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Last week, I attended the OSMOSIS Conference, held in Las Vegas and put on by Cynthia Hetherington of the Hetherington Group.

After years of going to conferences of a large national organization (that will go unnamed) and coming back less than fulfilled, I found it fantastic to attend a conference that was oozing with brilliant people more closely aligned with what I do on a daily basis.

This year’s venue, Excalibur Hotel, was not my favorite; however, OSMOSIS is an absolutely terrific conference. After hearing rave reviews over the past few years from the likes of Kelly Paxton, Eli Rosenblatt, Rachele Davis and Marcy Phelps, I am so glad I made it.

If your business involves gathering investigative intelligence online, it’s a can’t-miss, and I suggest you sign up for next year right now. The networking alone was worth the price of admission.

Here are some of my takeaways, quotes and tools:

1 “Big Brother is not watching you – unless you have given him a reason to.” — Anthony Reyes, former NYPD officer

2 FOCA – Metadata analysis tool finds hidden information in documents.

3 Searx.net – “Privacy respecting” metasearch engine that combs through multiple search engines, including Google and Bing.

4 Virtual currency is at least 10 years away from being widely adopted.

5 Street Light Vision (from Andrew Fordred)

A man is looking for his keys under a streetlight. A woman approaches him and asks him what he is doing.

“I am looking for my keys,” says that man.

With no car in sight, the woman asks, “Where did you park your car?”

Pointing to a dark parking lot, the man says, “It’s over there.”

“Well, why aren’t you looking over there?” the puzzled woman asks.

“Because there is more light over here.”

6 dnsLytics – Chrome extension that helps you get information about an IP address, domain name and provider.

7 Favorite VPN? I asked about a dozen people (much smarter than I am) about their favorite VPN. NordVPN seemed to be most widely used, followed by Privacy Internet Access (PIA). (Personally, I use PIA.)

8 Talking about leaving data “artifacts,” Anthony Reyes said, “Somewhere out there, there is a footprint.”

9 Hunchly – Tool for online investigators that captures pages as you search, leaving a full audit trail that can hold up in court. So if that webpage disappears a day after you found it, Hunchly will keep a record of it. And even though the founder of Hunchly, Justin Seitz, wasn’t there for the conference, he was there in spirits … literally. ;-) [Thanks, Justin!]

10 Wigle – Collection of wireless routers.

11 Canary Tokens – Offers powerful tools to help track who accessed a link, file or email. This one’s a bit beyond my technological pay grade, but here is a good explanation.

“A canary token is a web URL, email address, document file and so on which will trigger an action if it’s ever accessed. In the case of a web URL, the canary token is the address of a unique yet nonexistent page on the website of the company that issued the token. If someone were to ever attempt to access that page, the web server would notice (because it would attempt to serve that nonexistent page to whoever requested it). The server will then notify the owner of the canary token that someone tried to access it.”

12 Yandex Image Search – The Yandex image search engine for facial recognition is extraordinarily powerful. I uploaded some images from my personal photo collection, and it was easily able to identify a number of photos of me on the web. Neither Google Images nor Bing Images came even close.

13 If you use Tor, put the Security Level settings to the “safest” to disable JavaScript and other scripts to help avoid potential viruses and malware.

14 Jaleo has some amazing, really authentic Spanish food.

15 Bing Image Search – The Bing Image search has a feature that lets you search only a portion of the photo if, for example, you want to search a portion (like a background) to determine where the picture was taken.

16 “Computer forensics is like dumpster diving, but only better. It’s clean and neat.” — Amber Schroader

17 Internet of things – Think privacy is dead? You might be right, at least if you are using any of the new internet of things devices such as your Fitbit (which is being used in several murder cases) and Alexa (which has been known to “unknowingly” send recordings of conversations).

