Litigation Support – White Collar Fraud Investigation – Corporate Fraud Investigation

Recently, a New York–based private investigator reached out to me about conducting surveillance in a neighboring state in which he was not licensed.

So, here was the question (edited for clarity):

I am licensed in New York state as a private investigator. If there is a case that is “venued” in New York state, and the person moves to any other state, am I allowed to conduct surveillance in the other state, as long as the case is initiated in New York state?

The person was injured in New York state and there is ongoing litigation in New York state. The person recently moved to New Jersey. An attorney who I am working with is questioning the legality of initiating a surveillance in New Jersey with someone who is not licensed in New Jersey.

I have some top attorney firms that send me out of state for work, and they all say it’s legal. I can’t find a statute that says that I can work in New Jersey.

I don’t do any surveillance work, and I don’t pretend to be qualified enough to answer legal questions. But doing work in other states does come up quite a bit with fellow investigators, and my answer is pretty clear-cut: My understanding is that if you started a surveillance in New York (where the case originated) and the person drove into New Jersey, you are always OK.

When I say OK, I mean that this was not a typical situation; the person happened to drive into a neighboring state. You don’t need to stop doing surveillance because you are not licensed in that state. I don’t think any court of law is going to throw out the evidence because you happened to be driving through a state in which you were not licensed. Likewise, you will be hard-pressed to find any licensing body sanctioning someone for temporarily traveling through their state.

But if you are starting a surveillance in New Jersey, you need to be licensed in New Jersey—not necessarily where the case was filed or venued.

Each state’s licensing board wants to make sure that everyone who is operating in the state has a license and acts within the bounds of the law. It also helps protect the local private investigators from out-of-state competition.

What’s the risk if you do operate in another state?

To be perfectly frank, if you are operating in another state without a license, there is also not a whole lot of risk involved. Like I said, I have never heard of a licensing body sanctioning a firm for operating out of state. Also, there is very little enforcement going on within state regulatory bodies.

For God’s sake, absolutely nothing has been done to Black Cube, which operated in New York and all over the country on behalf of Harvey Weinstein with some extraordinarily shady and illegal tactics. And what about, in fact, the licensed private investigator who was doing the shady/illegal stuff for Black Cube? He still has an ACTIVE private investigator license and has not been sanctioned, according to a few of my sources.

BUT (there is a big BUT there), if whatever you are collecting may end up in court and may end up getting thrown out because it would not be collected by a licensed professional, you might want to think twice.

I realize that this answer may be different depending on which part of the country you are living in. For example, some states have reciprocity laws, in which you can enter a neighboring state as long as it’s temporary. As far as I am aware, there is no reciprocity agreement between New York and New Jersey.

Because I was not completely satisfied with my own answer, I reached out to a few New York–licensed private investigators, who also happen to be attorneys, who added some excellent points.

Most legal practitioners know little about private investigator licensing

In the original question, the private investigator pointed out that he works with some top attorney firms that have sent the investigator out of state and that employ lawyers who say it is legal. On that point, your typical legal practitioner knows little about private investigator licensing. David Boies of Boies Schiller Flexner, who at the time was one of the top lawyers in the country, hired the firm Black Cube for Harvey Weinstein. Not only was Black Cube doing all kinds of unethical things, but it was sending operatives all around the United States, to places where they do not have offices, let alone any licensing. 

As an attorney, if it was a case that could potentially go forward in either state, I would also want to be sure I had someone licensed in each state. The risk seems pretty minimal in most cases, but it really only takes one bad situation for it to come back and bite you in the a$$.

State statutes will probably not be helpful

State statutes relating to private investigator licensing typically will have some language that requires you to have a private investigator license if you are conducting/engaging in investigative services for a fee in that particular state. So, in this case, if you are in the act of conducting or engaging in investigative services for a fee in that particular state, you need to be licensed. I don’t think you will find a specific state statute that says, “You can’t come into New Jersey if you are licensed in New York.”

Case law

There is, perhaps, some case law that will support crossing state lines, but I am not aware of any. If anyone in the investigative community knows of any, please let me know.

What if you need to cross state lines?

