Introduction – The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigating, Third Edition


Welcome to the third edition of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating. In this edition, you’ll find a ton of new material and some of your old favorites. Even though I wrote this book, I still pull it off the shelf every couple of weeks to double-check something. For the professional, it’s a valuable guide on how to do your work. For the student in a PI course, this book may well be your text. It’s used in public and private schools across the nation. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you cannot find a better resource for the price than this book.

A while back, I spent a day with a criminal defense attorney working a criminal rape case in which his client was the defendant. This attorney asked me if I’d read Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books.

I’d never read any but had certainly seen a lot of Perry Mason on television. This attorney said the criminal law in the Mason books and on TV was basically accurate, except that even the best trial lawyer will never get the guilty person to confess on the stand. So did I know why Perry Mason won all his cases? What was his secret to success?

“Paul Drake,” he said, “Perry Mason’s private investigator.” A really good attorney understands how an excellent investigator can help him win cases. If an attorney doesn’t understand that principle, then he’s not a good trial attorney, for sure.

So what do private investigators really do to help attorneys win cases? To explain that, let me tell you about my college friend whose father was president of a company that made cans for vegetables and other food items. The company felt that business was stagnating and wanted to expand. It hired a consultant to originate ideas on increasing business. The board of directors met with the consultant after he’d done his research. When they were all seated, he said to the board, “Okay, what kind of business do you think this company is in?”

“That’s simple—we’re in the can business,” the board told him.

“No, you aren’t,” the consultant said. “Your company is not in the can business; it’s in the packaging business.”

With that concept in mind, the company went on to greatly expand into all areas of packaging.

Likewise, the private investigator is not in the surveillance business, or the electronic countermeasure business, or the background investigative business. Well, if it’s not any of those businesses, what kind of business is it?

The private investigative agency is in the information business. The PI’s client needs to know something. The PI gets the information. The unusual techniques that a PI uses are the fun part of the business and are what separates it from other information businesses, but nonetheless, information is what a PI sells.

In this book, I teach you how to get the information using tricks of the trade. Whether you’re a professional PI or you’re doing it for yourself, the techniques are the same, and they’re all here.

You have two choices: do it yourself or hire it out. I’ve tried to put all the basics in this book, to help you do it yourself or find the right PI for the job.

If you’re already a professional PI, you’ll find some useful advice in each chapter to help you build your business, be more professional, get more clients, and make more money.

Every chapter is woven through with real stories from the case files of my PI practice. The names and locations have been changed to protect my clients’ identities, but the pertinent facts are there and the situations are real. The solutions are real, too. Real people, real facts, real life.

Among the many updates I include in this new edition is extended coverage of family law and criminal defense cases. I also bring you up to speed on the latest technology available to PIs, including GPS tracking devices and new online databases.

Now look through the table of contents to find your specific problem, and I’ll show you how to get the information you need.

How This Book Is Organized

This book is presented in five parts:

Part 1, Private Investigation, Business or Fun?, talks about how to find a professional PI, the legal requirements of obtaining your own PI license, the skills and equipment you need, and how to get hired by a PI agency.

Part 2, Getting the Scoop, offers both basic and advanced techniques for skip tracing. These chapters teach you where to find information, how to dig up the dirt at the courthouse, where to access the public record databases, and how to log on to the secret “pay sites” that professional PIs use. I also give you a few tips on extracting information from the phone company.

Part 3, On-the-Job Training, is a crash course in investigative techniques. You’re taught how to do interrogations and how to run stationary and moving surveillances. Plus, you get my favorite part, PI tricks and treats for both basic and advanced investigators.

Part 4, In the Field, offers step-by-step instructional information on a variety of different types of cases. You’re taught in detail how to sift through the evidence of marital infidelity, how to catch the runaway teenager, and how to set up surveillance in your home. You’re also taught the basics of how to check phones for illegal wiretaps.

Part 5, Advanced Techniques, teaches you how to perform in-depth background investigations and includes tips on setting up your own background-screening company. There’s also a chapter for the professional PI on how to triple your hourly billing rate performing diligent adoption and estate searches. This part also shows how a professional should gather all the evidence, report it, and present it in court.


Some of the great features of The Complete Idiot’s Guides are the sidebars placed throughout the chapters with additional information. In these sidebars, I’ve tried to explain some extra facets of investigation. I also include tips and warnings about using investigative techniques mentioned in the chapter.

Look here for new methods to see a subject that you might not have thought of otherwise.
Here I issue warnings and point out legal traps that can snare you.
PIs speak their own language. Clue in on the definitions of the terms, slang, and jargon of the industry that you might not know.
Check out these sidebars for interesting facts, sidelights, and procedures relating to private investigation.


I’d like to thank Melanie Brown for making me walk a straight line. Also Frank Green and James N. Frey, who taught me everything I know about the craft of writing. Without Jessica Faust, my literary agent at BookEnds, this and previous editions of this book wouldn’t have been written.

For their contributions, special thanks go to Robert Scott at Skipsmashers, to Mitch Davis at TSCM/Special Operations Group, and to Jimmie Mesis, publisher of PI Magazine and owner of PI Gear.

Thanks also to the folks at Alpha who worked on this edition: Lori Hand, Jennifer Moore, Kayla Dugger, and Krista Hansing.


All terms mentioned in this book that are known to be or are suspected of being trademarks or service marks have been appropriately capitalized. Alpha Books and Penguin Group (USA) Inc. cannot attest to the accuracy of this information. Use of a term in this book should not be regarded as affecting the validity of any trademark or service mark.