18 “At times, our work can feel like finding a needle in a needle stack.” Don Colcolough

19 The Tor browser can cycle through IP addresses, making it really, really challenging to track down the true user.

20 Read Notify – Lets you know when email you’ve sent gets read.

21 Want to learn more about the Dark Web? Try Reddit’s DarknetMarketsNoobs, DeepDotWeb.com and IACA (International Anti Crime Academy).

22 Two sites for helping track cryptocurrency are blockchain.com and Wallet Explorer.

23 Nox App Player – Android emulator for Windows and Mac so you can run Android apps on your computer.

24 When conducting searches on Google for international subjects, change your VPN’s IP address to the country that you are searching, and you will get completely different results.

25 Too much red wine can give you a headache. And it might make you sleep in a bit. And miss a bit of a conference.

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I am a private investigator because I fell into the business. Truth be told, it was not my first choice. I hear people say, “You were born to be an investigator.” That’s not true at all. I was probably the most awkward greenhorn private investigator you will ever find. I hated being put in awkward situations. I wasn’t really good at thinking fast on my toes. I hated rejection.

Fifteen years ago, I was at a crossroads. I was working in the sports industry pursuing my dreams of being the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. That was until an overconfident kid walked into their New York City office and blew the interview.

Crushed about my prospects in the sports industry, I ended up joining my father’s investigative firm to hold me over while I figured out my next move. Fast-forward 15 1/2 years and I’m still in the business.

I’ve been featured in Lifehacker and quoted in the ABA Journal, Fox Business and The Washington Post. I’ve been named one of the young, promising members of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.

The point is that you don’t have to be born to do the job. You don’t have to be a natural. You don’t need 20 years in law enforcement.

What you do need is some grit and determination, a few tools to help you along the way and an insatiable appetite to learn more. Couple that with a strong sense of self-awareness, a little hustle, some humbleness and mindfulness, and you have the makings of a private investigator.

I love what I do because this business shows me something new every day. It keeps me on my toes. I am constantly learning. I love helping people find answers.

And by owning my own business and building my business around being flexible and mobile, it gives me the ability to makes choices about my life, instead of people making choices for me.

I absolutely love what I do, but I became a private investigator, because that’s where life led me. Not because I was chasing a job I loved or was predestined to be an investigator.

What about you?

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I’ve been thinking about private investigator training quite a bit lately. In part because I just spent a week with Hal Humphreys of PI Education, recording dozens of hours of video for an upcoming master class on conducting open source and public record investigations (more on that below).

But what I’ve really been thinking about is how to become a better investigator. What is the difference between a not-so-great investigator and a great one? How do you go from being a rookie investigator to being a seasoned veteran investigator?

Sure, it requires a little time, dedication, skill, know-how and frame of mind, but it mostly comes from great training.

Which brings us to the biggest issues in the private investigation business – there is no standardized training. Most investigators learn from whoever is assigned to train them on their first job, and they learn along the way. Even those with law enforcement experience who do have training in investigations struggle once they get into the private sector because they no longer have the sources of information once provided to them and no longer have the authority to obtain the information they were once able to get.

Over the past 15 years, I have learned from books, webinars, colleagues, mentors, blogs and just some plain old simple getting my hands dirty. I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside some of the biggest investigative firms in the world and the top investigators in this field on high-profile cases that you read about on the front page of the newspaper. I’ve even had the opportunity of vetting political candidates who are running our country.

There are no textbooks for what I do. Like hundreds of other investigators who have grown up during the information age, I have made it up as I went along, and I have learned mostly by doing and from the people around me.

So, how did I get to where I am today?

Learn by Doing

There is really only one way to learn how to do something, and that is to do it. This is the single best piece of advice I can provide. Nothing trumps actual experience doing the work. No matter how small the task may be, each case/matter/assignment that you complete makes you a better investigator, not only for the skills you pick up conducting the investigation but also for a better understanding of what clients actually need – and more important, what they are willing to pay for.

That means taking on whatever work comes your way. No matter how small the lesson might be, it’s critical to learn something new each time.

