As a criminal defense investigator and fraud examiner, I do not use pretexts or any other means of deception to obtain information. But I do understand that for some branches of the investigative field, pretexting is almost unavoidable. For example, I’m not sure how a bail enforcer can avoid the occasional need to pretext—although our own occasional contributor, bail man Joe Stiles, says he prefers to play it straight whenever possible.
Ask 100 private investigators how they feel about using disguises or pretexts, and you’ll most likely get 100 different answers. The ethics, and even the legalities of pretexting can, at times, fall into a gray area. Norma Tillman, veteran PI and president of the Tennessee Association of License Professional Investigators, has strong views on the subject, as she told PursuitMag in a 2014 interview:
There are private eyes who will do anything to get what they need. I always say, “if you have to lie, cheat, or steal, you’re not a good investigator.” There’s the right way to do it, and there’s the wrong way.
I always say, “This is Norma Tillman. I’m a private investigator. I need your help.” I don’t have to lie to get what I’m going after. I get it by telling the truth. If you have to do a pretext, to me, you’re telling a lie, and that information that you’re getting probably shouldn’t be admissible.”
Many investigators don’t agree. I personally am somewhat skeptical of the practice. But when we first opened our investigations firm several years ago, we worked a number of domestic surveillance cases in which I found it extremely useful to manufacture a plausible reason I was sitting all day in a suburban cul-de-sac or cruising a public alley pulling trash bags.
Here are two disguises/pretexts that worked so well for me, passers-by often thanked me for being on their street:
Cell Tower Signal Tester
Perform surveillance as usual from the driver’s seat, without attempting to conceal the fact that you’re in your car. Have a clipboard and something that looks like it can plausibly receive signals. Most people will drive right by. If someone does ask you what you’re doing parked on their street all day, look up from the clipboard and tell them that you’re testing cell phone signals in the area. You can even ask them if they’ve noticed any gaps in reception coverage. Most times, they’ll be eager to tell you about all the dropped calls they’ve had, and they may even thank you for troubleshooting.
A nice work shirt and/or a magnetized auto company sign go a long way toward adding credibility to this story. Just be sure you don’t get too specific about company names—and definitely don’t use a real company name. That can get you in serious trouble.
And of course, do I really need to tell you never to use a pretext on a police officer? (Of course I don’t.)
Anytime you have to pull trash, slap a “Recycle Research Systems” magnetized sign on the quarter panel and grab some work gloves and a work shirt. If anyone wants to know what the heck you’re doing in the alley removing trash bags from cans, tell them you’re performing a randomized study on recycling—a survey of recyclables that end up in the trash, essentially.
Try not to get too specific. If you deliver a simple explanation with practiced confidence, people usually say, “Hm. OK,” and go away, satisfied.
You’ve probably done this yourself: Put on a hard hat and an orange vest and set up a tripod, and Bam! You’re a surveyor. After a previous life as a real estate appraiser, I happen to also have a few orange cones and a property distance measuring wheel.
Surrounded by this gear, you can stand pretty much anywhere for hours without anyone noticing … unless somebody in the neighborhood association gets curious about whose property is for sale. Then you’d better pretend the cell phone is buzzing in your pocket … and you really have to take this call.
These tricks work just about every time. Just be sure to keep the tradecraft legal and ethical. Or as Brian Willingham put it in his wildly popular post on PI perceptions: “To act with the highest possible degree of ethical conduct and to give our industry a greater sense of professionalism, we must rise above the clichés and perceptions.”