12 Tricks of the Trade – The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigating, Third Edition



Tricks of the Trade

In This Chapter

Picking through the garbage to find buried treasure

Pretexting to get the information you need

Tricking your subject out of the house

Obtaining the elusive hotel statement

Every profession has its tricks of the trade—shortcuts to help the professional achieve successful results more rapidly than traditional methods might allow. Although I refer to the techniques I present in this chapter as “tricks,” they’re actually advanced and sophisticated methods for obtaining information necessary for successfully resolving a case.

Getting Down and Dirty: Trash Covers

If you really want to get to know a person up close and personal, collect his garbage. Collecting another person’s trash is called a trash cover, and it’s a perfectly legal method of digging up information about a person. The law is pretty well established in most states that once a person has set his garbage at the front of his property for collection, it’s considered abandoned property and fair game for anybody who wants it. The trash cover is a very good tool if you have the time and the stomach for it.

Before conducting a trash cover, check your state’s statutes. State laws on picking up garbage that belongs to a third party vary from state to state. Most state laws agree that it is abandoned property and, as long as you don’t trespass, there’s no problem in conducting a trash cover. In the past, a few states have argued in court that until the trash is commingled with other trash, it is still the property of the original owner.

If your spouse is nagging you to take out your own garbage, why would you want to go digging through someone else’s? Because it’s ripe—not just with smells, but with very detailed information, such as bank account information, bills, credit-card statements, and new and expired credit cards themselves. You’ll know what kind of liquor the person drinks and how much. You’ll know what kind of snacks he likes to eat. You can find in the garbage rough drafts of letters written to friends, cards from lovers that he doesn’t want his wife to see (and that he should have shredded), payroll stubs, and empty prescription bottles. You name it, and you can find it by performing a trash cover.

PIs use several techniques when doing trash covers. Evaluate your particular situation and decide for yourself which method works best. No matter what technique you use, you should first call the local sanitation company (or the city, if the city handles the trash) and find out what days of the week the garbage is collected at the particular address in question. Here are some common tactics you can use:

The switcheroo. Scout your subject’s house and look at his or her garbage cans. Most people set out their garbage the night before the collection. The most professional technique is to purchase garbage cans identical to your subject’s cans. At about 3 in the morning, drive to the subject’s house in a van and swap cans. Be sure that there’s garbage in the cans that you leave behind so nobody gets suspicious.

The grab and run. The next easiest method is to drive to the residence in the early morning, take the garbage out of the cans, and place it in the back of a pickup truck or a van. Put some plastic sheets on the floor of the van or truck, or repackage the garbage into clean plastic bags as you collect it. In addition to the paper products you’re looking for, expect to encounter a lot of rotten food, dead animals, dirty diapers, and messy stuff of undeterminable origin.

Wear latex gloves when handling and sorting through the trash. Donning a mask to breathe through isn’t a bad idea, either. Murphy’s Law applies to trash covers: the papers with the information of most value will be the soggiest. Be sure to have a large, well-ventilated room to lay out the trash and examine it. You’ll also need a drying rack or some way to spread out mushy paper so it will dry.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: trash covers are disgusting, but I’ve always found them to reliably produce important information. You might not get what you’re looking for the first time out, though. For a trash cover to be productive, you should plan on grabbing the garbage regularly for several weeks. Follow the rules of evidence that I discuss in Chapter 20. You never know what you might have to produce in court. Hopefully you won’t need the dirty diapers—you’re probably safe to just toss them.

Speaking of diapers, when Khrushchev was the Soviet premier of Russia during the era of the Cold War, one of the Central Intelligence Agency’s greatest coups was snagging one of Khrushchev’s bowel movements. By analyzing the premier’s excrement, the government had an inside view into his health. And you thought it was just government waste.

Trash covers work with smaller commercial establishments as well—especially those that have their own dumpster. We’ve conducted trash covers on companies supposedly ready to file for bankruptcy and found shipping documents and notes on wire transfers out of the country.