First, I would check the local state reciprocity agreements, as well as local licensing. For example, North Carolina has limited reciprocal agreements with seven states and California has reciprocity agreements with five states, but in California you have to fill out a form and notify the state. New York, as far as I know, does not have any reciprocity agreements.

Many investigative firms will hire a local investigator in the local jurisdiction, and have one of the investigators from out of state tag along. This offers protection with regard to local licensing laws. This would typically be in a situation in which you needed to conduct interviews, especially in cases with some complexity, and for which getting a local investigator up-to-speed would be difficult. Or cases in which the investigator from out-of-state has some institutional knowledge of a case that might be hard to replicate.

Having said all of this, I don’t think that crossing state lines in every situation requires you to jump through hoops and to get a license. For example, if I am going to pick up some court records in Connecticut, doing some historical news media research in a library in New Jersey or dropping off a request to a police station in Pennsylvania, I am all set; I personally would not be worried about being licensed in that state in any of these scenarios.

But, if at any point in your out-of-state work you are considering doing interviews, surveillance, witness canvassing, scene photographs, “door knocks,” or any other activities that would be considered (or even may be considered) under the private investigator law (I am thinking of things like computer forensics) in a state in which you are not licensed, especially for a case that may end up in a court of law, I would be sure to consult with an attorney.

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As every investigator knows, palm trees aren’t the only shady things in Florida.

I was bored a few weeks ago, and started doing some research on a company that had sent a blast email promising “medical records” and “prescription info.” Given that obtaining these records is completely illegal and this person included a price list in the email, I was a tad bit surprised.

But after digging into this a bit more, maybe I shouldn’t have been so stunned.

A colleague in the investigations industry had forwarded me an email a few years ago. It was a blast email from a Florida business — for those of you not in the know, Florida is the most popular state of residence among shady investigators — and it too had provided a price list running from $20 to $600 for things like bank records, food stamp records, credit card activity, hotel room activity, and college and high school transcripts. Knowing full well that nearly all this information would be obtained by shady/illegal means, I was intrigued.

At the very least, there was likely a whole lot of pretexting going on—of the not-so-savory kind.

What was most surprising was the offer to provide “medical records” (for $495) and “prescription info” (for $395). While the other offerings were certainly shady and more than likely obtained through illegal means, obtaining medical records and prescription info on someone without their permission is 100% illegal.

Seriously, just think about that for a minute. Imagine if anyone could purchase your medical records for around $500.

Let that soak in for a second.

Many people seem ambivalent about investigators’ obtaining bank records. But medical records?

Anyhow, this blast email was like hundreds of other blast emails I get from shady data brokers peddling information.

So I ignored it.

That was until a few weeks ago, when I stumbled across this old email and decided to dig into it. You know, the world is literally on fire and we are in a global pandemic, so I have a bit of extra time on my hands.

I clicked on the company website and not surprisingly found that it is no longer operational.

This made me chuckle, because my general approach is to not worry too much about these sorts of fly-by-night firms, as they seem to disappear just as quickly as they appear. I am pretty sure that Starting & Running a Business for Dummies tells you that if you want to have a long-lasting business model, selling shady, illegal stuff is not the way to go.

But that didn’t satisfy my interest, so I kept digging.

Since its registration, the company’s domain history has been protected by a proxy registration service to protect the identity of the true owner, so that proved a dead end.

I went back and looked through the domain history on archive.org. Of course, as expected, the company claimed to be in full compliance with the law, including HIPAA (which protects medical records) and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (which protects banking records). I haven’t found one firm that peddles bank records and other shady records that says it isn’t compliant, so that claim means virtually nothing.

(The website also claimed to be in compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley, which is a law enacted in 2002 that predominantly concerns reporting requirements for public companies. Other than the fancy-sounding name that has a nice ring to it for marketing purposes, this has absolutely nothing to do with data protection, but I digress.)

There were also a few people listed on the website, two of whom had common-sounding names. They were common enough and the bios lacked enough detail to ensure that these people weren’t going to be easy to find. 

And they weren’t.

The third name was uncommon enough that I ran it through a couple of investigative databases, only to find that there was nobody in the entire country with that name.

