse to retrieve a record for a client.
Doing In-House Investigations
If you’re interested in conducting background investigations only for yourself, maybe on your new boyfriend, you don’t need a license. Similarly, most states allow in-house investigators to do background investigations and internal theft investigations without a license. If you’re good at investigations and have picked up a little experience along the way, consider becoming an in-house investigator. Most investigators who are employed by law firms (as full employees, not subcontractors) can work without a license. Doing in-house work is good way to obtain the statutory experience needed for your own license. Check out Chapter 2 to find out which states require a PI license to do investigative work.
Serving Subpoenas for a Living
In most states, you don’t need a PI license to serve subpoenas, although you often need PI skills to track down the people being served. Usually the local sheriff’s office or the courts regulate the authorized servers (often referred to as process servers) and can help you get the information you need to enter this niche.
Can you make a good living serving subpoenas? Absolutely. The keys to making money by serving subpoenas are high volume and high efficiency. In many ways, the financial aspect of a subpoena service business is similar to that of a PI agency. If you want a six-figure income, you need to have your own subpoena service company or your own PI agency. Normally, servers are paid based on the number of subpoenas they serve.
To be successful in this niche, strive to be more efficient than the local sheriff’s office. The office often charges around $40 for the service, and frequently, its servers are slow. You might charge $50 or $60 for the service but provide a much quicker turnaround time and better reporting to the client after the process has been served. Nobody benefits if the subpoena is served after the trial is over.
Some investigators focus exclusively on skip tracing, locating missing individuals, and hunting down deadbeat parents. In most states, you need a license for these types of jobs.
PIs refer to people who don’t want to be found as skips, meaning people who are intentionally hiding (perhaps from creditors) or who have some other reason to keep their whereabouts a secret. Skip tracing is the process of tracking down those individuals through whatever means possible. When searching for skips, PIs often search public and private databases; contact the skip’s friends, family, neighbors, and employees; and even use social networking sites such as Facebook to glean information about them. In Chapter 4, I provide a thorough overview of skip tracing.
I know of one agency that works only deadbeat parent cases—in other words, tracking down parents who owe back child support. The client signs a contract agreeing to pay the agency a percentage of the child support or alimony payments after it finds the parent. The agency is quite successful in locating the deadbeat parents and collecting the money they owe to the custodial parents.
Other agencies specialize in finding the birth parents of adopted children. This is a difficult area and has as many rewarding moments as it does disappointments. Here’s just one example from my case files:
Mary Beth, a 30-year-old woman who lived in Maryland, contacted us and asked us to find her birth mother. The mother who’d adopted her told her she was born in Florida. When her adoptive mother died, Mary Beth began sorting out her papers and came across some notes her mother had made that included the name of her birth mother. Of course, 30 years later her birth mother had probably been married at least once and probably had a different name. Mary Beth had no idea if she was still alive or living in another state.
By searching state marriage records and other databases, we ascertained that her birth mother actually now resided in a very posh, gated community in the Jacksonville, Florida, area. We discreetly made contact with the birth mother, who denied ever having a daughter and certainly ever giving her up for adoption.
We contacted her again, and this time she told us that she didn’t want anything to do with her daughter, that the child had been from a different part of her life, and asked us to please leave her alone. Sad, but true.
Hiring the Hired Gun
Another niche area of the PI business is working in personal protection. For this line of work, you may need a PI license (check with your state’s regulations), and you should also invest in some training using professional firearms and defensive tactics. A professional bodyguard demands a lot more than standing 6 feet, 4 inches tall and carrying a big gun—although that’s a good start.
The distinction between providing personal protective services and security guard services is hazy. Most states require different licenses for each service: a PI license for straight personal protection and a guard company license for the other. Most security guard services also provide some investigative services and frequently carry both licenses.
Another lucrative aspect of PI work that falls between personal protection and the security business is concert security and nightclub security.
Thinking Sideways: The Key to Success
No matter what area of investigative work appeals to you, you need to be creative and willing to think sideways. Successful PIs are able to look at a problem from different angles to find creative solutions for them.
An attorney who represented the Jacksonville Shipyards came to my firm with a problem. The Shipyards had an employee, Richard, who wasn’t working due to an alleged knee injury he’d received while overhauling a ship in the yard. Some Shipyards employees, co-workers of Richard, had told the Shipyards manager that Richard was malingering. According to his co-workers, he was able to repair automobiles in his backyard, do household maintenance, and replace part of his roof. If he could do that, he certainly could find useful work at the shipyard.
The other employees were irked that Richard seemed perfectly healthy and was collecting a full paycheck without doing anything, while they had to work for their paychecks.
