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Any general Diligentia news

I don’t think you’d get much of an argument from anyone that 2020 was a giant pile of diarrhea. And if the first seven days are any indication of what is to come in 2021, we might be literally up shit’s creek without a paddle.

The private investigation business was not totally up shit’s creek in 2020. According to an informal poll I did on LinkedIn last week, the opinion of others in the investigation business was a bit mixed:

Each year, I typically like to reflect on the previous year and to come up with some kind of a “plan” to do better. I use the word plan loosely, as over the years I have tried a bunch of different ideas. It’s not a New Year’s resolution, because New Year’s resolutions are stupid. I just try to self-audit and figure out what I need to do to make the next year better.

I’ve already signed up to learn a few new skills, I’ve got some cool ideas percolating in my head, and we are doing a rebranding thing that I am excited about.

This year, however, my goal is to communicate better. Because the world needs to communicate better.

Let me illustrate with a little story.

A fun little fishing expedition…

A few weeks ago, a local successful businessman whom I have known for several years texted me. He asked me if I had any resources to track down the owner of an old auto repair company that had gone out of business 50+ years ago in a small Fairfield County, Connecticut town. All he had was the name of the business, Murano Auto Repair (not the real name), and an old address.

Under normal circumstances, I would probably have grilled a potential client about the reasons for wanting to find the person, but I thought to myself, “This sounds like a fun little challenge.” Besides, I was sure this was going to be more an exercise in searching old newspapers and Ancestry.com, rather than investigative databases, which might need some permission. And I was pretty sure the guy wasn’t an axe-murderer. 

However, I didn’t have any sources at my fingertips to find information about the shop. Corporate records and old newspapers would probably be a good start. State licenses for running an auto repair came to the top of my head. Or calling the local library to see if they had any sources. But this was 50 years old, and I didn’t think this was something I would be able to do quickly.

Judging by the text, I was guessing that he didn’t really want to spend any money. That’s a big problem in my business; everyone thinks what I do is easy. Just a few clicks of the mouse.

But it’s not. Twenty years of knowledge, sources and experience might get me there a lot quicker than most people, but it’s almost never easy.

That being said, I am a sucker for a challenge. I was bored the night he sent it and I took the bait.

Hook, line and sinker.

Taking the bait…

Corporate records were a dead end, and a few quick database searches were useless as well. I couldn’t find any businesses at that address called Murano Auto Repair—or anyone even reporting the address. Even doing some advanced googling turned up nothing.

This made me suspicious—like maybe he had the information all wrong—so I wasn’t about to waste my time.

After digging through some old newspaper archives, I found an advertisement from the 1950s that showed the business address and phone number. I then found some old articles that talked about how the auto repair shop had been in business for three generations. A little while longer and I was able to find an article about the owner, Mr. Sexton (not his real name), and then one about his wife, Susanna, and an unnamed son who were running the business.

So I tracked them down. First, it turns out Mr. Sexton died in 1976. Mrs. Sexton took a bit longer to find; she lived until 1995. So now I had to find her next of kin. Luckily, a 1940 census (the most recent census available) showed that the Sextons had three children: two daughters, Ruth and Sylvia, and a son, Steven. I knew finding the two daughters would be tough; they had probably been married and changed their names long ago, before any electronic databases would have been keeping track of them.

But Steven? I was pretty certain I could find him. The census from 1940 said he was eight years old when the census was taken, so I had a pretty good idea of his age.

I found Steven. He was now living out in Arizona, in a nursing home with his wife. I sent the businessman his contact information.

“You’re fucking amazing,” he texted to me.

“If this is what your job is like, I’m envious!”

It felt good. Despite not charging anything for this, it was a fun little exercise. 

Kind of like a skill sharpening. And it was a nice goodwill thing, even if I didn’t make any actual money.

But a few weeks later, the businessman reached out to me again by text, saying that he had spoken to Steven Sexton at his nursing home and “he doesn’t remember” if his family owned the auto repair. “He doesn’t remember” sounded a bit suspicious.

He also tried speaking to the wife, but she hung up on him.

“I was so excited; thought you were onto something.”

Looks like I wasn’t onto anything after all…

Looking back, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by that comment, but in the moment, it got to me. Nobody likes being wrong; especially me. 

I was certain I had the right guy.

In fact, I still am.

Maybe the guy had dementia. Or there could be a million other reasons why he couldn’t remember or didn’t want to remember. But, oh well.

I told the businessman I could track down one of Steven Sexton’s two sisters, but I knew that would take some time, and I was busy enough (and not certain enough that I could find them) that I didn’t want to put too much time digging into this for free.

But the businessman kept digging. He had come across a phone number of an unnamed auto repair in the same town from the 1970s and was wondering if I had access to old phone books to see whether the phone number was for the Murano Auto Repair we were looking for.

I sent him an ad that I had come across, which showed the phone number and address for the right auto repair, which didn’t match.

He responded, “The ad gives me the answer to the question! They did work at the address shown! That’s the only information I was seeking. Thank you again.”

Wait, what?

I was digging through 1940 census records in the wee hours of the night to find the owners’ children.

“I thought he wanted to find the owners or their next of kin,” I said to myself.

Turns out the businessman was involved in a property deal and wanted to know if the auto repair had previously operated at the property. You know, chemicals, liability issues.

Shit.

You see, the businessman thought he knew what he wanted, that he could just call the family of the owners, who would tell him, “Yeah, that’s where we were.”

Of course, it’s not that easy.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate…

That one simple question might have saved us both a lot of time, and saved me resources and expenses. I made it way more complicated than I needed to.

He could have simply asked me whether there was any way to tell me if Murano Auto Repair was at 100 Park Place in Wilton, Connecticut in the 1970s.

