A Year’s Worth of Tips, Techniques, and Wisdom from Our PI Contributors
Your loyal Pursuit editors have thoroughly investigated the 2017 archive and curated the year’s best takeaways, just for you! In this roundup, we’ve compiled a trove of profound insights by our excellent writers and investigators: a rookie shares lessons from his first year on the job; a veteran PI reveals his secret investigative weapon; and a process server opens up about the times her work demands a deep well of empathy.
A massive thank you and happy New Year to our wise and wonderful contributors! We hope you find their wise words useful as you launch into this year’s caseload.
1. During foot surveillance, don’t look directly at your subject.
“Avoid eye contact. Your eyes will betray you,” writes Eddie Cruz, a former undercover NYPD detective. “Instead, use your peripheral vision (while pretending to read a paper or study your smartphone). You can also use reflective surfaces like windows to keep an eye on your subject.”
2. When working for attorneys, don’t break the rules.
“Attorneys want an investigator whom they can rely on,” writes Brian Willingham, in an insightful piece exploring why some attorneys don’t trust PIs, “who can legally obtain information that can be provided in court.”
3. In financial due diligence investigations, look for liabilities.
“Identifying someone’s assets doesn’t tell you much—unless you also know how much they owe,” writes John Powers, a New York PI who specializes in fraud and financial investigations. “Look for tax liens, evictions, foreclosures, and collection suits. If you fail to account for liabilities, you won’t know the difference between a billionaire and a bankruptee.”
4. Sometimes, the work gets personal.
“Ms. Williams watched from the doorway as I got into my car. Tears flowed down her cheeks,” Susan Waller Lehmann recalls, in a beautiful piece about a routine process service that unexpectedly drew her into a family’s personal story. “I fought my own tears as I backed out of the driveway.”
5. Other times, a personal battle turns into a life’s work.
Winning a bitter custody fight for her adoptive son led Rachele’ Davis to a big life change: “I quit my job as a crime analyst and became a licensed private investigator,” she writes. “I wanted to do for others what I had done for my own family.”
6. Eyewitness identification best practices are evolving.
“Many of us have been trained using eyewitness identification techniques that are outmoded and flawed,” writes John Nardizzi, an investigator and lawyer in Boston. “And those methods have led to innocent people being implicated in an investigation.”
He outlines the latest findings in his piece, The Law and Science of Eyewitness Identification.
7. When starting out, learn the ropes from a seasoned hand.
“My mentor … wanted me to develop my ability to think on my feet,” recalls Brandon Hovey, looking back on his first year on the job. “Most of all, my trainer helped me become an independent decision maker—the most important trait a field investigator can acquire.”
8. Don’t hire a resume. Hire a person.
“Degrees and stellar resumes mean very little in this field,” counsels veteran Boston PI, Barry Maguire. “Hire for desire, and gauge that desire through the training period and the first months in the field.”
9. Small details can make or break a case.
“We thoroughly interview(ed) K about every detail of the events of that evening,” writes Denver investigator Colleen Collins, describing how her investigation helped a client accused of murder secure an advantageous plea deal. “Using the details from our interviews with K, our attorney-client convinced K to flip against L. … K got the better deal.”
10. Con artists rely on our shame—and our silence.
If you or a client falls victim to a con, “swallow your pride and call your local sheriff, news team, and lawyer,” says David Hartzell, an investigator in southern California. “Get moving before the con artist vanishes and sets up shop in a new city.”
11. The winner-take-all mindset harms our profession.
“My respect has shifted from the all-knowing to the all-helping investigator,” writes Missouri investigator Rachele’ Davis. “Investigators who isolate themselves and alienate others do so to their detriment, and they probably won’t make it in this business long-term.”
12. False confessions are real—and they put innocent people behind bars.
“I think the mandatory recording of interrogations or interviews from beginning to end would be a really positive change,” says filmmaker Kelly Loudenberg, in a Q&A about her Netflix criminal justice documentary series, The Confession Tapes. “It’s too risky to keep going the path we’re going, because we know it elicits false confessions. And we know that those confessions are used to convict innocent people.”
13. Information brokers can be a secret weapon. BUT handle with care.
“Information brokers have access to information on employment histories, credit accounts, utilities, bank accounts, phone records, and so on,” writes Mike Spencer, in an excerpt of his new memoir, Private Eye Confidential. “Still, many private investigators and lawyers have been hung out to dry because they used information brokers in an attempt to win at all costs.”
14. Women have a natural advantage on surveillance.
“Nobody expects that the woman sitting on the park bench reading a book with a ‘baby’ in her stroller might actually be working undercover,” points out Rachele’ Davis. “She goes overlooked and undetected. That changes the game and makes a woman on surveillance nearly unburnable.”
15. Don’t sell yourself short.
“A professional typically does not lower their fee at the client’s insistence,” writes Scott Fulmer, the “Utah Sleuth,” in an article about PI professionalism. “If you do, you send the message your value as an investigator is negotiable. You hurt yourself and the industry. And you look desperate.”
16. One database is not enough.
“Every database you run should be multi-sourced,” writes Brian Willingham, an investigator specializing in open-source research. “I’d rather go overboard than miss a critical piece of information. I can think of countless occasions in which I found records in one source, but not another.”
17. If the client changes the rules on you, hit reset.
“For each client, we draft a legally binding contract that goes over all the legalities and lets us put in writing what we are being hired for,” writes Stephanie Savoy, a PI in Connecticut. “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.”
18. The neighborhood canvass still works.
“Go to the street where your defendant lives. Knock on doors. Talk to people,” suggests Hal Humphreys, a criminal defense investigator and Pursuit‘s executive editor. “This seemingly lost art of Neighborhood Canvass can be a gold mine for identifying witnesses.”
19. During interviews, shut up and listen.
“Silence is golden. You are not there to show the interviewee how much you know,” writes Chad Stanbery, a North Carolina private investigator and forensic interviewer. “You are there to gather information—not give it. So, let them talk.”
20. When confronted, slow it down.
“Lower and soften your voice,” says Kathryn Loving, a former Wyoming detective and patrol officer. “Use language which will deflect and defuse the conflict. Do not be confrontational.”