Pretexting: Using Lies to Get the 411

A pretext is a subterfuge or ploy used by private investigators to encourage an individual to reveal information about himself or another party without being aware of the true reason for the conversation. In the course of responding to what appears to be a normal, everyday query, the individual unsuspectingly releases the information the investigator is seeking. A pretext isn’t a mean-spirited lie designed to injure anyone. Instead, it’s a clever lie designed to scam a person into providing crucial information about a case.

Before using a pretext to obtain information, make sure you’re not violating any laws. You shouldn’t run into trouble with the law if you use pretexts to obtain information that is generally available, such as a subject’s employment. After all, his fellow employees know where he works. You could follow him to work. His employment isn’t private. However, if you use pretexting to obtain private information, such as his financial data or phone records, you may be crossing the line into illegal territory. Stay on top of the current laws on this topic, and stay on the right side of ethical.

The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act made it illegal to use pretexts to obtain another person’s financial information by making false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements to a financial institution or to the financial institution’s customer. The Federal Trade Commission regularly conducts sting operations on private investigators who advertise asset or bank account searches. Typically, those types of searches involve pretext calls to the banks and also the subjects. If you need financial information on a subject, try using a trash cover at his residence and office.

Surprisingly, the hardest skill for many private investigators to develop is the formulation of good pretexts. Being deceitful seems to come naturally to some people. But for those who never lie, developing good pretext skills may be difficult, but not impossible.

Identifying the Subject

Suppose that you’re trying to locate Steve Brown. You think you’ve found him, but you’re not sure whether you have the right Steve Brown. Whatever you do, you don’t want him to know a private investigator is on his tail. Why? Because if he’s the right one, you’re going to begin surveillance, and you don’t want him to be watching for you.

You call him from a safe telephone or spoof your number (see Chapter 7) and ask if Steve Brown is there. Be sure to use both first and last names. If you just ask for Steve, you could get any old Steve. More than one Steve might be at that phone number, or you might have dialed the wrong number. The person answering will say either yes or no. If he’s there, ask to speak to him.

When he comes to the phone, employ your pretext. Assuming that you know the background on the right Steve Brown, ask if this is the Steve Brown whose date of birth is such and such. Give him the right Steve Brown’s date of birth. Normally, he’ll answer yes or no. If he answers no, you have the wrong Steve Brown, so keep searching. If the answer is yes, you must now give him a reason for the call that he will believe. A good pretext to use in this case is to say that you are looking for the Steve Brown, born such and such, for a high school reunion. The Steve Brown you’re looking for graduated from Coral Gables High School in 1965. He’ll say no, you’ve got the wrong Steve Brown, and hang up.

Now you know that you do have the right Steve Brown, and you also know where he is at this very moment. You can begin your surveillance whenever you please and be assured that you’re on the right man. I know investigators who’ve spent days following the wrong person with the same name as their subject because they didn’t do a simple pretext telephone call to verify that they had the right guy.

Finding Employment Information

Here’s a pretext to use if you want to find out a person’s employer. Telephone the subject, or his spouse, from a safe phone, or spoof your caller ID (I describe spoofing caller ID in Chapter 7). Tell him you are [make up a name] from [make up a bank name] and that he has been preapproved for a credit card with an introductory rate of 0 percent guaranteed for 12 months, with no annual fee and a preapproved credit limit of $9,500. Not everybody wants or needs a new credit card, but most of the people a PI deals with would kill for a card with a credit line of more than $500.

Explain that you need to have him verify only a few items, and you’ll send him his new card within two weeks. If he’s gone with you this far, he’ll go the rest of the way. Here’s the important part of this pretext. Start giving him details about himself to make him feel comfortable that you are legitimate. Say, “Let’s see, you were born on October 10, 1972, correct? You reside at [state his address] and your telephone number is [state his telephone number].”