Or I could have simply asked, “Why do you want to find the owner?”

Also, things often get lost in translation through the written word. My competitive side had gotten to me and had taken his text the wrong way. 

In our fast-paced world of firing off texts or emails, not taking the time to talk through things, reading just the headline, or assuming you know what people mean, things can easily get jumbled, misconstrued or conveyed wrong.

I think a lot of the problems we have in the world right now stem from the fact that we don’t communicate with each other well.

We don’t say what we really mean because we don’t want to piss people off. Or we do the opposite—say too much without thinking about how it might affect people.

On the whole, human beings are terrible listeners too. We only listen to what we really want to hear. Or we just skip over the stuff that is not what we believe.

Or we don’t pick up the phone and talk things through.

Ineffective communication leads to misunderstandings, conflict and mistrust.

I don’t know about you, but I have complications in my life that I don’t need to inflame with poor communication.

So I’m gonna do my part and communicate better.

Starting right now.

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Back in April, in what is now considered the early days of the pandemic, I revealed my top 10 private investigator movies. It’s hard to believe, but since we are still in the midst of COVID-19 (and I still have some time on my hands), I have decided to reveal my top 10 private investigator TV shows. 

While there are mostly well-known classics on the list, there may be a couple of hidden gems that are new to the masses. 

Let’s dive right in. Here is my list:

10Remington Steele (1982 – 1987)

Stephanie Zimbalist and a pre-James Bond Pierce Brosnan starred in this show about  female private investigator Laura Holt, who is forced to create a fictitious male superior named Remington Steele after clients are reluctant to hire a woman. Brosnan plays a nameless thief and con-man who assumes the role of Steele, and uses his skills to help Holt solve cases. The two prove to be a romantically charged duo who often battle over who is really running things. 

Fun Fact: In 1986, Brosnan was chosen to replace Roger Moore as James Bond for the 1987 film The Living Daylights, just as Remington Steele was being cancelled. The news boosted ratings for Remington Steele, which was subsequently renewed. Brosnan’s contract obligation kept him from appearing as Bond until 1995’s Goldeneye.

9Spenser: For Hire (1985 – 1988)

Robert Urich starred in this show as Spenser (no first name!), a Vietnam vet and former police officer turned Boston private detective, who was first made famous in a series of novels written by Robert B. Parker. Spenser is more sophisticated than he appears, often quoting poetry and cooking elegant meals. He is often aided in his cases by a local enforcer named Hawk, played by Avery Brooks.

8Veronica Mars (2004 – 2006; 2019)

This fan favorite show starred Kristen Bell as the title character, a high school student and part-time private investigator. Veronica often works cases alongside her father, a disgraced Sheriff turned private investigator; while also taking on cases for fellow high school students. This fresh take on the genre leans heavily on the likeability of Bell, who is trying to solve cases, while also doing her best to navigate the complicated politics of high school.

7Monk (2002 – 2009)

Tony Shaloub starred in this show as Adrian Monk, a former police detective turned recluse after a nervous breakdown stemming from the murder of his wife. Monk works as a private detective often assisting the police with murder cases, all the while trying to solve his wife’s murder. Shaloub shines as Monk, whose high level of obsessive-compulsive disorder leads to quite a few laughs, while often aiding him in his investigations.

6Sherlock (2010 – 2019)

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a modernized iteration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes. As always, he is aided by friend and war veteran Dr. John Watson, played here by Martin Freeman. Cumberbatch brings his quirky and brooding intensity to the role of Holmes, whose observational skills are second to none. There is a running subplot throughout the show of Holmes’ attempts to capture master criminal and nemesis James Moriarty, played by Andrew Scott.

5Psych (2006 – 2014)

This unique take on the genre stars James Roday in the role of Shawn Spencer, the son of a retired police detective, who uses his incredible skills of perception to pass himself off as a “psychic detective.” Dule Hill co-stars as his long suffering best friend and reluctant partner, Burton “Gus” Guster. The pair are often hired as consultants to assist the Santa Barbara police department, whose detectives are skeptical of Shawn’s psychic powers. The pop culture references and quick-witted humor that go along with each case are enough to always keep you on your toes and laughing.

4Moonlighting (1985 – 1989)

Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd star in this classic show about former supermodel Madison “Maddie” Hayes, played by Shepherd, who is forced to go into the detective business with devil-tongued manchild David Addision, played by Willis. The on screen chemistry between Shepherd and Willis made for some great witty banter, and wrote the book on “will they or won’t they?” tension.

3The Rockford Files (1974 – 1980)

This show starred James Garner as pardoned (not paroled!) ex-convict turned private investigator Jim Rockford. Upon his release from San Quentin prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Rockford mainly worked cold cases to avoid further ruffling police feathers. Rockford was not a typical TV private detective, as evidenced by his shabby wardrobe and residence in a beachside mobile home. The show was carried by Garner’s undeniable blue collar charm.

2Murder, She Wrote (1984 – 1996)

Angela Lansbury starred in this long running show as Jessica Fletcher, famed mystery novelist and resident sleuth of Cabot Cove, Maine. Fletcher often rubs law enforcement the wrong way with her involvement in cases, most of which are connected to an acquaintance of Fletcher. The amount of murders on the show which took place in the small fictional town of Cabot Cove has long been a topic of discussion. The term “Cabot Cove Syndrome,” has been used to describe an unusual amount of murders or dead bodies showing up in one rural or remote location.