The Shipyards hired a PI firm to put Richard under surveillance. Richard had an 8-foot privacy fence surrounding the side- and backyards of his home. The firm set surveillance vans in Richard’s neighborhood but never could catch him performing strenuous tasks. They heard metal banging on metal in the backyard, but they couldn’t see through the privacy fence. They even hired a helicopter to fly over, but Richard stayed in the house that day.
More frustrated than ever, the Shipyards instructed its attorney to find another PI firm that might have better luck. This attorney recommended my firm because we’d helped him out in a previous case. (In that case, we had his claimant under surveillance, caught him working, and nailed him as much as anybody has ever been nailed before. His client had worked very hard laying a concrete driveway and we videotaped him for six hours straight as he worked without a break. As soon as the attorney saw our surveillance tapes, he dropped the client. For that reason, the attorney knew we could produce excellent results.)
The Shipyards wanted Richard either back to work or fired. They needed proof that he could work, and they didn’t care what it cost to get that proof. I assigned the case to one of my senior investigators. After a couple days, the investigator told me it was impossible. Richard never came out of the house; if he was doing anything strenuous, he had to be doing it in the backyard. He, too, had heard noises coming from the back of the house, but he couldn’t testify about what was taking place back there or who was doing it.
When presented with a problem like we had with Richard, a good investigator steps back and takes a look at the big picture. You need creativity and innovation. You have to think outside the box. Think sideways. Think laterally or upside down, if you have to. Attack the problem from a new angle. Let your mind roam, and make that intuitive leap.
I went to Richard’s neighborhood and drove around the area. Behind Richard’s house was a two-story apartment complex. I approached the manager and indicated my desire to rent one of the apartments. She showed me one of the vacant second-floor units. From its back window, it had a clear view over Richard’s privacy fence, and I could see the entire rear yard and one side of his house.
The problem? They had a one-year minimum lease. I didn’t think the Shipyards would pay the rent on an empty apartment for an entire year. They might have. They wanted this situation resolved. But there had to be a better solution. I confided in the apartment manager the basics of my situation, but I didn’t tell her the name of the subject that I wanted to put under surveillance. I assured her there would be no wear and tear on the apartment; I would use the apartment only a few hours a day.
We struck a deal in which I would pay the apartment manager $25 cash for each day my investigators entered the apartment. She agreed not to rent the apartment until she had no other vacancies, and then she’d give us first right of refusal on the unit.
You can guess the rest. We shot hours of videotape of Richard repairing cars and working around the back of his house. We even had several days’ worth of tape that showed him roofing the back portion of his house. He carried stacks of shingles up a ladder and placed them around the roof so they were available when he needed them.
One of Richard’s alleged injuries was to his knee. We showed the videotape to one of his doctors, hoping she would say he was fit enough to go back to work. At one point, the doctor said that if we could show him climbing a ladder with a heavy burden, she would send him right back to work. Bingo. I pulled out the right tape, and there he was on the television screen, carrying a 50-pound stack of shingles up the ladder.
From that day until the day they closed, the Jacksonville Shipyards used my firm as its primary investigative resource. The company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a year with us. An analysis of all the cases we worked for the Shipyards showed that we saved the company several million dollars each year in wages that would have been lost and in frivolous medical bills it no longer had to pay.
Robert Bailey, a former PI and now author of PI novels, begins his novel Private Heat with PI Art Hardin this way:
Everybody wants to be a detective, carry a big shiny gun, and be all the rage at cocktail parties. Nobody wants to get up at o-dark-thirty and drive ninety-three miles to see if Joe Insurance Claimant—who has been collecting a total disability check for the last three years—is also working for wages on the sly, but that’s the kind of work that usually pays the bills, not the flashy stuff you see on the tube.
—From Private Heat, by Robert Bailey. Used by permission of the publisher, M. Evans and Company, New York.
If you’re looking for a career that’s interesting and exciting, private investigation fits that bill. I can’t think of anything more interesting than being a private investigator. But PI work also involves hour after hour of sheer tedium. The job requires a mountain of paperwork and documentation. If small details are your thing, the private investigative field may be for you. If you’re not up for the paperwork—dotting every i and crossing every t—you’d better think again.
The Least You Need to Know
• Allan Pinkerton began the private investigating business in the United States in 1850.
• Many investigative niches don’t require a PI license.
• Successful private investigators must be able to make intuitive leaps in reasoning, a talent that can be learned and practiced.
• Although working as a PI entails a lot of thrills, detectives must also do a lot of paperwork and be detail oriented.