Now you have to get him to start giving you information. You say, “I’m going to give you the first part of your Social Security number, to verify that I’m actually talking to Steve Brown; then I need for you to verify the last digit for me.” You give him the first eight digits of his Social Security number (so he knows you already know it), and he verifies the last one. Now he is starting to give you information. Next, ask him for his mother’s maiden name to use as a code word for his account. Nobody ever balks at that question, and he’s still spitting out information you didn’t have.

Next, ask him how many cards he’ll need, and does he want his wife’s name on one of them? He is giving you even more information. It’s not important information. It’s not information you care one whit about, but he is growing accustomed to giving you information. Now you say to him, “The only thing left to verify is your employment. We’re not interested in your salary, but we need to have in our records your current employer.” He has time and emotion involved in the relationship with you, and he wants that card. If he has an employer and he’s come this far, he’ll give it to you. Get the employer’s name, telephone number, and address. Bingo! You got what you wanted.

If you’ve developed a friendly rapport with this subject on the phone, you can push this pretext a little further. If you’re going to do surveillance on him, it might be helpful to know what his work hours are. Say something to him like, “Oh, that sounds like an interesting job. Do you like that?” Chat with him for a minute about his job and then slide in a question about his hours. Does he have to be to work very early, or does he work a night shift? Ask whatever seems reasonable. If you’re friendly with him and chatty, he’ll volunteer his entire life story.

Getting Travel Details

A client wanted us to follow his soon-to-be ex-wife to Bermuda. I told him to twist my arm a little, and maybe I’d take the case. He thought she would drive from Florida to Atlanta and leave from there. The client was flying into our local airport to pick up his 8-year-old and spend two weeks at the beach. We had to follow the wife from the moment she turned over the boy because nobody really knew for sure where she was going. Bermuda was the client’s best guess, and I was rooting for it, too.

He informed us that his wife had just undergone several different plastic surgeries, including a tummy tuck, liposuction on her thighs, and breast implants. He thought she probably had a lover. In Georgia, at that time, adultery not only was grounds for divorce, but it also figured big-time into alimony settlements, or lack thereof, according to the proof that was given.

I told the client we would need a two-man surveillance team for the job. He said fine; he didn’t care what it cost. Got to love the sound of that. I chose one of my investigators to go with me. We had our carry-on luggage crammed with surveillance gear, radios, binoculars, and cameras.

The wife met our client at the airport and turned over the child. He left, and she got into her car, left the airport grounds, made a U-turn, and pulled back up to the curb of the terminal. She took two suitcases out of the trunk and gave them to a skycap. She then took her car to long-term parking.

I gave the skycap $10 and asked him where the lady with the bags was going. He took my $10 and then said he couldn’t remember. Thanks a lot, bud. He did add that she was flying out on Continental, but he wasn’t sure which flight because she didn’t have her ticket yet. He had set her bags down near the Continental ticket counter.

Continental had two flights that left within 20 minutes of each other. One went to Los Angeles, the other to Houston. Nothing to Bermuda. Bummer. We needed to know where she was going so we could get on the same flight. Our only chance was to arrive with her and follow her from the airport. If we lost her here, or at the other end, we’d be out of luck and we’d never find her. The pressure was on.

When she came back into the terminal, I’ve got to admit, she looked like a million bucks. She was wearing a flimsy silk dress and, it appeared, nothing else. As she got into the ticket line, I stepped in right behind her. I didn’t want to talk to her because if she saw me in L.A. or Houston, I didn’t want her to recognize me.

The line moved slowly, but eventually it was her turn to approach the counter. My only chance was to get to the same ticket agent she was talking to. Other agents became available, but I pretended I was looking for my ticket in my carry-on luggage and let several people behind me go ahead. Eventually, she bought her ticket. As she left the counter, I hustled right up to the same agent, who happened to be a man. As my subject was walking away in her nearly see-through dress, I said to the ticket agent, “Man, what a fine-looking woman. Where is she going?”

He responded, “Houston.”

“Well then,” I said, “Give me two tickets to Houston.”