1Magnum, P.I. (1980 – 1988)

This is the gold standard for private investigator television shows. Tom Selleck starred as Thomas Magnum, an ex-Navy SEAL working as a private investigator in Hawaii. Magnum lives rent free in a guest house on the lavish estate of famed author Robin Masters in exchange for providing security at the compound. He is often joined on cases by his war buddies Rick and T.C., and humor is abundant in Magnum’s hot and cold relationship with Higgins, the proper British caretaker of the Masters estate. This show is the basis for many people’s fantasy of what a private investigator actually does. 

Fun Fact: After filming the pilot for Magnum, P.I. for CBS, Selleck was chosen for the role of Archeologist adventurer Indiana Jones for the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Magnum, P.I. was picked up as a series, CBS refused to let Selleck film the movie, and the rest is history.

Bonus Show — Columbo (1968 – 1978; 1989 – 2003)

While technically a police detective, the list would feel incomplete without mentioning the trenchcoat wearing, cigar chomping, smarter than he seems Frank Columbo. Peter Falk starred in this show about the seemingly aloof Columbo, who is constantly underestimated by the killers he is trying to catch. They always think they have him outsmarted until he turns around at the last second and utters his catch phrase, “Just one more thing.”

OK—there you have it. Did I fail to mention your favorite show? Let me know in the comments, as your taste may differ.

As I said before, and I’ll say again, nothing is as exciting to watch as an investigator unraveling a case and uncovering the truth.

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With the entire United States about to go into serious lockdown mode again (if you haven’t been in lockdown already), I thought it would be a good opportunity to share some things I have been watching, and things I plan on watching over the coming weeks.

A few of these recommendations have been around for a bit, but if you haven’t had the chance to this point, now is a good time to jump on the bandwagon.

Up Next

Room 2806: The Accusation

Netflix just dropped the series, Room 2806: The Accusation, a docuseries about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. In 2011, Strauss-Kahn was the head of the International Monetary Fund and was discussed as a possible candidate for president of France, until a housekeeper in the Sofitel Hotel in New York City accused him of sexual assault. This case hits close to home and should be wrapped up by the time this article is published ;).

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

I’m a little late to this party, and I am still playing catch-up. Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos have intrigued me for years. Holmes raised hundreds of millions of dollars from some of the smartest people in Silicon Valley, running a notoriously secretive company that was going to change the world. But it imploded and she turned out to be a complete fraud.

2020 Favorites

Trial 4

In 1995, 21-year-old Sean Ellis, in his third trial and after two mistrials, was convicted of killing a Boston police officer. But after some shoddy police work was uncovered involving some corrupt police officers, and because of an attorney who doggedly pressed the police to turn over state’s evidence for more than a dozen years, Ellis is now a free man.

McMillions

McMillions is a six-part documentary about an ex-cop turned security officer, who rigged the McDonald’s Monopoly game in the 1990s to the tune of millions of dollars. One of the highlights of the show is Doug Mathews, the loud, brash, lightning-in-a-bottle FBI agent that you will either love or hate. The show has everything from greed, deception and revenge to mobster intrigue and an amazingly fascinating set of characters.

Oldies but Goodies

Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist

In 2003, a pizza-delivery man with a bomb strapped around his neck robbed a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, and died in front of police when the device detonated. The series focuses on the bizarre set of events and examines the motive behind the robbery, and the intriguing people behind the case, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, the mentally deranged woman who admits to killing multiple boyfriends without a single iota of remorse.

A Wilderness of Error

Did Jeffrey MacDonald, the Vietnam veteran and army physician, gruesomely slaughter his pregnant wife and daughter in 1970? Or was the murder committed by four drug-crazed hippies? [No, I didn’t make that up.] A Wilderness of Error, based on a book by Errol Morris, is a fascinating look at an old case that is still in the public consciousness after 50 years.

Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer

Even though I watched this over a year ago, I still think of it often. The series is about an extraordinarily twisted Luca Magnotta, who posted a series of disturbing videos in which he suffocated and drowned kittens. It can be hard to watch at times; but trust me, it’s worth it. Unsurprisingly, Magnotta goes from killing animals to murdering a student from China and proceeds to mail his body parts to a local newspaper. The attention-seeking Magnotta is ultimately tracked down with the help of some amazing work by a group of dedicated internet sleuths using some amazing investigative techniques.

Probably my favorite show on this list.

Extra Credit

The Staircase, Making a Murderer and The Jinx are a few of my all-time favorites. They are a few years old at this point, but worthy of watching if you are running out of new shows to watch. Also Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez was pretty riveting as well.

If you aren’t willing to commit to a full docuseries just yet, try catching Unsolved Mysteries on Netflix, which has hour-long shows about some interesting cases (although they can be hit or miss).

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There are very few topics that get me as agitated as do discussions regarding ethics and private investigators. My enthusiasm for this topic falls somewhere between my obsession with food and making the perfect paella (sorry, but no Spaniard would ever put chorizo in a paella) and drinking good beer (sorry, but Coors Light does not qualify as “good beer”).

Since I spend the vast majority of my time on my work (and unfortunately not cooking paella and drinking beer) and much of my day on social media with news alerts set left and right, I get reminded of ethical issues with private investigators all the time.

A few months ago, I stumbled across a message board where a licensed private investigator asked about how to get an “unauthorized credit report” (Hint: the word “unauthorized” should be a clue).

I joked that it was kind of like asking where to buy an 8-ball of cocaine on Twitter. OK, I guess it’s not the same. Cocaine is probably easier to get than a credit report. 

But I digress.

That same week I got a message from another private investigator asking how he could get a credit report without a signed release. (Hint: a Google search can quickly confirm you MUST HAVE a signed authorized release).

There have been a number of infamous private investigator ethical lapses splattered across the news over the years, some of which have led to changes in laws and access to information.