Keep Up With Trends

Technology has changed everything when it comes to investigation, which is why you need to constantly be on your toes.

So how do you keep up with it? You need to pay attention to industry sources like Pursuit Magazine, PI Magazine, and industry blogs like PIbuzz, The Confidential Resource, the Ethical Investigator, and Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes. It also means paying attention to guys like Michael Bazzell and Justin Seitz, who are at the forefront of open source intelligence; Brian Krebs on security; Karen Blakeman on electronic resources for research; and Glen Cathey, the “Boolean Blackbelt,” who leverages technology to find employees.

But don’t sign up for just those. Find your own blogs and sources for whatever piques your interest.

Read Books

I’ve read dozens of books on investigation over the years. The honest truth is that most of them were not very good. Don’t waste your time like I did. If you haven’t read these books, buy them now.

Open Source Intelligence Techniques: Resources for Searching and Analyzing Online Information, by Michael Bazzell

How to Find Out Anything, by Don MacLeod

Introduction to Conducting Private Investigations and Principles of Investigative Documentation, by Philip Becnel

Sources and Methods for Investigative Internet Research, by Richard B. McEachin

Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception, by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd and Susan Carnicero

Write About It

This is not something that I readily admit to everyone, but I don’t have the best memory in the world. In order to compensate for that, I will literally write down everything, save articles and store interesting documents in Evernote so that I can recall those things at some point later on down the road.

But what really helps me remember something is writing about it. When I stumble on a new source or technique, I will write a blog about it so I can recall it at some point later down the road. Like when we were asked to track down airplane ownership information, aircraft registration data and flight information or when we needed to obtain records relating to an individual’s entries into and exits from the United States.

Only then is it forever etched in my memory.

Find Mentors

I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside some brilliant investigative minds. I’ve also had the opportunity to do consulting work with several of the most prominent investigative firms in the world over the past several years. When you are surrounded by brilliant investigators, it can be a daunting, humbling experience. But I’ve never looked at it that way. I look at it as an opportunity to learn from the best.

It’s absolutely critical that you cultivate relationships with investigators in the industry. I think it’s pretty safe to say that your future in this business may depend on it.

Attend Industry Conferences

I have been a regular attendee of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners annual conference over the past several years. It brings together all the great minds in the fraud business for a few short days of learning. I have always walked away from these conferences with a renewed sense of purpose and direction. And I have always taken away a few new tips and techniques to add to my arsenal.

If the ACFE Conference does not do much for you, you can find a wide array of state and local conferences or national conferences on social media and with open source techniques.

Take a Course

There are a number of private investigator courses online. Frankly, I have never taken a single one that provided much value. They are either completely outdated, too basic or haven’t caught up to the investigative techniques of the 21st century, like mining social media and public records.

And it seems that so many of them are taught by people who are not actually in the business doing the work. They tend to be teachers, not practitioners.

I’ve also found that they aren’t all that practical. I attended a seminar where for about half of the time we discussed how to look through someone’s Pinterest page. Sure, Pinterest may come in handy in an investigation, but in the investigative world, it’s not practical, real-world experience. One hundred times out of one hundred, I would rather learn from the person who’s actually doing the work.

And I am not the only one who has had this issue with online courses. I have been contacted by dozens of investigators over the years about getting some good training from an investigator who actually does the work.

For this reason, I teamed up Hal Humphreys and PI Education to create our own course. It’s a master class in all the sources, techniques and tricks that I have learned over the past 15 years conducting research through open source and public records.

Anyone can give you a hundred links to a bunch of sites, but this will boil down my 15 years into about 10 hours of intensive videos, pointing you to the areas that matter most and providing checklists and specific “go to” sites (click on the link below to find out more).

Final Thoughts…

In order to live and strive in this business, you must understand that your educational and training journey is a process. It doesn’t begin or end right here. It is a journey that goes on everyday, learning, experiencing and soaking up everything you can.