He couldn’t believe it. “Really, you want two tickets to Houston?”

“Yeah, really. I’ve got time. Maybe I’ll get lucky,” I said.

As he was printing the tickets, I inquired about seat assignments.

“Not to worry,” he said. “I’ve put you right next to her.”

What a nice guy.

I had him change the seats so that I was two rows behind her and my other investigator was a row in front of her.

What’s the point to this story? Do you think that nice guy would’ve been as nice if I’d rushed up to him, pulled out my state-issued private investigator’s license, and demanded to know where that woman was going? Not on your life. He would’ve started spouting company regulations about the privacy of records and the need for a court order or a subpoena, and a supervisor would have appeared out of nowhere. I would’ve drawn attention to myself and been made. Instead, I got exactly what I wanted and had the agent on my team, giving me more help than I needed.

You can get information from almost anybody. You just have to find a reason for that person to give it to you. You cannot coerce it from people. You usually can’t pry it out. And I’ve never had any luck buying it from anyone, either. It has to slide out easily so they don’t even know they gave you what you wanted. This trick can be used at any airport. Just adjust the facts to the particular case you’re working on.

Getting Your Subject to Leave the House

Your client is a workmen’s compensation insurance company. Your assignment is to get some productive video of the subject who is currently not working due to an alleged injury on the job. The problem is that the subject never seems to come out of his house when you have him under surveillance. How do you get him out of the house?

If you’re working for an attorney and your subject is represented by an attorney, don’t initiate any contact with the subject. The subject must initiate the contact. It’s unethical for an attorney to have direct contact with another attorney’s client. Although you’re not the attorney, you’re most probably acting as an agent for the attorney of the insurance company. Do not initiate the contact.

This little trick takes two people. One surveillance investigator is already set up, with the video camera on and ready. The other, who needs to be a female, is walking her dog or jogging. She approaches the subject’s front yard, gets down on her hands and knees on the lawn, and begins searching carefully through the grass. This continues for as long as necessary until the subject can’t stand it any longer and comes out of the house to see what is going on. The camera should be rolling.

The female explains that she was walking her dog, and her $6,500 engagement ring, which her boyfriend just gave her last night, slipped off her finger and is somewhere on your subject’s front lawn. She tells your subject she was going to get it resized today but hadn’t gone to the jewelry store yet (it helps to mention a local, high-priced store) to have it done. What is she going to do? Her fiancé will kill her if she can’t find the ring. By now, if she’s a good actress, she’ll be in tears.

One of two things will happen. Your subject may get down on his hands and knees and begin combing through the grass to help her. This makes excellent video for a workmen’s compensation case. Or he won’t. She can look all she wants by herself. If the subject retreats to the house again, she should look for a while longer and then approach the door, ring the bell, and give the subject a name and phone number, asking him to call her if he finds the ring.

After she’s been gone for a while, the subject will come out of the house and begin combing through the grass by himself, with no intention of telling her he found the ring.

If the subject doesn’t come out of the house at the beginning of the pretext, he might not be able to see your female investigator from where he is in the house. After a few minutes, she should ring the bell and tell him what has happened to her ring, to get the plot moving along.

This little maneuver usually works really well. At worst, you’ll get a little video of the subject and know what he looks like. It’s not unusual to get a lot of video of your subject and his wife and everybody else in the house, out on the front lawn looking for that $6,500 ring after the girl and the dog have left.

Although you can’t use this pretext on every case, it works for many situations. Adapt the facts to the neighborhood where your subject lives, and go for it.

There are some things you cannot do to your subject under surveillance. Some investigators flatten a subject’s tire to record the subject changing the tire. Not only is this not fair, but it’s malicious mischief and is against the law. The worst part is that you, the professional PI, will have to respond when the subject’s attorney asks you in court whether you have any knowledge of how the tire became flattened. Are you going to lie and thereby be guilty of perjury?
Suppose that you lie. Then the attorney produces the subject’s neighbor, who saw you let the air out of the tire. Now you’ve ruined your client’s case and run afoul with the court, all at the same time. Good move, huh? That story will spread so fast, you’ll never get another case from an insurance company or any local attorney. Play smart, play fair, and don’t break the law.