The owner of the company, Kristin (not her real name), did have a LinkedIn profile, with nine followers, a cropped photo, and some limited details, including the name of the university she attended. Not much of a lead there either.

So I turned to Florida corporate records, where I found some records for a company with the same name, but a woman with a totally different name, whom we will call Laura.

Interestingly, Laura, who was the only officer listed on corporate filings, happened to live in the same town in which Kristin reportedly did and reported an address in the same college town, and—despite the cropped, overly exposed photo of Kristin on LinkedIn—I found some photos of Laura that looked strikingly similar.

The bottom line is that I am nearly certain that Kristin was a fake name being used on this website to sell all kinds of personal records. I mean, if you are selling shady records, it’s probably not a good idea to use your real name.

So, the punch line here is that for a business owner who has two kids about to go to college, a license, and a reasonably good reputation to uphold (or just an ethical and moral bone in your body) it’s probably not a good idea to take any chances by getting information from some data broker who claims to get information that by any normal stretch of the imagination can only be obtained by shady or illegal tactics.

I don’t care how compliant they are, who referred them, or how desperate my client is to get information.

It’s just not smart business practice.

Unless, of course, you want to rely on Kristin (aka Laura), who has now shut down her business and is living in a million-dollar beachfront home sipping on piña coladas.

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I have had an ongoing debate about pretexting with a fellow private investigator over the past several years.

This colleague loathes the word “pretexting,” in part because of the definition of the term.

Pretexting is defined by the Federal Trade Commission as “the practice of getting personal information under false pretenses.” Sounds pretty ominous, right? Expanding on the definition, “personal information” is described as bank and credit card account numbers, information in a credit report, bank account and investment portfolio information, and Social Security numbers.

In much simpler terms, pretexting means representing yourself as one person in order to obtain private information about another person.

There are a few types of pretexting that are completely off-limits and punishable by law:

The Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006 made it a federal offense to utilize pretexting to buy, sell, or obtain phone records.

Pretexting for financial records was specifically outlawed in 1999 under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which made it illegal to solicit others to obtain financial information via pretext.

In addition, while there is no pretexting provision in the law, HIPAA privacy laws protect an individual’s medical records unless consent is provided by the patient.

Although not exactly considered pretexting in the classic sense, there are also a few other forms of pretexting, better described as “impersonation,” that are also punishable by law:

Representing yourself as a police officer or law enforcement officer in any capacity or giving the impression that you are a police officer or law enforcement officer is illegal.

Falsely pretending to be an officer or employer acting under the authority of the United States or any U.S. department or agency is illegal.

Some examples of completely illegal activity are contacting a doctor’s office and falsely pretending to be a patient in order to obtain medical records, inquiring at a telephone company to obtain phone records of another individual, and asking a bank or credit card company for the statements of another individual.

But if you consider the definition once again as “the practice of getting personal information under false pretenses,” pretexting includes a number of practices that private investigators utilize on an almost daily basis. While most people apply the definition of pretexting to some sort of scam, private investigators typically use pretexts to do their jobs.

For example, surveillance investigators may contact an individual’s residence to determine whether the person is home. The surveillance investigator may call the residence and ask for the target person, pretending to be a friend, colleague, or business associate.

They may also call saying they have a delivery for John Smith and want to know when Mr. Smith will be home to sign for the package. An investigator who is looking for someone may call a cell phone to confirm that the number is in fact that of the person sought. In each case, the investigator, when asked, “Who is this?,” is certainly not going to say, “private investigator Danny Jones.” More likely than not, the investigator will use a fabricated name.

So, in these examples, is this pretexting? Technically, yes, because the investigator is using false pretenses to elicit information.

Is it illegal?

In my view, and in the view of many investigators, obtaining “sensitive information” under some form of pretext is troubling and concerning. I’m not a legal expert, but I think you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who has ever been charged for conducting an innocuous investigation such as the ones described immediately above.

There is a gray line here, however. There are lots of techniques used by investigators that are completely unethical but may not be technically illegal; for example, if I called pretending to be a former employee of a company and obtained salary information of the former employee, or if I impersonated a hotel guest to get a copy of a bill or posed as an airline passenger to confirm a flight.

