A veteran New York City PI shares notes from the field about surveillance technology, drones, and the future of the industry.
Steven Santarpia doesn’t much like sitting for long hours in hot cars. (Who does?) But he does like getting the goods for his clients. And for the NYC investigations company where he’s vice-president, “the goods” are high-definition video, downloaded and available to clients for streaming the very next day.
In this profile, Spy Tec’s Eli Hutton asks Santarpia about his work as an insurance investigator—the strengths and weaknesses of current surveillance tech, big legal challenges the industry faces (re: DRONES) in the next decade, and the best vehicle for surveillance. (hint: If you’re not a PI, it’s not what you’d expect.)
Eli Hutton: How did you get started in the private investigations business?
Stephen Santarpia: My cousin was working for a private investigative firm. I found out the company was looking to hire a field investigator for insurance investigations. I had maybe three months of bounty hunter experience. That’s it. I was presented with an opportunity and I ran with it. I loved the job immediately, and I knew it was something I would be good at.
EH: Is there a “traditional” path to becoming a private investigator, or does it range from person to person and situation to situation?
SS: There are insurance investigators with a military background. There are investigators with a college degree in criminal justice. There are many retired police officers that specialize in criminal investigations. So it varies.
EH: What are the most common cases you deal with?
SS: With ICORP Investigations, our most common cases are insurance investigations, including workers’ compensation and liability investigations. We assist in identifying fraudulent claims for insurance companies and law firms. Surveillance is what we specialize in. So we also conduct cheating spouse and child custody investigations. These types of cases can come from a law firm or from the public.
EH: What do you enjoy or find rewarding in your work as a private investigator?
SS: I always played sports as a kid. I pitched in college. I loved the competition. This is the approach I took to being a private investigator. I wanted to be the best insurance fraud investigator out there. So I took this job very seriously.
Having the right vehicle is very important. So I bought a minivan—it’s a great surveillance vehicle. I always have the latest spy gear to assist me with the investigations. Helping out the client is what I find to be most rewarding.
The adrenaline rush of this job can be pretty intense. Just like with sports, the ability to slow things down helps you think clearly and make good decisions.
EH: What do you dislike most in your private investigations work?
SS: Sitting in a car on a hot summer day with the ignition turned off can be rough. You are basically drenched in sweat praying to god the subject gets active so you can turn the car on and put the AC on full blast.
EH: How do you incorporate technology in your investigations and surveillance work?
SS: All of our video is shot in HD. We don’t use videotape like some companies do. I don’t even remember the last time I watched a movie on a VHS tape. With so much riding on each investigation, the quality of the video can make or break an investigation. We also provide our clients next day streaming video. So we have invested in products that make our company second to none.
EH: Can you expand on how you provide your clients next-day video?
SS: After each day’s surveillance investigation, our investigators upload camcorder data files from SD cards to a computer, and then onto our portal. This takes no more than five minutes for the investigator to do. (Burnout is a huge problem in this industry. We do our best to make things as investigator-friendly as possible.) We then convert the data files to QuickTime movie files. Our clients are then able to view their streaming surveillance video. We’ve been doing this since 2009.
It takes quite a bit of work to do this. It’s definitely not easy. Most companies, as far as I know, don’t offer next-day video. And if they do, they use standard-definition camcorders. Because our investigators use high-definition camcorders, the video files are huge! For instance, we had a video file last week that was 82 GB long. These video files eat up hard drives.
EH: What are some other recommendations you have for PIs that could improve the service they provide?
SS: I’m a Canon guy when it comes to camcorders. I like how quickly they can focus. Investigators can find themselves in a wrestling match with some camcorders while they try to get good identifiable video.
I like the simplicity of the Canon camcorders. I also think they are the most durable camcorders on the market. They won’t crap out on you when one falls off the passenger seat after you hit the brakes hard.
EH: Are there any improvements you would like to see with the camcorders out on the market now?
SS: Yes, one improvement in particular. It’s an issue that has been driving private investigators insane for years. High definition and standard definition camcorders do not allow you to transfer the timestamp directly to your computer. The camcorder companies firewall the timestamp out of the video. The timestamp is embedded in the data file on the SD card which needs to be extracted.
I’ve tried just about everything out there, including Final Cut, Adobe Premiere and Adobe Media Encoder. None of these programs extract the timestamp from the data file. There is one program that allows you to do this on a PC. However, I’m not a fan of this program. Without a timestamp, the video is useless. There is a Panasonic model out there that allows you to do this. However, this camcorder is over $2000. It’s also bulky.
Some investigators use Pinnacle Dazzle to capture the timestamp from camcorders. However, if you have two hours of video, you have to wait two hours for your time stamped video. So I’m not a big fan of Dazzle.
Canon has a feature on its camcorders now called “Decorations.” This allows you to place a timestamp on your video while you are recording. It’s not practical the way they have it set up. Each time you record a scene, you have to start hitting and moving buttons on the LCD screen.
EH: What are your go-to tech gadgets or tools that you use frequently on the job?
SS: Vehicle trackers are a go-to product. Each year the technology improves. They get smaller, and the GPS accuracy gets better. Nanny cams are also a product I’ve bought many times.
Consulting an Expert
EH: When people ask you how they can do surveillance or investigations themselves, what is your usual response?
SS: When it comes to surveillance, we get a lot of people who say they’ve tried to do their own surveillance, and it didn’t work as planned. Then they will call us as a last option. More and more, people are doing their own so-called “spying.” I tell people, if you want the surveillance done correctly, hire us.
EH: What are some surveillance or investigative tasks that people can do themselves, and what should they seek an expert for?
SS: Concerned parents will call and ask if I can recommend spyware for their children’s computer or cell phones. We get calls regarding nanny cams. I do my best to offer them recommendations or point them in the right direction. In these situations, an investigative company, for the most part, isn’t needed.
When it comes to surveillance, I always tell people to go with an investigative company. People don’t understand how hard it can be until they try it.
EH: What are some ways that people can safeguard their personal information online?
SS: Having an anti-virus and spyware protection program is an essential part of owning a PC or Mac computer. Everyone should have one installed.
Having strong passwords is another way to safeguard your personal information. Changing these passwords every few months is just as important. Two-way verification, like Google offers, is highly recommended for email accounts.
More and more, people are finding it very frustrating to keep track of all their passwords. There are many apps out there that create passwords and store them. I highly recommend having one of these apps on your cell phone.
The Future of Private Investigations
EH: How do you think the private investigations industry has changed over the past ten years, and how do you think it will continue to change over the next ten years?
SS: The use of drones is a game changer. And it’s happening right now, before our eyes. The NYPD is looking into using drones. We already know the government is using drones domestically. And now, private investigative firms are using drones. Drones can be extremely helpful for remote locations. They can play a huge part for surveillance-aware targets.
The legality of piloting drones is a very gray area. As of now, the technology is ahead of the law. It will be interesting to see what happens with the legality of drones. Drones are going to be everywhere. It’s just a matter of time. The video produced by these drones is crystal-clear. Drones are very stable and very easy to use. It’s pretty amazing.
It’s just a matter of time before someone creates a way to alert someone when a drone is in the area. Then you might see drones falling from the sky. Interesting times ahead, for sure.
Steven Santarpia is a private investigator with over ten years of experience in the field. He is also the Vice President of ICORP Investigations, a New-York-City based PI firm specializing in surveillance in insurance investigations.
Eli Hutton is a freelance journalist and content editor based out of Boston, Massachusetts. He’s currently a writer for Spy Tec, where he reports on topics related to surveillance, security, law enforcement, and technology.