A newly-minted private eye reflects on his first twelve months on the job.
My year of transitioning from an apprentice to a journeyman investigator has been an unpredictable adventure. Concisely, it has been life changing. I have travelled across my state to places I’ve never heard of at all. I’ve visited neighboring states where I only knew the major cities; now I know the small towns. I’ve learned to love the freedom of the road and the mundane aspects of static surveillance as much as I love the adrenaline rush of mobile surveillance.
All around, it’s been a brilliant year.
I was working an unrewarding job in my home city, for a business stuck in the 1950s. This work left the talents that I had developed while studying journalism/PR/human communications at Eureka College unused and stagnating. I’d honed these skills for two years working at local newspapers, where I continued to learn how to collect information through open-source intelligence and interviews: human intelligence gathering.
I missed using those skills. Thankfully, an online ad for a private investigator’s position found itself on my radar. In around three weeks, I was hired by a national insurance fraud investigations company.
This was the start of my career in professional investigations. I truly love my new job: I uncover the truth, whether it be through surveillance, open-source research, or interviews. I didn’t learn all this on my own, though. I had some excellent teachers. I work for one of them right now.
I am privileged and honored to work in private investigations. I am humbled to be standing on the shoulders of giants in my field. Here are some of the lessons that I have learned from them.
1. Keep things simple.
We all have the essentials, right? We have our power inverters, our tinted windows on our surveillance vehicles, and the props for a believable, yet discreet pretext. We have tools to make our fun and challenging job possible.
But what about our video capture? What about the date and time stamp? Are we stuck in the past with video capture software?
We wouldn’t go back to old school cameras. But we should have a camera that renders that date and time stamp for us, rather than relying on software that requires us to review video before we hand it over to a client.
We don’t need to create problems that prompt us to improve our processes. But we should have the best tools to keep our difficult jobs simplified.
2. Listen to credible, seasoned hands.
When I began in this business, I had the good fortune of being hired by a national insurance investigation firm that is no more due to a merger. While working for this company, I was paired with a seasoned investigator for field training. This training equipped me well for the new career I was undertaking.
This investigator was a well-regarded veteran and a good teacher, with years of experience in both surveillance and SIU work. Working with him was a crash course—and much more. I learned how to choose a good discreet static position, how to craft a legal and ethical pretext, and how to handle a rural case (out where the only landmarks are grain silos).
Even after our formal mentorship had ended, I could always call, text, or email him with my questions—and he replied each time. He guided me in situations where I wasn’t experienced enough yet to rely on my gut instincts in the field. Most of all, my trainer helped me become an independent decision maker—the most important trait a field investigator can acquire.
I once called him with a question during a complex case (or so it seemed to me at the time). I’ll never forget his response. I foolishly failed to write it down, but here is a close paraphrase:
“Brandon, I’ve never encountered that situation before. You’re good at this, it’s up to you.”
I learned so much from that statement. It reinforced my confidence in the credibility of my mentor—he knew the limits of his knowledge and expected me to figure things out for myself.
In our line of work, we have to be independent decision makers. My mentor understood this and wanted me to develop my ability to think on my feet. He woke me up and made me confident in my career choice. And he laid a good cornerstone in my mind of how to get started doing this work and doing it well.
3. You are going to get burned (compromised).
This was the bitterest lesson of my first year on the job: Everyone, EVERYONE gets burned at some point. And I did too, after four months on the job. I was excited about my newfound ability to stay hidden in plain sight, whether it be on foot or in the surveillance vehicle. As I learned the tradecraft, I felt proud of how good I had gotten.
Then it happened. I was working a file in a rural community. I already had a decent discreet static surveillance position. I had a good view of the only egress route, but I was growing restless. I decided to move in closer.
My new position was still discreet, but too close. As they day turned from one of static surveillance to mobile surveillance, I followed the subject to a city an hour away. I gained about thirty minutes of overt and covert video combined. Then we returned to the village he lived in. Upon our return, he came out with a large camera equipped with a telephoto lens. I knew I was burned.
It was a painful lesson, but it didn’t mean my record was tarnished. It was simply a rite of passage in this shadowy trade we ply.
If you are too anxious about being compromised, you can’t do this job.
4. Have fun!
This job takes place in a world most people only dream of. We are privileged to work in it every day. And as professionals, we should be proud of what we do: We uncover truth and find facts where others are unable to. That to me is fun—as it should be to you.
Being a professional investigator is a fulfilling career, in which the pursuit of truth is the focus of the job. Private investigators should not doubt that their work makes a difference in this world. And along the way, it’s OK to love what we do—the adventure, the wins and losses, and even the tough lessons.
About the author:
Brandon Hovey is a transitioning private detective employee in Illinois. Hovey has a Bachelor of Arts in communication (public relations/journalism/human communication) from Eureka College. He enjoys finding the truth via open source intelligence gathering and surveillance operations.