Ethically, I wouldn’t touch those with a 10-foot pole; legally speaking, I am not sure if this crosses the line.

Also, I don’t know an investigator out there who doesn’t have a fake social media profile. That certainly violates terms of service of the social media firm, but the reason investigators typically use a fake profile is to avoid getting caught snooping around. You would cross the line if you were “friending” a target to get nonpublic information or engaging with them to get access to information you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get.

A few years ago, the investigative firm Ergo used a fake-journalist ruse to dig up dirt on an adversary of Uber. Ergo was ripped to shreds by a federal judge overseeing the case, who highlighted a litany of irresponsible and “arguably criminal” acts; however, it doesn’t appear that the company was criminally charged.

Reckless? Careless? Unethical? For sure, but not illegal.

So is pretexting illegal? In certain cases, the answer is absolutely yes. But between that illegal area and the not-so-illegal area, there is a cavernous gray area.

So, where do you draw the line in pretexting?

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Two years ago as of April, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across an upset parent in my local community who was claiming that a private investigator in a white SUV had been parked in front of her house all day. The police were called and confirmed that the person was a private investigator and the reason they were there was totally legitimate.

I found this entertaining for a number of reasons. Even though I haven’t done surveillance in more than 15 years, I actually felt sympathy for the investigator. Where they were parked is a tight-knit community with a lot of kids, so doing surveillance in our town is next to impossible.

The more entertaining part was the local Facebook group, which was up in arms about the whole thing. Hundreds of comments poured in, ranging from “they are just doing their job” to “unnerving and invasive” and “what could they possibly be investigating?” The town assemblyman had even been contacted by dozens of concerned parents. People were also pissed that someone posting a picture of the car on a private Facebook page was putting everyone in the neighborhood “in danger.” And exactly zero people were “impressed” with the investigator, since the entire neighborhood knew he was there.

I had lots of opinions about the topic, but, biting my tongue, I said nothing.

The other bizarre thing was that the surveillance investigator was literally parked on the street where I had lived for a few years. Three doors down, to be exact, with the vehicle pointing in the direction of my old house. I had moved into a new house six months prior, but still, it was curious.

For a few days, I gave it almost no thought.

Then some weird things started happening. I started noticing things. Some random guy appeared outside my gym, and I kept seeing the same vehicles over and over again. Mostly a gray Jeep Grand Cherokee, but other cars too. I wasn’t sure if my mind was just playing games with me.

I recall going home one day only to see that same Jeep Grand Cherokee slowly drive by my house. I live off a main road, and my street is a horseshoe with two entrances to the main road. The entire road has fewer than 15 houses, and I live almost exactly in the middle of the horseshoe, so anyone coming around my neighborhood like that is bizarre. At least bizarre enough that I took down the plate number of the vehicle.

Again, I didn’t think much about it. I really have no reason for anyone to be following me.

Sunday Morning “Chase”

On Sunday, April 29, my daughter had a lacrosse tournament in the cold, pouring rain north of us. Like sideways raining. I told my son that he should come and support his sister. He insisted on wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. It’s not easy talking any sense into a 13-year-old, so I let him be.

About eight minutes into the first game, my son declared he was freezing and wanted to go home. Surprising no one, we left and headed home. I dropped him off in the driveway and immediately turned around to head back to the game. From a distance, I could see that same gray Jeep Grand Cherokee coming around the corner. The car slowly drove by my house.

Bizarre, I thought. I quickly followed him, checked the plate I had written down and confirmed it was the same car I had seen a few days earlier.

It was like a giant flood washed over me. These guys had been following me all along! The weird dude at the gym. The cars I had seen over and over again. The private investigators on my former street. (It only took them a week to figure out I wasn’t living there anymore.)

Frankly, it was nothing that had even entered my mind. In general, I really couldn’t care less. They could do surveillance on me all day, and all they would see is me working 13 hours a day, and in my spare time, hanging out with my family. My work doesn’t really bring me to places where I would put myself or my family in danger. Most of my work is covert, meaning that nobody even knows what I am working on.

At this point, I was fucking angry. I mean, I understand looking into my professional life, but a Sunday morning lacrosse game? What in the world are these guys going to ascertain from that? I do this for a living and, for the life of me, couldn’t think of one thing that a Sunday surveillance might actually accomplish.