In the 1980s, the actress Rebecca Shaeffer was murdered after a 19-year-old “obsessed fan” hired a private investigator to track down where the actress lived. California changed the law so that DMV information no longer included address details.

Anthony Pellicano, known as a “fixer” and “Private Eye to the Stars,” spent 10 years in prison for, among other things, threatening witnesses, wiretapping phones (including the phones of Sylvester Stallone), and unlawfully accessing confidential records from members of the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills police departments.

Then there was Chris Butler, who set up “Dirty DUIs” for his clients, where he would hire female decoys to get a male drunk, get the males to drink a sufficient amount of alcohol, and then follow them in their vehicle as they headed home, all in order to call the police in order to get them pulled over.

In 2006, Hewlett–Packard hired private investigators to access the private phone records of board members and nine journalists. One private investigator was later convicted and sentenced to prison. Because of the national outcry, in 2007, President Bush signed the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006, which made it a federal felony to fraudulently acquire telephone records.

More recently, there was the story of Black Cube, who used ruses, fake websites, false identities and cellphone tracking to obtain information for its client, Harvey Weinstein. As you may have noticed from the news, that didn’t end well.

In addition to these front-page news items, there have been dozens of other stories in the media every day of private investigators who hacked email passwords and credentials, posed as an airline worker to get copies of a passport; committed sex acts with a prisoner (and client) in jail;  bribed and tampered with witnesses; intimidated a witness; impersonated a law enforcement officer; attempted to get the president’s tax returns; flashed their old badges to give people the impression that they are law enforcement officers; illegally installed a GPS tracker; hired a shady subcontractor with spotty criminal records to get phone records; illegally obtained bank records through a pretext; or represented themselves as an “investigative firm” in order to dig up dirt on the opposing counsel by pretending to be a reporter.

Those are just the ones that crossed my radar over the past few years.

And I have had a bunch of my own personal experiences with other ethical breaches, including dealing with investigators who wanted to charge another investigator a handsome sum for public records and another investigator who told me he would put a GPS device on anyone’s car, anytime, anywhere, despite the fact that laws suggest otherwise.

I’ve also had a client call me to ask whether I would break into someone’s house to steal tax returns and dealt with a hedge fund manager who wanted me to threaten and intimidate someone.

The argument I get all the time is that these are just rogue investigators; but personally, I think it’s more of a pattern of behavior. We may not be to blame for these rogue investigators, but we can all do something about it. 

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There are a few things that I think could dramatically decrease these ethical lapses. First, most states do not require private investigators to get continuing education. So once you have received a license, you can maintain that license for eternity without a single iota of learning anything new, like pesky little things such as laws, privacy restrictions or even investigative techniques.

Imagine going to a doctor who learned how to practice medicine 30 years ago and was never required to learn anything new ever again. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the doctor I would want to be seeing.

The other thing that could dramatically decrease ethical lapses is a code of ethics. Nearly every single professional service has them; why don’t private investigators? While many investigators belong to various associations that have their own code of ethics (e.g., National Association of Legal Investigators; The New Jersey Licensed Private Investigators Association; World Association of Detectives; Association of Certified Fraud Examiners; Council of International Investigators; Associated Licensed Detectives of New York State), there is no universal code of ethics. And as far as I know, very few (if any) states have a real code of ethics for investigators to abide by.

So where do we start to try to fix this?

Well, having a standardized code of ethics would probably be a good starting point.

So, for the past few months, my friend and fellow private investigator Molly Donaldson of Waverly Research (who is also an attorney) decided to put together our own code of ethics.

There were a few specific criteria for this private investigator code of ethics.

First and foremost, it needed to be in plain language; no legal jargon would be allowed. I know that it’s an attorney’s job to add disclaimers, provisions, clauses, rights, duties, etceteras, notwithstandings, heretofores, definitions and “including but not limited tos,” but it’s time we took a stand for plain language.

Secondly, we wanted this to be shared with the investigative community, so while we tried to hit every point, we tried to keep it as broad as possible while being concise and fitting on one page. We thought of this not as a set of exact rules, but as general guidelines that we must follow. Trying to cram every ethical scenario in a concise set of rules was not very practical.

Lastly, both Molly and I wanted to share this code of ethics with the investigative community— so please steal it, post it, edit it, sign it, blog about it, tear it apart or do whatever you want with it.

Maybe, just maybe, this might create some dialog about standardizing a code of ethics for all of us.

Or we can all decide to just completely ignore it, which is pretty much what the industry has been doing for quite some time.

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This article was originally published in Pursuit Magazine on June 10, 2020.  

For as long as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to play baseball for the majors. Because when you are young and a baseball fanatic, that’s what you do.

You dream big.

By the fourth grade, I had become a diehard New York Mets fan. Of course, it helped that the Mets were on top of the world then, winning the 1986 World Series in spectacular fashion. And it helped that I was young and malleable and full of impossible dreams. I wanted to be Dwight Gooden, the flame-throwing right hander who had a curveball delivered from God himself. “Doc” Gooden’s 1985 season was a story of utter domination from the mound, one of the most perfect seasons in baseball history. That was until his career went down in flames, beginning in the late 80s, fueled by cocaine and booze.

Dwight Gooden’s flame-out broke my heart, and the Mets have broken it every season for the last 34 years.

But no amount of heartbreak could make me stop loving the Mets — or the game itself.

A Curve Ball

As a kid, I was a pretty good baseball player. One of my favorite days as an athlete was when I threw a no-hitter as a freshman against our arch rival high school team. By then, there were some really strong signs that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. And that getting drafted by the Mets was more pipe dream than reality.

