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Any general Diligentia news

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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Private investigator Scott Ross called me a few months back and relayed a story about a Florida investigator whom he had spoken with a few years ago. Scott is a nationally renowned expert on cell phone towers and has worked some really high-profile cases. The Florida investigator had called Scott a few years back, wanting to pick his brain about a case that needed some analysis of cell phone records.

Scott and I share a similar philosophy. He is happy to share some insight and information about his expertise, knowing that if there is a serious need, he’s the guy that they will think of. Plus, it’s just a good human trait to want to help people.

Scott helped the investigator out. Never charged him a penny and didn’t think much about the investigator until several months ago, when Scott was about to be retained on a Florida murder case. Scott needed some police reports from a local Florida police department, so he called the Florida private investigator. The Florida investigator said he had a source in the police department who could get the records. Scott told the investigator that he hadn’t been retained yet, but if his source could get the record without too much trouble, it would be helpful.

Shortly thereafter, the Florida investigator sent the two-page document—and a bill for $100.

Even though he was a bit surprised by the bill, Scott sent the investigator $125 as a thank-you for his time. The Florida investigator said that there were several more police reports relating to the person in question. Scott told the investigator to hold off, since they hadn’t been retained by the attorney.

But shortly thereafter, Scott received six other police reports along with a bill for $300.

Scott was a bit perturbed, given he had explicitly told him not to do any additional work, but paid it anyway.

And that was that.

Or so Scott thought. 

Some time thereafter, Scott was making some inquiries about getting an autopsy from the same Florida murder. Unlike in California, where you have to pay a $76 fee and jump through hoops, he was told that the report was free. (Gotta love Florida Sunshine laws.)

Curious, Scott called the police department that had the police records he wanted. First, Scott asked about the original police report he had inquired about. The search was free, and not only did they have the record he was inquiring about, they had six others. The officer at the police department told him that the fee would be $10, copies cost $0.15, and that he could email the request.

So much for that “source.”

And the $400 in invoices.

And the professional courtesy of helping out another private investigator.

I too have had some similar experiences. 

There are a couple of things to learn from this.

  • When your source is an open records request, you have to rethink your business model. It’s 2019—people are too smart and have access to too much information to have the wool pulled over their eyes.
  • Nobody likes to be nickel-and-dimed. Nobody.
  • The investigative business is a small world; people find things out.
  • Investigators need to work together. Enough of the BS of your secret sources and desperately needing to increase your self-importance.
  • There’s plenty of work out there for all of us—if you are good at what you do. 

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Ten years ago this month, I was about to take the biggest risk of my life: starting my own business. And I was doing so with a mix of excitement and exhilaration, along with a healthy dose of fear and terror.

It was also kind of bittersweet. I was leaving a firm where I had formed so many important relationships and I had literally learned everything I had known up until then about this business, having started as a complete schlep.

I wasn’t just any schlep, though; I was the boss’ son, which always complicated things. I always felt I needed to prove something. I never wanted anyone to think I was handed anything. And was constantly fighting the urge to prove everyone wrong, including the boss.

I always had the bug to start my own business. I’m not totally sure why. Maybe it was the entrepreneurial bug that I always read about? Or just the idea of running my own business? Or not having to take orders?

But I do remember thinking that I wanted to be able to do whatever I wanted to do and wanted more freedom to escape from regular work hours.

And despite my confidence (or complete ignorance, depending on how you look at it) that I can make a living on my own, looking back, it might be one of the dumbest things I have ever done.

I’m not exactly sure what I was thinking.

I had two small children under my roof.

If you are 33-year-old private investigator who suddenly has to fend for himself, you better have some qualifications up your sleeve other than the fact that you worked for your father’s private investigation firm.

My wife was a stay-at-home mom and my salary was the sole source of our income.

And I had only been a private investigator for eight years, which puts me somewhere between an infant and a toddler in this business.

I also had zero law enforcement experience. Which is not at all necessary in this business, but if you are 33-year-old private investigator who suddenly has to fend for himself, you better have some qualifications up your sleeve other than the fact that you worked for your father’s private investigation firm.

Lastly, having only worked for one firm for my entire investigative life, I really had no idea whether I was really any good at what I did. I was pretty confident I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know how well I stacked up against everyone else.

I was about to find out.

With $10,000 of my own money, I set up an S corporation; designed a logo; registered my domain; applied for a New York private investigator license; bought a Dell desktop computer, two monitors, and a laptop; and built myself a home office in the basement of my condo.