This is an industry that is built for people who have an insatiable appetite to learn more. Who don’t accept things at face value. Who can challenge commonly accepted truths. Who want to dig beyond the surface.

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Quite frequently, someone asks me, “Brian, what do you recommend I use for ________?”

Behold, (most of) those things that I recommend appear below, in one place for your review.

There is something here for everyone including productivity tools, web hosts, social media tools, online backup options, accounting programs, etc., that I have personally used to build my own business and keep my personal life on the straight and narrow.

Also, a few of these below are affiliate links. That means that if you decide to purchase a product or service by going through my link, my kids might get an ice cream this week.

Productivity

Evernote – I scan and save important documents and interesting things I find browsing the web so that I can refer to them later.

Todoist – This is a “checklist on steroids.” I have used it on and off over the past few years, but lately, I have been “all in.”

Bitly – I share links on social media, in emails and when writing reports dozens of times daily. Bitly helps me shorten those long, ugly links. I also have a cool branded link for my business if that is interesting for you.

Calendly – It’s a pain going back and forth to try to schedule appointments, interviews and calls. Calendly syncs with my Google Calendar and makes sure that I am not overbooking myself.

TextExpander – Most products I use are cross-platform (meaning they can be used on any device), but TextExpander is for Macs only (I am sure there is a PC equivalent out there). TextExpander saves you time by turning keyboard “shortcuts” into frequently used text.

Zapier – This helps me automate tasks between web apps. So if I get an inquiry on my website, it “auto magically” creates a task in Todoist. Or if I put a new client into QuickBooks, Zapier automatically adds their contact details into my client newsletter in MailChimp. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Email

Google Apps for Work – Ever since I started my own business more than seven years ago, I have told anyone who would listen to get Google Apps for Work. It’s a powerful collaboration tool with corporate-level security, and it’s incredibly easy to use.

MailChimp – This is one of the easiest email marketing platforms to use to market your content to your email list.

Social Media and Content Marketing

Rapportive – A browser add-on for Gmail that turns Gmail’s otherwise bland, ad-filled sidebar into something that’s actually useful. Rapportive shows information about the sender of the email, such as their picture, links to social profiles, recent tweets, etc.

Buffer – With Buffer, you can schedule, publish and analyze all your social media posts in one place.

Canva – I use Canva to create images for social media, blog posts and just about anything else. It can instantly turn you into an amateur graphic designer.

Feedly – Add your favorite blogs and websites to start filling up your feed with content that rocks.

Google Analytics – Easily track site traffic and visitor behavior to see how your content is performing.

File Sharing

Dropbox – Dropbox has become synonymous with online file sharing, and for a good reason.

SugarSync – I back up all my business files to the cloud. There are a number of platforms that can do this, but SugarSync has been our platform of choice for the past several years.

CrashPlan – For all of my non-business-related file backups, I use CrashPlan. It’s simple to use and you can just set it and forget about it.

Offline Marketing

Moo – They make incredibly high-quality, super-official business cards that are surprisingly affordable.

Business

QuickBooks Online – We switched from QuickBooks to QuickBooks Online about four years ago, and have not looked back. It’s become better and better every year.

Harvest – QuickBooks is great at a lot of things, but time tracking and invoicing are not on that list. Harvest has been our platform of choice for time tracking, project tracking and invoicing for the past few years.

Google Docs – I use Google Apps for Work and Google Docs to collaborate with other investigators on documents. It’s the best collaborator that I have worked with for things like word processing documents and spreadsheets.

Microsoft Office 365 – Even though I am huge fan of Google Docs, I still use Microsoft Office to write reports. In part, because Google Docs does not have all of the advanced formatting options that Microsoft Word does.

Security

LastPass – With access to hundreds of databases and websites, it’s not easy keeping track of passwords. But LastPass stores difficult-to-crack, encrypted passwords in the cloud that can be used on multiple platforms.