Circa 1984

The defining moment when the switch flipped is burned into my memory. It was near the end of the 1990 spring season, and we were playing our cross-county rival, Fox Lane High School. They had a beautiful field save for the flock of geese that menaced the outfield.

We were up by a run or two, and Fox Lane was down to their final at-bat, with two men on base. I was literally in the zone. Earlier in the game, Fox Lane hitters had roped a few line drives into the gap between the left and center fielders, and I wasn’t going to let it happen again. After each pitch, I inched my way toward the center fielder, anticipating a line drive that I would chase down and save the game. Sure enough, the dude smoked a line drive right into the gap. I had a great jump on the ball and timed my dive perfectly.

Anyone who ever played a sport has lived or imagined this moment, when it’s your turn to be the hero. I had rehearsed it dozens of times in my head, and it always ended with me soaring for the game-saving catch.

Instead, I plowed a divot into the turf with my face and ate goose shit, as the ball tipped off the end of my glove.

We did not win the game.

I was burning with humiliation. My mouth tasted like goose ass. And I would surely never be drafted by the Mets.

I shifted focus to trying for a career as the New York Mets general manager. That was a job that did not require me to be a superstar athlete. I was a total stat freak and early adopter of fantasy baseball, which was in its infancy. This seemed like a perfect fit.

One small problem was that in my teenage years, I didn’t do much except screw up in school. I am not all that proud to admit this, but there it is. By senior year, when all my friends were waving around acceptance letters to universities all over the Northeast, I applied to just one local school.

Within a year I was lost. I had no idea what to do next.

Swing and a Miss

I dropped out and found work at a local sports photography company, which happened to be the only licensed company in the country that could produce 8×10 glossies of sports figures — the kind of photographs that you get autographed. The sports memorabilia business was booming, I was a sports nut, and it seemed like a reasonable place to get warmed up while I figured things out.  

Now I was onto something. My passion for sports made it easy for me to stare at sports photos all day, and talking sports for hours on end was part of my job. That I actually got paid for. 

Learning the photography part was easy. I took classes in photography and soon learned to edit photos. I even became a decent amateur photographer.

I was promoted to assistant photo editor, going through rolls of film, picking out the best shots to stock in the warehouse, and coordinating with photographers to get the images we wanted. I worked with the major sports leagues and took trips to New Jersey, where NBA Photos was based.

I went to Spring Training in Florida in 1996, where I helped our photographers take studio photos of all of the baseball teams. I got to meet dozens of big-leaguers, including my baseball idol at the time, Cy Young winner Greg Maddux.

I was in heaven.

But I knew I needed to get a college degree.

Base Hit

I continued taking classes at a local community college. And with my newfound passion and motivation, I actually gave a shit about my schoolwork and was a straight-A student.

Then I found out there was such a thing as an undergraduate degree in Sports Management, where I could learn the business of sports. I applied and was accepted to the best program in the country, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Really, it was a business degree with a side of sports. I learned about accounting, finance and marketing, and to my surprise, I loved these classes. I also loved studying legal issues in sports, sports marketing, and any other sports-related business thing that I could nerd out to.

I wasn’t lost anymore.

I graduated cum laude, did an internship with the New York Giants for the 1999 – 2000 season, and got a job working for Major League Baseball Photos, where I edited photos. Among other things, I helped pick out photos for the World Series and All-Star Game programs. I even got my name in the programs.

In October 2000, I was working for Major League Baseball Photos, helping the league photographers documenting the World Series. It wasn’t just any World Series though; it was the Subway Series, in which my beloved New York Mets were playing the New York Yankees.

I even got to take photographs from the blimp riding over Shea Stadium for Game 4.

Literally, it could not get much better than this. Except for the fact that, of course, the Mets broke my heart … again.

Oh, and those photographs that I was supposed to be taking from the blimp? Turns out I didn’t load the 35mm film into the camera properly. I got four rolls of blank film. The only picture I was able to nab was with a pocket-size point-and-shoot camera that I brought along with me. The long exposure and low budget camera produced the image below: a giant halo of light surrounded by squiggly streaks.  

If that photo was not a sign that I needed to refocus my life, I am not sure what was.

October 25, 2010, Game 4, World Series, New York Mets vs. New York Yankees. Somewhere over Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York.

Strikeout

Then it all came crashing down.

First, I was rejected for a job offer with an organization that was literally at the top of my list, the Major League Baseball Players Association. I had been rejected from a few other jobs too, which knocked me off my pedestal.

In hindsight, I probably thought I was a bit more awesome than I really was. [Yes, there is a theme developing here.]

The sports world was so competitive. I wasn’t the only idiot with a passion for sports who would sell his soul to work in the industry.

I had come to realize that everyone I’d worked for in these sports organizations had been there for years. Like, dozens of years. So my hustle and ambition didn’t really get me anywhere in organizations that didn’t really turn over or grow significantly.

My passion for the game didn’t set me apart, either. Everybody there loved baseball; people were grateful just to be near the game. Which meant every job had a ton of applicants, even though salaries were artificially low.

I was discouraged. Another dead end.

So in March 2001, I took a job working with my father’s private investigation firm while I figured out my next step.

I was 25.

I thought about getting my MBA.

I pitched my old employer to sell photos through the Internet, using all that newfound knowledge from my Sports Management degree. They liked the idea, but they told me, “We could just do that ourselves.”

And they ultimately did. So much for that brilliant idea.

I even floated the idea of becoming some sort of a Renaissance Man after reading Richard Feynman’s book, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, about his life as a professor, musician, scientist, and Nobel prize winner. But that faded away quickly.

Full Count, No Pressure

Then 9/11 happened. My father’s business took a huge hit, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills from one client.

