When the client suddenly wants a different investigation altogether, sometimes it’s best to restart the case from the beginning.
by Stephanie Savoy
Most of the time, when the phone rings at our small investigative firm in Naugatuck, Connecticut, the case is just what you’d expect: a straightforward cheating spouse, workers’ compensation fraud claim, or long-lost relative. In cases like these, the objective is mostly clear, the target is identifiable, and we can get to work quickly to start finding answers.
But what happens when a client comes to you with one story, but as the case unfolds, you discover that the client wasn’t telling you the whole truth when they hired you?
We call these clients “case creeps.” It’s our private joke, and a play on the term “mission creep,” in which the scope of a project expands well beyond its original objectives.
In our parlance, a “case creep” is a client who keeps moving the target of our investigation by adding objectives to a case along the way—often, in reaction to information we find for them. Usually, these clients have no malicious intent. They’re not trying to take advantage of us hard-working investigators; many times, they aren’t entirely clear on their objectives in the first place. That’s why it’s up to us to be clear about the goals of a case from the first call, and to continue assessing whether the case still fits our initial limitations along the way.
Not Quite the Whole Truth
Recently, a client came to us with a back story that “fit the bill” for our services: She told us she was afraid her ex-partner was trying to set her up for a theft charge, or at the very least, a civil suit alleging that she mishandled funds of his while they were in a relationship. We met with the client, came up with a plan, and got to work.
We quickly realized that the back story didn’t add up. After the first round of surveillance, we’d found no evidence of any threat to our client. We told her the good news—that everything appeared OK—and figured, that was that.
After a few days, the client called back. This time, she asked us to eavesdrop on the former partner and his new love interest, to try to overhear them talking about the client.
As we always do when we decide whether to accept a new case, we asked ourselves these two questions:
- Is it legal? – Yes. The ex-partner and his love interests were in a public place.
- Is it moral? – Not to us. Our original objective was to identify whether-or-not the ex-partner was a threat.
Our case had changed. This was a “client creep” situation, with new objectives and a new mission. We had to treat the situation as a new investigation, starting from the beginning.
After contacting the client for a new consultation, it became clear that the initial complaint was simply a ruse to get us to spy on the former partner. We explained to the client that the line between surveillance and stalking is a real one, and while we understand heartache and hard feelings, we could no longer provide services for her.
For each client, we draft a legally binding contract that outlines permissible uses of the information we provide. The contract goes over all the legalities and lets us put in writing what we are being hired for.
This contract protects us and helps us remember what the client needs. Essentially, it’s an accountability document to prevent case creep. If the case changes and new objectives arise, our legal contract becomes invalid, and we either terminate the case or draft a new contract.
Turning down work is never an easy decision for a small business owner. Unfortunately, we all know people who will accept any case. But having dollar signs in your eyes can blind you to the risks of the easy “yes.” First of all, case creep usually equals unhappy customers—a client who doesn’t know what he wants will rarely be happy with the results of your investigation.
And second, if you let clients continually redefine your mission, there’s every chance that your case may creep beyond your personal ethical or legal boundaries, before you even realize it.
Case creep happens all the time—it is nothing to fear. But it is important for investigators to clearly understand the mission and not lose track of our objectives. Constantly assessing our case will help us deliver outstanding results without violating legal and personal limitations or risking our reputation.
About the Author:
Stephanie Savoy is a licensed private investigator based in Naugatuck, Connecticut. In 2016, she and her husband launched Savoy & Associates Private Investigations after she worked with another investigative firm for several years. She specializes in legal investigations for a network of attorneys in Connecticut, and has had great success in tracking hard to find individuals. When not working tirelessly for her clients, you can find Stephanie serving her community as a Police Commissioner with the Naugatuck Police Department or coaching youth sports. Find her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter: @savoyassoc