So I decided to follow the guy. The car proceeded to head north on the highway, conveniently where my daughter’s lacrosse game was anyway. The car proceeded in the right lane of a three-lane highway, doing about 51 mph in a 65 mph zone. Not suspicious at all.

I called my colleague and asked him to run the vehicle plate. Surprise — the guy was a former police officer.

I had no idea what was going to happen, but I decided to follow him for a bit. After about 15 minutes, he pulled onto a one-lane road and proceeded to start speeding excessively along some winding slick roads. Figuring it was not worth risking my life, I let him go.

In my business, that’s what you call “getting made.” It happens to the best of investigators. Doing surveillance is not easy, and for most investigators, getting made usually signals the point when you give up surveillance, as the person you were doing surveillance on would now be on high alert.

I thought that would be the end of it. I was wrong.

I was slightly comforted by the fact that this guy was a former police officer and private investigator, not a crazy stalker. But nevertheless, why in god’s name would any private investigator worth their salt be investigating another investigator AND on a Sunday morning spending time with the kids?

I thought that would be the end of it.

I was wrong.

The Investigation

I spent the next few days digging through all the information on Facebook, talking to some of my old neighbors and digging up information on the guy who was following me. I was also racking my brain about why on earth anyone would be doing surveillance on me. I had some suspicions, but nothing concrete.

I also bought a slew of outdoor surveillance cameras so I could track people going up and down my street.

I got a copy of the police report, which listed the name of two other individuals who were doing surveillance on my old street. They told the police that they had been in the area for a week and that they were going to be there for several more days. So while I had pity for these guys when I first read about it on the local community page, now I was literally laughing that they were on the wrong street for more than a week. I had moved six months earlier. If they had half a clue, they should have figured that out pretty quickly.

At this point, while I was still on high alert, I felt better that I knew who the guys were, that they were licensed, former NYPD officers and that, hopefully, they weren’t doing anything too stupid. Nevertheless, I took precautions.

I was excited, not only for my niece’s graduation, but I was hoping and praying that these guys would follow me.

At this point, my wife knew what was going on, but my kids didn’t have a clue. I didn’t want to worry them. Although I was pretty sure it was nothing and it was probably over, it wasn’t worth the worry for them.

That week, although we didn’t see the same Jeep Grand Cherokee, other cars were slowly going by the house. At one point, my daughter, who still didn’t have a clue what was going on, noticed a car pass by our house several times and mentioned it to my wife.

Crossing the Line

Friday, May 4, we were getting ready for a 10-hour drive to Virginia. I was excited, not only for my niece’s graduation, but I was hoping and praying that these guys would follow me. Causing someone to pay a few surveillance guys thousands of dollars to follow me to Virginia to watch my niece’s graduation would be a bit of sweet revenge. I had even gone as far as planning on stopping for gas every 250 miles and staying in the slow lane to make sure that they stayed close and didn’t run out of gas.

But it didn’t happen. We got back Sunday night, and as our entire family was sitting in our sunroom, an SUV slowly rolled past our house. My daughter said, “That’s the car that has been stalking us!”

Now I was pissed again. I ran outside as the guy was sitting in the driveway across the street. The house was vacant, so someone sitting in the driveway wasn’t fooling anyone. I snapped a few pictures, and the guy left the area.

I went back to my daughter, who explained that she had seen that car many times, including at her school! That’s a line you don’t cross. I don’t care what the reason is.

Over the next week or two, the same creepy car would roll through our neighborhood. Usually once a day. The person had a very distinct car, too — a customized Honda Ridgeline with chrome all over the place. I guessed they replaced the former NYPD investigators with amateurs. Having a distinct car is a surveillance 101 no-no. The car would drive slowly enough to be noticed, but quickly enough that you couldn’t really do anything about it.

I spoke to the local police, but they couldn’t do anything about it. They weren’t harassing us. Although my kids were freaked out, the investigators weren’t crossing the proverbial line and had not made any contact with us. I had thought about sitting at home for days and following them around, but I didn’t. It wasn’t worth the effort.

Slowly, but surely, the drive-bys stopped, and it all went away.