Google Authenticator – I am a huge proponent of two-factor authentication, which protects your accounts with a second form of authentication by adding an extra layer of security to your account. Google Authenticator protects your account with both your password and your phone, by providing a “secret” code so that nobody can get in.

StrongVPN – A VPN secures your computer’s internet connection to guarantee that all of the data you’re sending and receiving is encrypted and secured from prying eyes. I have been using StrongVPN for several years without a glitch, primarily because it allows me to have a static IP, but there are a number of great services out there.

Website Hosting / WordPress Theme

Synthesis – I used a number of different web hosts for the first few years until I came across Synthesis. It’s probably not the cheapest service out there, but it’s reliable and fast, and the support is great.

StudioPress Themes for WordPress – If you like the way this website looks, then you need to have a WordPress site from StudioPress. These are the best WordPress themes out there.

Editing

ProofreadNOW.com – I can write like the wind, but I am no grammarian. I leave that up to ProofreadNOW.com. For a nominal fee, they will have professional proofreaders make sure that every blog post I write has every “t” crossed and every “i” dotted.

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1Check your privacy settings on your social networks (Insiders Tip: Your privacy settings on Facebook are only as good as your friends).

2Don’t re-use usernames on the web.

3Don’t ever use your real telephone number when communicating with someone on the web. Instead, use something like Burner or Hushed.

4Use shitty passwords at your own risk (or get something like LastPass, 1Password or Dashlane).

5Never reuse your main email password on other websites.

6Change your password. Now! (And change it regularly.)

7Set up Find My iPhone (Apple) or Android Device Manager so that you can erase all your personal data, should your device be lost or stolen.

8Use two-step authentication wherever and whenever you can.

9Review your credit report regularly.

10Place a security freeze on your credit.

11Set up a lock-screen pattern, pin or password on your mobile devices.

12Shred everything that is not junk mail. Everything! (I use the Fellowes Powershred 99Ci)

13Use a VPN!

14Don’t ever give away your personal information (Social Security number, banking information, etc.) to people who contact you out of the blue.

15Watch what you click, especially those salacious links (and learn how to spot a phishing or spoofing email).

16Use anti-virus protection.

17If you insist on signing up for that “free giveaway,” use a disposable email address.

18Sign up for the “Do Not Call list to stop telemarketers.

19Always be skeptical about everyone and everything, even emails from your “friend” who is stuck in the airport in Ghana and needs money.

20Don’t give in to pressure tactics, even if it’s for some sort of donation for a “disaster relief.”

21Keep up with the latest scams and urban legends.

22Don’t buy products or services from shady websites.

23Do your homework (there is this handy website called Google!). Make sure the people and companies you are dealing with are 100% legitimate.

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I produce a lot of content for this website so I am constantly on the lookout for the some good stock photography. But one of the hardest things to find is a photo of a private investigator that doesn’t look absolutely ridiculous or cliché.

Here are some gems that I wanted to share with you.

At the conclusion of this post, you should be able to spot a private investigator from a mile away. Either by their long lens camera sticking out of a vehicle; their fedora, pipe and loaded (sometimes smoking) handgun; or by the classified documents stuffed in their jacket pocket.

Private Investigator Photo #1

Private Investigator 1
If you are on a surveillance, trying to take secret photos of someone, and you go through all the trouble of tinting your windows so that nobody can see you in your vehicle, it’s probably best to keep the windows closed.

Just saying…

Private Investigator Photo #2

Private Investigator 2

Hanging out of the window of a vehicle with a telephoto lens is typically not the best idea if you are trying to stay under the radar. A grey suit is probably not the smartest choice of attire either. Of course, you never know when you may have to go to a business meeting, but comfort usually trumps style when you are stuck in a car for a 12-hour day.

Private Investigator Photo #3

Private Investigator 3

Fedora? Check.

Magnifying Glass? Check.

Briar pipe? Check.

Inquisitive look? Check.