We had layoffs and pay cuts. I couldn’t leave. I hung around and dug hard, helped get the business back on its feet, back to where it had been and well beyond.

And the rest, they say, is history. I grew into the business and found what I love.

Nineteen years later, I wake up every day at 6 a.m., get into my office around 7 a.m., and love what I do.

I don’t pray for Fridays.

I nerd out to things like investigative ethics, searching the deep web, and writing about my experiences.

People talk all the time about finding their passion in life.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do.

But passion isn’t enough. And I think there’s a difference between being passionate about something and finding a calling, something you’re passionate enough about to make it your life’s work.

Stealing Home

I am enormously passionate about lots of things.

I like sports. And food. And beer. Not always in that order.

I tried the sports angle but gave that up long ago.

I’ve thought about starting a restaurant. But restaurant life seems miserable to me. It’s got one of the highest failure rates of any type of business. And the only restaurant that I’d consider running would be open only on Sundays, and would serve whatever the hell I wanted, family style.

I am pretty sure that would go out of business quickly.

If I started making beer, I would probably drink all the profits.

I am also passionate about personal finance. I love that it’s such a taboo topic. People are willing to talk about just about anything except money. But soooo many people are bad with their money, and I would love to help them.

I love woodworking. I’ve literally never used a circular saw, but if I could drop everything and become a cabinetmaker, I would sign up right now. That would fulfill my childhood dream of being on “This Old House.”

I like writing too, which is kind of ironic, since it was my least favorite thing to do until I was much older.

I am also tremendously passionate about doing good in the world, doing things that challenge me and push my boundaries, and having the freedom and flexibility to make choices that are good for me.

Being a private investigator checks a lot of those boxes.

But the one thing I’m most passionate about, above all else, is my family. I’m passionate about any kind of work that gives me the income and flexibility to provide for my family and have time left over to spend with them.

Because that’s what it’s all about for me.

November 1, 2015, Game 5, World Series, Citi Field, Flushing, New York. Mets lose Game 5 of the World Series in epic fashion after pitcher Matt Harvey refuses to leave the game. The Mets lost, and Matt Harvey never recovered from the epic defeat. Neither have the Mets.

I could probably have found a way to make baseball my life. Instead, I found purpose on a different field of play and built another kind of life, one filled with many passions — including a generous side of baseball.

I’ve coached my son’s baseball team every year since he was 5. I can count the number of games that I have missed on one hand. I even coached my son and daughter for two years when I lived in Spain, teaching some local kids about baseball and creating a whole other world of fans. 

I’ve even turned my poor son and daughter into suffering Mets fans. But while they may hate me for the rest of my life as all of their friends bask in the 27 New York Yankees championships, at least we will share the suffering and heartbreak as a family unit. 

Because suffering together is what family is all about.  

I call that batting a thousand.

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Spoiler alert: Adapt.

But before I ponder the future, I want to share some history.

During my nearly 20 years as a private investigator, I’ve ridden several waves of business. 

Your mileage may vary.

When I became a private investigator in 2001, disability insurance surveillance was at the end of its business cycle for the firm I joined. For years before, disability insurance had been the lucrative bread and butter of a lot of investigative firms, but at some point in the 1990s, competition grew fierce, hourly rates stabilized (and in some cases contracted) and things eventually went away. The work that remained in disability insurance surveillance wasn’t like it used to be, and the firm I worked for eventually lost all its work to hourly-rate firms that charged lower fees and were willing to do one-man surveillance jobs. (I’ve completely oversimplified this, but you get the point.)

After a rash of corporate fraud in the early 2000s from the likes of Enron, Worldcom and Tyco, class action lawsuits became all the rage. The firm I worked for took on hundreds of cases, conducting thousands of interviews relating to class action lawsuits – that is, until some law firms specializing in this area started bringing this work in-house, hiring their own investigators and doing the work themselves. (Fact: Outside investigators are an expense; internal people are a profit center.) Slowly but surely, the amount of this type of work, just like disability insurance surveillance, decreased significantly for the majority of outside investigative firms. Yes, these firms can still find work in this area, but they can’t command the rates they used to.

Your experience might be completely different from mine, but certain things are the same: Business changes. Times change. And now, in a worldwide pandemic, everything is about to change again.

Then came a wave of hedge fund due diligence cases. With millions of dollars flowing into funds of funds (firms that invested in various hedge funds), dozens of these firms across the United States hired investigative firms to perform high-level, in-depth background checks on their hedge fund managers. This wave resulted in a multiyear boom for investigative firms, but when the wave receded, the fund of funds industry all but collapsed. Again, yes, investigative firms can still find hedge fund due diligence work, but it’s extraordinarily price sensitive and the competition is fierce.

When I went into business for myself 10 years ago, a string of Ponzi schemes – including Bernie Madoff’s behemoth – came to the forefront. I, like many other investigators around the world, worked for many years on this massive, multifaceted investigation. Eventually, this type of work died out too.

Over the past several years, white-collar criminal defense and activist investing have usurped disability insurance, corporate fraud, hedge fund due diligence and Ponzi schemes as the investigative area du jour. These days, many investigators work on jobs pertaining to an increasing number of workplace misconduct investigations (#MeToo) and cyber investigations. Monitorship investigations, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigations and corporate internal investigations are part of the new bread and butter – but will that still be the case after the coronavirus cloud clears?

Your experience might be completely different from mine, but certain things are the same: Business changes. Times change. And now, in a worldwide pandemic, everything is about to change again.

So what’s next on the investigative plate?

I have absolutely no idea. Seriously.