The Aftermath

Although I had strong suspicions about who was behind this, I ultimately figured out who the investigators were working for. But it really didn’t matter.

What I don’t know is what they were trying to figure out. Or what they could possibly ascertain from surveilling me and my family on a Sunday morning. Or what justification in the world these investigators had for doing surveillance on me.

I just imagined someone calling me to do the same. I can’t think of many good reasons I would take a job doing surveillance on another investigator. It makes me wonder why people in our profession would do something like this.

Ultimately, they gave me and my family a good scare. So if that was their goal, they did a pretty good job.

I take solace in the fact that the person who did this paid thousands upon thousands of dollars for nothing.

I hope it was worth it.

For me, at least I got an 1,800-word blog post out of it.

And a lifetime of stories at cocktail parties.

That’s priceless.

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We have written extensively about the benefits of hiring a private investigator, but there are some inherent risks you may have never thought about.

1Getting Caught

If you are trying to conduct a discreet investigation, such as doing surveillance, there is always a chance that the investigator will get caught red-handed. Similarly, if you are making discreet inquiries, word can always get back to the person you are investigating. Even with the most diligent of planning, it can happen to the best of investigators.

2Unclear Outcome

When you hire an accountant to do your taxes, you expect your taxes to be completed once he is done. But you may spend hundreds or even thousands on a private investigator and you will still be in the same place as you started—with a lack of clarity.

3No Value

You don’t give a bartender $7 and hope she brings you a drink back. But you may have to pay a $1,000 retainer to an investigator and get nothing of value in return.

4Liable for Illegal Actions

There are dozens of examples out there of investigators providing illegal information to their clients, which ultimately got them burned. A few years back, a Massachusetts woman who hired a Virginia private investigator to find hidden assets had her case thrown out because the “evidence” that the private investigator provided on some offshore bank accounts “did not exist and was ‘created’ to turn a profit.”

5Lack of Expertise

Lots of investigators like to be all things to all people, touting their expertise in everything from executive protection to bomb-sniffing dogs to cyber investigations and computer forensics to lie detection and interviewing skills. It’s impossible to be great at everything.

6Lack of Evidence

You may need evidence that your ex is hiding money or that your legal opponent was conspiring with your competition or that certain testimony was false. But sometimes, you have to deal with bad facts, like your ex isn’t hiding money, the competition was conspiring against you, and the testimony was truthful. Unlike the movies, these things don’t always have a happy ending.

7Not Dependable

Investigators are not known as the most reliable group. I know because I have worked with lots of them who aren’t.

8Trust in Methods

There is an inherent trust that you put in an investigator about their methods of conducting an investigation. After all, you can’t be breathing down their neck.

9Secret Sources

Secret sources sound intriguing, but they introduce reliability problems into an investigation. If the secret source can’t be independently vetted or verified, it’s impossible to determine if the information was obtained illegally, through shady methods, or if it’s just a figment of someone’s imagination.

10Faulty Strategy

Part of hiring a good private investigator is coming up with a strategy that aligns with your goals. Having a faulty strategy can doom the case from the start.


If a person is hiring a private investigator directly (not through an attorney), your emails, text messages, reports, surveillance tapes, and memos are not privileged. Hiring a private investigator through an attorney establishes protections via attorney–client privilege and attorney work product. 

12No Support from Attorney

I’ve seen some clients over the years take matters into their own hands and hire a private investigator without support from an attorney. If your attorney is not on board, it’s very likely that you are wasting your time.

13Hiring the Wrong Private Investigator

Having the right tool is imperative to successful completion of the task at hand. Too many problem-solving efforts go awry because you are using the wrong tool for the job. Don’t use the wrong tool.

14Pay for What You Get

Like most professional services, you pay for what you get. So if you are looking for the low-cost option, you are probably going to get a low-cost result.

15Lack of Scope

When I ask clients who are considering doing a background investigation, “What are you looking to find?” and they answer, “Everything!” I know we may have a problem on our hands, in part because finding out “everything” may cost about $150,000. Having a defined scope of work at the outset of an investigation is key to keeping things on track and avoiding surprises down the road.


