Trustify, a startup billed as the “Uber for PIs,” aims to disrupt the industry.
Some investigators worry that by driving down prices and bypassing due diligence, the app may destroy the PI field instead. But other PIs are signing up.
by Chad Nichols
We live in a strange age. Most of the interactions that we used to undertake face to face have been replaced by technological interfaces. Dating, applying for jobs, house shopping, and food shopping can all be done from the privacy of one’s home. But the more information we entrust to this technology, the less private we become. Just what’s out there? And who can see it?
On my desktop sits a comprehensive background check on someone I’d like to think I already know pretty well: me. Here are a few of the salient details it unearthed. Chad Nichols: co-writer for The Intergalactic Nemesis, shops at Whole Foods, Virgo, enjoys tennis and beer.
Maybe not the most nuanced overview of my identity, but it’s not wrong. It lists my last four addresses, the names of my wife, parents, children, and neighbors. It has the makes and models of my last three cars and the names of all the bands I play in. It has things I don’t exactly feel like sharing here, but suffice it to say, this thing is pretty comprehensive. The report comes courtesy of Trustify, or, more specifically, it comes from a very pleasant investigator named Melanie Daria with whom Trustify does business and with whom they were nice enough to set me up.
The (Controversial) Uber for Private Investigations
For the uninitiated, Trustify is the new tech startup that is being hailed as an Uber for private investigators. Indeed, any curious person can download an app to their mobile device, and within minutes, Trustify will process their request to find out things like whether “my partner is cheating on me” or if “the person I’m dating is who I think they are,” among other options. The company was started by D.C.-area tech entrepreneur Danny Boice and charges $67 an hour (of which the investigators get $30) for its on-demand service.
Trustify launched in the D.C. area on June 1, 2015, and almost immediately engendered controversy. The comments section of a June 28 Washington Post article about the startup lit up like a Christmas tree, with incensed commenters leveling suspicions of an unregulated, renegade actor horning in on the investigations profession.
“I appreciate the fact that somebody is trying to come into an industry that is seen as … relatively old-fashioned.” —Brian Willingham
“I think the investigative community has been not so keen on the idea, and I think they see it as someone coming in on their territory,” says Brian Willingham, the president of Diligentia Group, a New York-based investigation agency. Willingham is on Trustify’s board of advisors and is more sanguine than many of his colleagues about its potential. “I appreciate the fact that somebody is trying to come into an industry that is seen as, and from my perspective is, relatively old-fashioned.”
One of the biggest goals of the tech community is to find industries where new technology can substantially alter or “disrupt” the current business model. Rather than create a new industry from whole cloth, the idea is to exploit inefficiencies or inconsistencies in an existing one. Willingham believes that kind of disruption can be good for private investigators, and he thinks Boice is the right person to be doing it. “He’s got some pretty badass lawyers that are looking at contracts and regulation and licensing. He’s not just jumping in head first. He’s actually given it some pretty good thought.”
First Divorce, Then Disruption
Danny Boice speaks with the upbeat, casual confidence of many tech entrepreneurs. He developed the idea for Trustify when he was going through a bad divorce. He had hired a PI to look into his wife’s behavior when she had custodial time with their children, suspecting that something illegal might be going on. “I wasn’t very knowledgeable about the business structure of PI relationships, so I kind of got taken advantage of. I wasted thousands of dollars and had nothing to show for it. I kind of learned the hard way that PIs can be great, they can be very useful, but there’s a massive, massive, massive discrepancy in quality of service among the different PIs, and although there is regulation, there’s really not much protection for consumers out there.”
“There’s a massive, massive, massive discrepancy in quality of service among the different PIs, and although there is regulation, there’s really not much protection for consumers out there.” —Danny Boice
Boice hopes to remedy that situation with Trustify, and he seems well aware of the skepticism some of the investigative community harbors about a tech guy like him planting a flag in the private investigation world. “As a startup founder, you’ve got to be better than almost anyone else on earth at finding people that are smarter than you at the things you don’t know. I’ve surrounded myself with really talented, experienced investigators and people from the military who have an intelligence background.”
These employees are tasked with vetting the investigators who apply to work through Trustify’s service. But Boice stresses that Trustify is in no way conducting investigations itself. “We’re just a broker. We’re a technology company, and we’re really good, through our platform and our algorithms, at finding customers anywhere and connecting them with the best PI.”
To Trustify, or Not to Trustify: the Investigator’s Dilemma
When it comes to Trustify, one of the dominant voices of skepticism comes from Philip Becnel, a partner with the D.C. firm Dinolt, Becnel, & Wells Investigative Group. Becnel has written two books on private investigation and has appeared in numerous media outlets as a go-to expert on matters concerning the profession. “I like the idea of streamlining and modernizing the private investigations industry. I think that if you really define what it is you’re doing, or if it’s under a narrow scope, I think it’s possible that an app could play some role, but I think the private investigator app that’s one size fits all, I think it’s a fantasy.”
One of Becnel’s chief concerns is that if all transactions are conducted via an app, no one will be in charge of vetting the client. “You could be a stalker, you could be a mobster, you could be Al Qaeda, and you can hire Trustify, and they’ll get you what you need.”
“You could be a stalker, you could be a mobster, you could be Al Qaeda, and you can hire Trustify, and they’ll get you what you need.” —Philip Becnel
Becnel also has qualms with Trustify’s price structure. “What they’re offering private investigators is way under market value. You just can’t do this work for $30 an hour. I think they’re going to have a really hard time finding people. They claim they have 2,000 investigators. I don’t believe it.”