It was mid-August and about five days into my new adventure, with dozens of “feeler” emails having been sent to old friends and colleagues, when I got a call from an old colleague of mine that his firm needed assistance on a case that was about to go to trial.

Monday, August 24, 2009, I started my first case, helping to prepare for a trial. For the next few weeks, I commuted from my suburban New York home into New York City. For two and a half weeks, I worked long days and nights, including a 17-hour day on Labor Day. 

I noticed the irony in my circumstances on working on that Labor Day almost immediately. I was trying to have more freedom and escape regular work hours by going out on my own, only to be stuck in a Manhattan high-rise for 17 hours while my family barbequed the Labor Day away.

But by the end of September, I was turning a handsome profit.

The next month, I hooked up with some other investigators working on the Bernie Madoff case.

A few months after that, I was spending weeks at a time in Alaska, working on a high-profile case.

As I look back, it was probably the most exhilarating few months of my professional life.

I got to work on cases that I would only read about in the newspaper.

But more important, I learned pretty quickly that I belonged.

And I’m still here…

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It took me 41 years and plenty of trial and error, but I finally found my calling.

I became a private investigator.

Here’s how it happened.

The Backstory

So there I was, 41 years old, blindsided by corporate bureaucracy, out of a job and staring into the face of an uncertain future. It was December 2017, and I had held an office job in the construction world for 15 years, too easily accepting its (and my own) complacency and always too tired or too busy to think about how stagnant it really was. When I found myself unemployed, like a moth to a flame, I began applying for jobs in the same industry.

As I pored over every internet job search site (Indeed, Monster, LinkedIn, etc.) with my updated resume, I asked the questions, “Okay, so what next? I’ll get one of these jobs, then what?”

It was safe to say I was not very happy in my old job; it’s actually very safe to say that I was quite unhappy with it. But it was income, and it was steady. How much more could a non-college graduate really ask for? I used to have passion, drive and ambition; but 60 hours a week at an unfulfilling job will swallow all of that up without you even knowing it. At my age, I had no choice but to dive back into the field where I had all my experience, right?

Maybe not. Maybe this was my chance to change my future. I took some time for personal reflection and thought about what exactly I was truly passionate about.

Since the position of Jennifer Lawrence’s personal assistant was already taken, I had to look to my next passion. Coming from a family of law enforcement, I was always fascinated by investigations and detective work, and had an (almost) obsession with “finding the answer.” I’m also an empathetic Pisces with a need to help everyone. I thought to myself, “How can I harness those feelings and passions into a career?” You see, I’ve always had jobs, but never a career. I thought it would be great to be able to say, “I am a…” rather than “I work at…”

I knew my old friend Brian was a seasoned private investigator with his own firm, and I had picked his brain here and there over the years about the field, but never had any serious discussions about it. But now was the perfect time for one.

I always thought becoming an investigator would require a long process of schooling and training and passing tests. I never had the time or freedom to explore all of that, but now I did, so why not at least ask?

He was gracious enough to take some time from his very busy schedule to meet with me, without any knowledge of the nature of my request. We met for coffee and I explained my story to him. I asked what the process/timetable would be for acquiring a private investigator’s license. He informed me that you did not personally need a license if you were working for a licensed investigator. That shocked me, to say the least, and got my wheels turning.

Knowing that Brian had connections at other firms, I now hoped that at least maybe he could put in a good word for me somewhere. He said that he would call a few people and see what he could do for me. Almost in passing, he had mentioned that he himself had been considering hiring someone. Brian’s was a small operation, and he’d done so well for himself over the past nine years that he’d found himself often turning down work. He quickly iterated that he, however, would not be the one to hire me. I was totally inexperienced, a friend, and he didn’t think he necessarily had the time to devote to my training. In any case, I thanked him for talking to me and waited to hear back from him.

Brian was able to get me an interview with some close colleagues at a large local firm. I went in for an interview, and while I thought it went well, I would be a 41-year-old new hire in a job populated mainly by kids fresh out of college. I wasn’t sure I would be a perfect fit, but was willing to take that journey since I was quite sure this was the direction I wanted to move in.

I called Brian immediately after my interview to let him know how it went and to thank him again. He shocked me for the second time when he told me to hold off on accepting any job offers, as he thought he may, in fact, want to hire me after all. I thought that would be a dream scenario, as learning a whole new profession with an abundance of fluidity and moving parts would be a lot easier with one-on-one training from any single investigator, let alone one of the best in the profession.