(Note: Trying to predict the future is silly. Almost nobody gets it right. I mean, the entire world has been shut down due to a pandemic for more than a month. Who could have predicted that?  Apparently, not even Nostradamus. Besides, I tried predicting the future a couple of times before (see GPS Tracking, the Law and the Future – A Private Investigator’s Take and The Future Private Investigator: 6 Ways the Business Will Change), and I completely mostly failed.)

But I’d be willing to bet there will be a spate of litigation relating to fraud coming out of the billions of dollars the government is lending. It’s a breeding ground for fraud.

And there is bound to be some bankruptcy work in the near future.

And price gouging lawsuits might be bubbling up any day now.

And I’m pretty certain a surge of asset tracing is on the horizon. 

And nursing homes, which are reporting thousands of coronavirus-related deaths, are certain to bear the brunt of lots of lawsuits.

And there has been some chatter about private investigators doing contact tracing work too. 

And it’s not just the type of work; it’s how firms operate. With staff cuts, will there be more competition for a smaller pool of work? Will a leaner staff with less overhead be in the near future? Or will independent contractors be the wave of the future, like many other industries? 

It’s silly to think everything will return to how it used to be.

When the imminent threat recedes and the world emerges to discover its new normal, I imagine there will be a lot less in-person work, at least for the foreseeable future, so you better learn some telephone manners and figure out how to do a proper Zoom call without a Zoombombing. Digital marketing is something you’ll probably have to get familiar with. And it’ll behoove you to learn a few skills that’ll benefit you from the comfort of your home office.

You’re probably already learning some. Most of the country – and the world, for that matter – is working from home. I’ve done more Zoom meetings in the past few weeks than I had ever done before that. (Well, most have been virtual happy hours with friends at Pursuit magazine, but I digress.) I’m also working on a strategy to do investigative telephone interviews for a case in which, just a few months ago, I had been planning to spend weeks on the road, doing in-person interviews.

Something positive to come out of these trying times is an uptick in cases to find long-lost friends and relatives. I’ve noticed a strong sense of nostalgia among people, who are perhaps rediscovering the importance of friends and family.

Here is a simple piece of advice — don’t get too nostalgic about the way things used to be, because it’s probably not going to be the same. 

As private investigators, we’re used to changing our focus in order to meet the market’s needs. So whatever comes next in our careers, we’ll do what we always have and always will: adapt.

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It’s the end of the decade, a decade that has pretty much coincided with the founding of my business in August 2009 and the start of my blogging career, with our first post being published  in February 2010.

Last week, we posted about the most popular blog posts from the decade.

This week, I’ve reached back to find some of the stories and ideas that made this blog—and in some cases, my career—come alive.

Posts that have had the most impact on me personally.

These blog posts aren’t going to win any popularity contests. In fact, if I added up all of the traffic from these posts, it still wouldn’t be as much as our most popular post.

But these posts might give you a bit of inspiration, make you shed a few tears, or give you a warm and fuzzy feeling.

1) What Baseball Can Teach You About A Background Check (2011)

I love this post because it mixes a few things that I am extraordinarily passionate about: baseball and background checks. Even though this is one of the oldest posts on the site, it still rings true today.

2) What Children Can Teach A Private Investigator (2011)

While baseball and background checks might be a passion, my children are my lifeblood. Parenthood has taught me so much, and this is an incredible reminder of some valuable lessons.

3) What Chefs And Private Investigators Have In Common (2012)

I see a theme developing here. Food has been a huge influence in my life as well.

Now I am getting hungry…

4) The Secret To A Successful Private Investigation Business (2012)

Spoiler alert: I don’t really have a secret. I’ve enjoyed an extraordinarily successful business because I’ve gotten to see every one of my kids’ sporting/school events, been an intimate part of my family’s lives, and had an extraordinarily flexible work schedule that allowed me to live halfway around the world—not because I am independently wealthy, internationally famous or have developed a worldwide brand.

5) A Rant – Do Former Law Enforcement Officers Make Better Private Investigators? (2012)

This topic has always struck a chord with me. My two cents: There is no correlation between law enforcement experience and success as a private investigator, despite firms using their prior law enforcement background as their main advertising sound bite.

I remember thinking at the time that I would get quite a bit of negative feedback, but it was quite the opposite.

6)  What Is The Perception Of A Private Investigator? It Kind Of Sucks! (2013)

Another topic that has struck a chord with me: how private investigators are perceived. I had always thought that years of television and movies have warped any true sense of what a private investigator really does, so I did a survey back in 2013, which confirmed my worst fears.

7) What NY Giants Training Camp Taught Me About Running A Business (2013)

Life experiences mold you into the person you are. Long before I became a private investigator, I was an intern for the New York Giants, which taught me some valuable lessons.

8) Hello, My Name Is Brian, And I Am A Recovering Private Investigator (2013)

Every time I tell someone what I do, they are often disappointed by the fact that I don’t drive a fancy car, get myself into precarious/illegal positions or tail cheating spouses.

9) The Future Private Investigator: 6 Ways The Business Will Change (2015)

Trying to predict the future is pretty ridiculous, in my personal opinion; but that didn’t stop me from writing this post in 2015.

It may take some time for things to pan out, but it doesn’t look like I am going to be taking over the title from Nostradamus anytime soon. 

10) 17 Lessons I Learned From 15 Years As A Private Investigator (2016)

Another milestone post. Some good business and life lessons in here like sticking to your principles, persistence and patience.

11) Finding Tucker’s Father (2017)

In the past decade, we have investigated more than 1,000 cases, but none of them have been more impactful than this one. Just an amazing story with a storybook ending.

12) Reflecting On The 10 Years Since I Started My Business (2019)

It’s always good to remind yourself every once in a while where it all started, just in case you forget where you came from. 

