Investigators often debate the value of online research, and their opinions are varied, ranging from the it’s a “disgusting and unethical practice” to “applause” from a newer generation of investigators who think that any investigation can be solved with a few clicks.

The truth lies somewhere in between, but I am here to tell you that conducting online research is absolutely crucial to being a successful investigator.

Why is online research so valuable?

And what do investigators need to master it?


Over the years, I have worked with a number of wealthy clients and investment firms that were interested in getting some information about a person for a possible investment, business partnership or joint venture. In each case, the client’s goal was not necessarily to dig up the proverbial skeleton hiding in the closet; rather, the client was interested in getting an understanding of who the target was and what he or she “was about,” including details about their personal life, business and educational background, financial status, or any significant controversies that they’d been involved with.

In 2017, I can spend a few hours searching the Internet, public records, open sources and social media and get a pretty good read on someone’s personal and professional life. This type of resources barely existed in 2002. Today, there are hundreds of sources that you can utilize. The key, however, is knowing the “go to” sources.


You can learn a lot about someone if you talk to the right people. It’s hard to dispute the value of making in-person inquiries with friends, families, neighbors and colleagues, former business partners, or local law enforcement.

Surveillance can also be an enormously valuable resource if you are interested in learning about someone’s activities. There is a host of information that can be obtained from “boots on the ground” inquiries that you just can’t obtain by sitting in front of your computer.

The problem, however, is that these overt inquiries may ultimately get back to the target of the investigation, which could cause a whole host of problems. And surveillance operatives can get burned.

There may be cases where your overtness may not really matter, but in many cases, it does. As long as you use some smart business practices in conducting online research – like using a VPN (I use Private Internet Access {affiliate link}) or “friending” the person you are investigating – there is very little chance that you will ever be burned by doing online research.


Investigators typically charge by the hour, which means that every moment working on a case gets billed to the client. Travel time, sitting-around-and-waiting time or waiting-for-something-to-happen time all get billed to the client. This can be great for the investigator’s bank account, but is not always so great for the client who has to foot the bill.

The simple reality is that any type of boots-on-the-ground investigation takes time and effort, and the hours spent doing this can add up quickly. A few hours of investigative time trying to get around the metro New York area will barely get me 30 miles and back.

Give me a few hours of online investigative time and I can tell you a lot about a person’s financial wherewithal as well as his or her personal and professional lives. I can tell you whether they have had any recent financial difficulties, whether they have been involved in any significant controversies, whether they have any serious criminal history or whether they have been the subject of multiple lawsuits.

How do you become a master of online research?

Do. The. Work. It is the simplest way of becoming great at something. Practice your craft until you are blue in the face. Repeat.

I’ve also put together a few other tips about bringing your investigative game to the next level.

I am doing a free webinar, September 28th at 2pm EST with Hal Humphreys of PI Education to discuss or open source intelligence.

Or you can take my course, Gathering, Analyzing and Interpreting Open Sources and Public Records, which is available at 50 percent off for the next 48 hours! {Ends Friday, September 29, 2017 at midnight.}


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4 replies
  1. Veritas Investigations
    Veritas Investigations says:

    Enjoyed the webinar with Hal this afternoon. Learned of some new potential sources/tools to apply online and was surprised to not hear others. Thanks again!

  2. EJM Investigations
    EJM Investigations says:

    Another great article Brian. It surprises me how many “old school” investigators still think they can get by without utilising social media.
    When process serving (happens in particular if the documents relate to debt) you can get papers to serve on a person who the client has never seen to give a description or photo. Yet a 10 second search on Facebook gets you a catalogue of pictures and you’re away.
    The internet is a fantastic tool, but so many so-called investigators cant surpass a basic google search!

  3. Jerry Hardesty
    Jerry Hardesty says:

    Brian, I see you have taken over or purchased PI magazine. Good move on your part, nice to see someone interested in improving all in our profession taking over.
    You have helped from afar as I transitioned from a police lieutenant, into private investigations. I am now president of MCPI-Michigan Council of Professional Investigators. Thank you for your gifts to our secretary Cheri Gelnak at the NALI conference, we handed them out to our members at our fall training conference last week. If your interested in being a guest speaker at one of our training conferences let me know, you can pitch the magazine. Feel free to reach out

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Hey Jerry, would be happy to discuss being a guest speaker.

      I don’t have anything to do with PI Magazine. You might be thinking of Pursuit Magazine, but I don’t have anything to do with that either…

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