For a company that’s only officially launched in D.C., that does seem high. Except that every other investigator I talked to has already applied.
“I signed up to Trustify yesterday,” said Mark Gillespie, an Austin-based investigator. Gillespie is a boots-on-the-ground PI, with the kind of experience—death threats, being run off the road—you usually only see in the movies. When I meet up with him, he’s wearing a blue and gray plaid, western-cut shirt with jeans and boots. His salt-and-pepper flattop nods to his years in military intelligence and the APD.
Given his appearance and demeanor, he’s the last person you’d expect to be interested in doing business through an app. “I mean, I did my due diligence on this, and I was pleased to see the people that they’re seeking: retired law enforcement, military. But nowhere on there did they have a block that said, ‘Are you licensed? Are you registered? Can you legally conduct private investigations in the state in which you live?’”
“I was pleased to see the people that they’re seeking: retired law enforcement, military. But nowhere on there did they have a block that said, ‘Are you licensed?'” —Mark Gillespie
Gillespie echoes some of Becnel’s concerns. “I think this doesn’t allow a good relationship between the client/customer and the private investigator. A trust needs to be built between the client and the PI.”
Gillespie has had experience with clients who have suspect motives hiring him to locate someone. “If I find someone, I’m going to contact that person, and say, ‘Hey, John Doe, my client, wants to contact you. Do you allow me to pass on your information?’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, hell no.’ And they’ll tell me why.”
He worries that this kind of due diligence will fall through the cracks. “They’ve taken this Uber thought process, and they’ve taken that template, and they’ve placed it over the PI profession, but I don’t feel it’s a real good fit.” In his eyes, the idea of disruption holds little appeal. “We’ve done things a certain way for a long time because that’s the way things are done.”
Ruben Roel, a Dallas-area PI comes at things from a slightly different angle. In recent years, he’s backed away from most of his investigative work to focus on his company, Investigator Marketing, which helps PIs build effective websites and do branding. “I think it’s going to be beneficial for a lot of people,” Roel says about Trustify.
“I have a couple of customers who … are living case by case. A case comes in this month, great. If it doesn’t come in next month, [they] might go broke. And Trustify is going to give them some work.” —Ruben Roel
Roel applied to the service in part because his clients had been asking him about it, and he wanted to get a firsthand look at the process. “I have a couple of customers who are based out of their homes, and they are boot-strapping the entire thing. They are living case by case. A case comes in this month, great. If it doesn’t come in next month, [they] might go broke. And Trustify is going to give them some work,” says Roel.
A New Market for Private Investigators
Roel also recognizes the marketing advantages to the app, pointing out that it could conceivably bring in a younger generation of customers, who have grown up with mobile devices. “Trustify is doing a very good job at doing that. Just click on an app, click on the button, tell me what you want to do. It’s very quick, very easy, just send it in. Send me your problem, and we’ll give you a solution very, very quickly.”
Boice is relying on this expanded customer base to take the company well beyond its current boundaries. “I honestly think that there are situations where every single consumer could potentially use our service, and we’re talking millions and millions of people. I see us being a billion dollar-plus company. Everywhere in the US. Probably going global. Probably going public.”
The vaunted public offering. The goal of every tech startup in today’s market. It remains to be seen if Trustify has the kind of legs it needs to go that far. First, Boice must raise the needed capital to expand beyond D.C. And he must win over a sector whose nature, whose professional obligation, is to be suspicious. It may be an uphill battle, but at least one person seems to be happily on board.
“I believe that Trustify reaches a market who otherwise would not have contacted a PI.” —Melanie Daria
I spoke with Melanie Daria, the investigator who did my background check, by email. Melanie is a licensed investigator with over 12 years experience, based in Florida. She runs a company called Cyber Agent Investigations and has closed 97 cases for Trustify so far. “They are a great company to work with. I believe that Trustify reaches a market who otherwise would not have contacted a PI. Some cannot afford it, and others believe their requests to be too small or far-fetched. Trustify makes it easy, convenient, and affordable.”
Trustify, but Verify
I have to say that my experience with Trustify was nothing but positive. Daria couldn’t have been more pleasant or competent. She delivered the report in less than 48 hours, and I felt relieved if not that surprised by the results. I guess that’s to be expected when you’re the one having yourself investigated.
But I had trouble sleeping the night before the report came in. What had I done, asking a stranger to comb through the details of my apparently not-so-private life? The words of the investigators I’d interviewed rang in my head—images of shady freelancers and unscrupulous new economy hucksters. Had I made a mistake inviting this scrutiny?
Daria assured me I had nothing to worry about—her findings were confidential. But the truth is, any of us can be investigated at any time, whether we request it or not. The information is out there. To a degree, we’re at the mercy of any investigator tasked with background checking us.
The good news is that every investigator I spoke with seemed to take their commitment to ethical investigation very seriously. I would never expect any of the professionals I met to be invasive or indiscreet. So why does it rub me so wrong that a tech company, who after all, ultimately connects the client with an actual professional investigator, should be in charge of such an operation?
Maybe it has something to do with the service’s original name: FlimFlam. Is the rebranded name “Trustify” too bald a gambit to garner our trust? Utimately, Daria doesn’t see the conflict. “I know I help a lot of people, and that is why I got into this type of work. In the end, that is what it is all about. It’s about finding the missing link and solving someone’s heartache. It’s not about what team you play for.”
About the author:
Chad Nichols is a screenwriter in Austin, Texas, and is a devotee of crime fiction and film noir. Follow his musings about film at whencheetahsweredogs.blogspot.com.