Proving the Hotel Stay

Working domestic cases has lots of entertainment value. Some PIs turn up their noses at domestic cases. I’ve made them one of my specialties, for several reasons. For one thing, I collect a retainer up front and put the money in the bank before I start the case. I don’t have to wait for some insurance company to pay me in three or four months, or whenever they get around to it. The other reason is that these cases can be a lot of fun.

PIs often get asked to prove that a client’s spouse stayed in a particular hotel during a certain time frame. If the PI asks the hotel directly for a copy of a bill, the hotel will steadfastly refuse. Before I worked out this little trick, I even tried to bribe a hotel clerk, offering her $1,000 for a duplicate bill. She refused. I developed this trick I’m about to reveal to you here and got the invoice anyway. The next day, she was kicking herself for not taking the $1,000. She told me herself how stupid it was for her not to take the money, since I “tricked” the front office out of the bill. This trick works even if you’re on the case several months after the hotel rendezvous.

Let’s make up two names, Gary Fielding and Sheila Smith. Smith is the wife of my client and had a fling with Fielding at a certain hotel on May 5. My client wants the bill for two purposes. He’s hoping that the invoice will show there were two occupants in the room. He also wants any long-distance calls charged to the room, as additional proof that his wife was there. Here’s how you can get it.

Call the toll-free number for the hotel chain and make a reservation for the next day. Tell the operator there will be two of you in the room. Give the reservation clerk the name of Gary Fielding as the primary name and include your own name as accompanying Fielding; use your credit card to guarantee the room.

The next day, check into the hotel. Use your own name to check in, and tell them Fielding hasn’t arrived yet. This is important: make sure the registration has Fielding on it.

An hour or so after you’ve checked in, ring down to accounting and identify yourself as Gary Fielding. You’re in room such and such. You stayed here last month on May 5, but you seem to have lost your copy of the statement and you need it to attach to your expense report. Ask them to drop another copy by your room. They can just slip it under the door sometime today, if that’s not inconvenient. In a few hours, you’ll have delivered into your hot little hands exactly what your client wants, and it’ll cost you (or your client) only the price of the room—plus your fee, of course.

If your client really wants to nail Mrs. Smith, there’s more you can do while you’re there. Once you get the statement, you’ll know she and Fielding occupied, say, room 502. Call the front desk and tell them you’d like to move to room 502 if possible—if not today, then tomorrow, when it becomes free. In your spare time, snap some pictures of the door to room 502. Make sure the room number shows in the photos. When you get the room reassigned to you, unmake the bed. Toss some bathroom towels around on the floor and make the room look recently used. Take lots of pictures of the unmade bed and the room and bathroom. Forward the pictures, with your report and generous invoice, to your client.

At a pretrial hearing, your client can toss a copy of the room bill across the table to his wife’s attorney. Then he can flip copies of the photos, one by one (very dramatic moment here), to the attorney, saying the pictures were taken of the room Mrs. Smith and Mr. Fielding shared after they checked out of the hotel. That’s a true statement. It just so happens that they were taken way after they checked out…a couple weeks afterward.

Sounds sneaky, you say? Not as sneaky as committing adultery and then trying to wring your spouse’s wallet for all it’s worth.

That combination works well and has saved my clients hundreds of thousands of dollars in alimony payments.

The Least You Need to Know

You can use pretext telephone calls to confirm a subject’s identity or other personal information.

A good method for encouraging a subject under surveillance to leave his residence is to make him believe that something valuable has been lost on his front lawn.

You can prove an overnight stay in a hotel by registering at the hotel, on a later date, under the name of the subject and then requesting a copy of the previous bill. Accounting will provide it with no questions asked.