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For the past three years, around this time of year, I’ve been visiting Putnam Valley High School to speak in front of a class of seniors. The class is run by Bob Baker, whom I’ve known since I was 9 years old.

Mr. Baker, as I have been asked to call him in class, teaches math, but once a year he gives a math-applications course where he teaches seniors about applying some of the math they have learned in school to real-life situations like paying taxes, obtaining a mortgage and making investments.

The class also has a bit of career, entrepreneurship and business advice thrown in; the students listen to a few guest speakers in class, go down to Wall Street and attend a career day at MetLife Stadium.

I truly love speaking to this class every year, and I’m not really sure why. First off, who doesn’t like talking about themselves for about an hour?

But I also feel like I have an interesting story to tell, one that high schoolers can relate to.

I think it’s also because by my own definition, I’ve had a pretty successful career and I think I have the best job in the world. When I talk to the students, I share some of my past about how I got to where I am, some of the things that helped get me there and some stories of my most interesting cases.

I also talk to them about being careful what they post on social media, but hopefully I’m not the first one to do that.

While we all have a story, I can totally relate to where they are as high school seniors. This investigative story seems to be the fan favorite.

Here are a few things that always seem to resonate with the students.

Be a Writer

I was a horrible writer in grade school and high school. I literally couldn’t put a few sentences together. I couldn’t collect my thoughts or write anything cohesive. I remember my father literally throwing an entire draft “book report” in the garbage because it didn’t make any sense. I know that probably frustrated my family members; after all, I am the grandson of a novelist and screenwriter.

Things started to change in college. I’m not sure what happened, but I do recall one class where we were required to write no more than two pages for anything that we handed in. I remember being forced to write more succinctly and clearly, and without jargon, fluff or extra words.

Also at that time, I started to read a lot more. I started mostly with the newspaper, which I have been reading religiously every day since. (I think I picked up that little nugget from Rick Pitino’s book Success Is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life, which I highly recommend.)

Ironically, today I write a lot, including this blog, which is up to about 300 posts. I also write investigative reports and memos on a daily basis; for those, I need to be to-the-point, factual and jargon-less.

I still don’t think I am a great writer, but I do know one thing – writing takes work. Lots of it. So my advice is to write. Whatever it is – poems, emails, journals, fiction, fantasy or haiku – just keep writing.

And read too. Whatever floats your boat. (Maybe start with a newspaper.)

Build a Network

There are two things that I credit my “success” to. The first is hard work. I have never pretended to be the smartest person in the room, but I can outwork just about anybody. And that doesn’t require any special skills or superpower.

The other thing that I credit success to is networking. Ten years ago, when I left my cushy salaried desk job with medical benefits to start my own business, I had a wife, two young kids, a fairly substantial mortgage to pay and a whole lot of confidence (also known as ignorance) that I was going to make a living on my own.

One thing I did have was a good network of people I had come to know and trust over the years. When I sat down on day one of my entrepreneurial venture, I called and emailed everyone I had come across in my professional and personal life.

Shortly after, I began my first case, helping my client prepare for a trial. For two and a half weeks, I worked long days and nights, including a 17-hour day on Labor Day. That first client has turned into a 10-year client. The rest, as they say, is history.

What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that my network literally started my business. I had always treated people with respect and made it a point to keep in touch with them, help them out when needed and ask for favors when appropriate. I did it to be a decent human being, not because I wanted to be a good networker.

What I have come to realize is that every interaction you have is literally building your network. A network that might be able to help you in the future. That person next to you at your lunch table might be able to help get you a job in the future or maybe even inspire you to do something that you hadn’t thought of.

So go ahead and be kind to people, take an interest in someone else’s life, or just be a good listener.

You never know when you might need someone in your “network.”

Perseverance

I am a competitor at heart. My younger brother would frequently let me beat him in basketball just so I wouldn’t quit playing. I’ve also been known to get a little too amped-up during family game night.

Early in my career, I was told that I wasn’t a very good investigator. People openly doubted that I would make it when I opened my own business. They doubted that I could run a business since I was insecure, not mature enough or lacked the skills to be a manager.

Sure, I needed to grow up a bit, and some of that criticism was well deserved.

But all the doubters did was put a bit of a chip on my shoulder, making me want to prove them all wrong.

Athletes like to call that finding an edge.

Whatever it’s called, I like to push my own personal boundaries.

It’s worked out pretty good so far.

High School and College

I was a terrible high school student. I broke my arm in the ninth grade and thought that was a good excuse not to do any homework or study for any tests during the six weeks my cast was on (I think I failed every class that semester).

I got kicked off the baseball team in my senior year because I hadn’t shown up to my first-period biology class in months.

I finished exactly 106 out of 212 students in my class, just between the biggest burnout and the class clown.

I applied to exactly one college, 30 minutes from my house, only because all my friends were going to college and I didn’t want to be left behind. After a year, I dropped out, realizing that I had exactly zero ideas about my future.

I ended up working in the sports industry for a local photography firm that licensed professional sports photos. That led me to pursue a degree at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which at the time had (and maybe still does) the best sports management program in the country.

I graduated cum laude and ended up working in the sports industry for a few years before determining that wasn’t for me either.

All this experience led me to work as a private investigator at the age of 25, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

I was 17 years old when I graduated from high school. I had no idea what I wanted to do, which scared the hell out of me.

The reality is that most graduates really don’t know what they want to do. My colleague just found his passion at the age of 40.

I love what I do, but frankly, I could have loved 30 other things too. Who knows?

If you are 17 or 18 years old, you have time to figure things out, so be patient, don’t settle, work hard, persist, hustle and keep following your passions until you find one that sticks.

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