No need to check his identification; he’s definitely a private investigator.

Private Investigator Photo #4

Private Investigator 4

Here is one of the rare stock photos of a female private investigator. She has been careful to coordinate the colors of her leather jacket with her handgun. And the smoky background is a nice touch. She looks like she is ready to intimidate some witnesses or rough someone up. At the very least, she is not taking any crap from anyone. Because that’s just what private investigators do.

Private Investigator Photo #5

Private Investigator 5

How would you ever know that this guy was a private investigator?

Did the black fedora give it away?

Or the smoking pipe?

Or is it that befuddled look on his face?

Private Investigator Photo #6

Private Investigator 6

When you need to transport important documents, it’s always best to mark a bright yellow folder with the words “CLASSIFIED” and ”TOP SECRET” just in case they get into the wrong hands. And always carry them inside your suit jacket where absolutely nobody will notice.

Private Investigator Photo #7

Private Investigator 7

When speaking to anyone by telephone, it’s typically a good idea to have a camera with a large telephoto lens at your fingertips in case you need to take some quick snapshots.

Having a handgun within arms length is always a good idea as well. It’s a well know fact that private investigators are distracted when they are on the phone and it’s an excellent time to engage in a sneak attack.

Private Investigator Photo #8

Private Investigator 8

I am at a loss of words here. From the 1980s walkie talkie, to the bow tie and jacket, to the perplexed look on his face. I think this guy might need a makeover (and some new equipment).

Private Investigator Photo #9

Private Investigator 9

The good ‘ol “looking through the blinds” photo. I can’t for the life of me figure out why he is sitting on the ground. Or why his phone and briefcase are on the floor next to him.

I’m not sure what he’s looking for, but there is a good chance that his leg is going to fall asleep sitting in that position. Those pins and needles are a pain.

Private Investigator Photo #10

Private Investigator 10

What would a collection of private investigator photos can never be without the classic deerstalker hat made famous by Sherlock Holmes. And you can never leave home without your trusty magnifying glass.

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I had a long conversation with a client (now a former client) the other day, and I came away pretty angry.

I backed out of the project after I learned of the client’s intentions and realized that I would have to float in the proverbial grey area in order to do the work for this client.

As I told the client, and as I have said here numerous times before, even a whiff of any unscrupulous behavior might undermine a client’s best interests, my reputation and my license. The client didn’t particularly care about his best interests; he wanted the information, and from what I could tell, he wanted it pretty much at any cost.

But what really incensed me was that he couldn’t care less about my reputation or my license. Flabbergasted that I wouldn’t do anything that could harm my reputation and ultimately my license, the client replied, “But we aren’t doing anything illegal.”

Not exactly the kind of client I want on my roster.

“You signed an engagement letter and we paid you a retainer and you have to fulfill your end of the bargain,” the client told me. I am not a hired hitman. And I am not required to do whatever someone tells me. I nicely told him that the retainer engagement had been ripped up and the retainer check (which I had still not received) would be returned in full — despite the fact that I had spent most of my weekend on the project.

I had accepted the job, in part, because I was blinded by the fact that this would have been a massive project that could have lasted for months, a luxury that doesn’t come around that often in my business.

While I was angry at the client, I am most angry at myself for letting it get to this point.

I had been introduced to this client by a person I do a lot of work for, and based on my discussions with the person who referred the case, I assumed I knew the client’s intentions. It was not until the 11th hour, after pressing the client, that I ultimately got the information I should have learned days before, which turned everything upside down.

One of my mantras is “assume nothing, question everything.” Assumptions are the mothers of all evils. Many people’s assumptions sound like “the grass is greener on the other side,” “it will not happen to me,” or “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,”

In my business, it’s more like “they would never do that!” or “you are probably not going to find anything” or “they won’t talk to you.”

Proving that assumptions are wrong is part of what I do for a living.

But in this case, I didn’t follow my own advice.

I assumed.

And it cost me.

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