We met again and went over his concerns about hiring someone with zero experience who was also a friend. We discussed all possible scenarios: Maybe he would think I wasn’t a good fit with his firm, maybe the job wouldn’t be what I had expected, or maybe I would just flat out be bad at it.
I assured him that no matter what the outcome was, I would not harbor any bad feelings if things didn’t work out. He needed time to think it over.

It was New Year’s Eve 2017 when I got the call that would change my life. On my way to an annual New Year’s Eve gathering, Brian called and told me he wanted to give it a go. I was going to be a private investigator! Needless to say, I now had a whole different outlook on the coming year when the ball that brought us into 2018 dropped.

I had been fully prepared to spend at least the next few months flooding the market with my resume and going on countless interviews for jobs that deep down I didn’t want. Instead, on January 15, 2018, I was going to embark on my new career!

I hoped I was ready.

Desk

The Job

Most people’s idea of what a private investigator is and does usually consists of following cheating spouses and sitting outside sketchy motels with binoculars. Brian made it quite clear to me from our first meeting that those were not the kinds of investigations we would be doing; our work was primarily done from the comfort of our desks. As long as we were helping people, it didn’t matter to me in the least where we were doing it from.

On my first day, I was introduced to the world of the modern investigator. A large bulk of my job consists of background investigations, searching for people, and finding and identifying contact information for former employees of specific companies. What surprised me most was exactly how much information you can find out about people’s lives through publicly available information. It’s quite astounding actually.

Using nothing but social media accounts, you can find out people’s friends, family members, birthdate, interests, where they live, where they vacation, where they work, groups they belong to, people and pages that they follow, and places they’ve visited. If the information isn’t available right on their Facebook profile page, it can be attained through America’s new favorite pastime: posting photos of everything they do and everywhere they go, even being kind enough to name the people that are with them. Instagram is more of the same. Twitter opens the door to their opinions and viewpoints on a wide variety of topics, giving you an even deeper look into the subject.

Another deep resource pool when looking into someone’s life and history is also publicly available: court records, criminal records, bankruptcy records, sex offender registries and, in some states, divorce records. These can give you invaluable insight into the life story of the subject. Most, if not all, of this information, is readily available to the public if you know where to look and whom to call.

The next world I was introduced to was that of online databases. The professional-grade databases require paid accounts as well as a “permissible purpose” (“a good reason” to the layman). But once you have those, the sky’s the limit on the information you can find. These databases are populated with past and present addresses, possible phone numbers, birthdates, Social Security numbers, properties owned, vehicles owned, professional licenses, etc. We also heavily utilize databases populated by news media and public records. These, too, can help identify or confirm property owned, licenses, corporate filings, etc.

One of the first lessons that Brian has very strongly emphasized is to always multisource your findings. No one resource is 100% dead solid accurate all of the time. Verifying multiple sources is an absolute must. The truth is, there aren’t a lot of names out there that belong to just one person, and a lot are more common than you think. You might be looking into the background of Argyle Lindermueller, a seemingly unique name. So you may see in the database that someone named Argyle Lindermueller was arrested for drug possession in 2011. You’ve struck gold! Right? Maybe not.

You note that the arrest happened in Marfa, Texas, but there is no evidence that your subject has ever lived west of Philadelphia. Now you’ve got to find other points of reference. The main one is the birthdate; does the birthdate of the arrested Argyle match the one of your subject? Did your subject ever attend school in Texas? Is there a totally different Argyle Lindermueller who has lived in Texas?

Multisourcing will help you verify that you have the right person. An offshoot of multisourcing that Brian has also taught me is not to run with a piece of information just because it’s the answer you want. This goes hand in hand with the old saying “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” The short time it takes to verify your information is worth a lot more than the egg on your face if it proves to be false.

The Fun Stuff

Coming from my office job, where the bulk of the work was mindless, head down and repetitive, I have found that the digging and searching in different databases and social media sites is very exciting to me. Even within a basic structure of our typical background investigation, each case presents a different story, just as all our lives do.

I am a born people-watcher and a pretty astute observer, as human behavior has always fascinated me. For the short time of each investigation, I get a unique insight into the subject’s life, and with each life being so singularly nuanced, that work has been very exhilarating for me.

Another aspect of the job that I find fascinating is people-finding. Whether it’s a long-lost relative or a missing friend, someone is at their wits’ end and has exhausted all of their resources, and now they’re turning to us for help. Once again, maybe it’s the empath in me, but I instantly feel like it’s our responsibility to “save the day” for the client, even if it’s just to ease their minds. All people-finding cases present different challenges as well. If the client tells us the name, date of birth and the childhood home of the subject, we will most likely find them quite easily. If the client tells us her name is Jennifer Smith and “I think she was a nurse at Northern General in California in 1998,” that could prove to be much more difficult.

This is where the third shock came to me, but it was a good and profound shock. It was the first time I heard Brian tell a potential client that they shouldn’t hire us. I remember thinking to myself, “Huh? What?” This client was willing to pay our fee … what else do we need to know?

Brian explained something to me that seemed a tough pill to swallow, but also would be invaluable to me moving forward in this profession: You will not always find the answer. At least not within the budget and time frame agreed to with the client. Yes, if we had an unlimited budget and time, there isn’t anyone we couldn’t find, but we have to stay within the constraints of the agreement, and sometimes it is just not possible to do as much digging as we would like.

Brian always wants to help the client, and we will do whatever we can to do exactly that—whether it’s taking on the case, pointing them in the right direction, offering an outsider non-biased opinion or, yes, even telling them that there is no case. Making money is always a goal (we are running a business!), but serving the client the best way possible is the number-one priority.

Hearing that made me very happy and cemented in my brain that Diligentia was the best place for me.

The Challenges

I knew there would be many challenges embarking on my new career, and I was certainly not wrong about that. Since there is such a wide array of different databases and websites used in different ways on each case, it can very easily become overwhelming when figuring your approach to each case. I am learning to step back, take a deep breath, formulate a game plan and then execute it. This method has worked so far and helped me tremendously in my development as an investigator.

Easily the most challenging part for me stems from one of our most popular services offered: the “Deep Dive” background report. This is a report that, as the name suggests, goes much deeper than your average investigation. These are mainly requested when a multimillion-dollar corporation is appointing someone to a high-level position (e.g., board member, CEO), and doesn’t want to be surprised to learn that their new CFO claimed bankruptcy 12 years ago under an alias.

This type of investigation/report needs to encompass the subject’s entire career and any relevant and/or adverse media findings during their tenures. This can present a huge challenge when the subject has been on the board of 22 companies over the past 30 years. We are tasked with scouring the internet and databases containing news articles for each of those companies during the targeted time period of employment. Once we have stockpiled any and all information for each company, we will then “dig for gold”; sifting through all of the articles and posts to create a narrative for the subject’s time at each company.

That proved more difficult than I had anticipated. When I first found out that a big part of the job would be writing, I was thrilled. I consider myself a pretty good writer and an even better editor. But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. You see, not only do we have to create the narrative and write it out cohesively for the report, but we have to do it within the budgeted time frame, because as I stated earlier, the firm has to make money too.

By the time I had identified what I thought the story was, Brian had identified it, written it and edited it. This proved to be the biggest struggle for me, as I felt I needed to justify my hiring by proving that I was a value to the firm. Not being able to provide the services within the budgeted time meant that not only would I not be making our firm any money, but I would actually be costing the firm money. My work ethic and conscience would not allow for this. I promised myself that I would do whatever I needed to do to prove myself—even working extra hours at night and on the weekend off the clock.

Final Thoughts

I was the supervisor at my office job—the best and most knowledgeable person, the one who did the training and who everyone else came to for answers. Now I was the one who needed the training. I was the one who needed the answers. While that was extremely frustrating for me, it was also kind of exciting. It meant that I was growing. I was getting outside the box I had lived in for 15 years and was expanding my knowledge.

I would turn this feeling into a positive. I promised myself I would do whatever it took to learn. In between working our very large caseload, I watched Brian’s online Masterclass (I highly recommend anyone in the field watch this), as well as other online private investigator courses, and I’ve tried to read whatever books I can.

I am now almost four months into my new career, and I’m still learning something new every day. Brian has often told me that he too is still learning, and becoming the best private investigator in the universe (my ultimate goal) is not something that is going to happen overnight. Brian saw enough potential in me, even at my lowest, to take a chance on me (something for which I am eternally grateful), and I have vowed to do everything in my power to assure him that he made the right decision.

This ride has just begun, and although I know there will be (and already have been) bumps in the road, I am very anxious and excited to see where this ride takes me.

After 41 years I have found my calling.

I am a private investigator.

pieducation.com/open-source-intelligence-landing-page

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