Are you hiring an investigator who is licensed in your state? Or someone just advertising that they are an investigator? (Check your local states.) Why should you care? Well, you may end up hiring this guy, who was not only running an unlicensed private investigation service but also operating a prostitution ring on the side.

17No Guarantees

When you hire a contractor to fix your roof, you expect it to not leak anymore. But if you hire an investigator, the end result is not guaranteed and you may be back in the same place you were when you started. 

18Specialty Bias

Every investigator has a bias to recommend work that they are good at. So a private investigator who specializes in surveillance may naturally be biased to recommending surveillance, while the task may be best suited for a forensic accountant or an open-source intelligence specialist.

19Telling You What You Want to Hear

I’ve spoken to dozens of potential clients over the years whom I have literally talked out of hiring a private investigator because whatever they were asking us to do was a waste of time and resources. Not every private investigator you talk to is going to talk themselves out of work, though; just be cautious before proceeding. Some will feed you what you want to hear, knowing full well that it’s not going to have a happy ending.

20Negative Publicity

Uber hired private investigators a few years back as part of a “dirt-digging investigation.” Frankly, many big firms do the same every day. The investigation firm Uber hired ended up using some pretty shady tactics. It’s not clear if Uber actually knew what the firm was doing, but nevertheless, the damage had already been done. Hewlett-Packard never recovered from the fallout after they famously hired an investigator who used questionable methods (obtaining telephone records) to spy on its own directors.

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In the era of the internet, finding a long-lost friend or relative often can be done easily and at a low cost. But to locate people who are flying under the digital radar, you may need to use some advanced methods to track them down.

As a last resort, you may need to hire a professional who has the tools, resources and know-how to track down friends or relatives who are more difficult to find.

Before you go down the professional route, here are some tips from someone who has been doing this for 20 years (that’s me!).

Things to Keep in Mind

Here are a few things you should keep in mind.

The more common the person’s name, the more additional information you are going to need in order to locate the person. The proverbial John Smith is going to be much more difficult to find than Kamren Fernsby. While you might be able to find Kamren Fernsby with a few Google searches, finding John Smith with a few Google searches is going to need an act of God.

I frequently see people getting hung up on the spelling of names, where they thought they had a high degree of certainty about the spelling only to be proven wrong. In fact, we are working with a client as I write this who has been trying to find a middle school friend but has been searching for a misspelled name all these years. Don’t be that person. You are human, and people get things wrong all the time. Be conscious of searching under multiple spellings. Also, there’s a chance that the name that you knew the person by may not be the official name (e.g., John Doe might actually be William John Doe) and/or he or she may have changed the name (e.g., through marriage).

This is not going to be easy. You are here reading this blog post for a reason. If it were easy, you probably would have found the person already. I am here to tell you not to give up. It’s 2020 and everyone thinks you should be able to find anyone in a few minutes. That’s just not always the case. If this is really important to you, you are going to have to grind through the process.

Send some emails. Make phone calls. Connect with friends or relatives on social media. The worst that can happen is that you will be no further along than you were at the start.

Last, some people are really hard to find, and locating them will take an enormous amount of time and resources or some professional help.

First Step: Gather Your Facts

Before you begin your search, you need to gather as much information as possible on the subject: full name, middle name, day/month/year of birth, approximate age, schools attended, relatives’ names, profession, addresses, names of friends, jobs held, former employers, etc.

While other information, like physical features, tattoos or shoe size, may come in handy, it isn’t going to be terribly helpful in this phase.

So You Think You Can Google?

You’ve probably heard of Google before ;-), but most searchers don’t really know how to use Google. There are dozens of advanced operators and searches you can try, and there are endless combinations of possibilities for search terms. For the purposes of searching for people, here are some tips: 

“John Doe” – Otherwise known as the exact search, this tells Google to search the exact phrase. It’s critical that you use quotes when searching for exact names or phrases in order to eliminate Google’s guesswork, as Google likes to take a guess at your intent and then gives you results that are not always directly related to your search request if you don’t use quotes.  

“John” “Doe” – This may seem repetitive of the above search, but the above results won’t provide results with John William Doe or John W. Doe. Searching with each word in quotes will return any results containing the two quoted phrases.

“Doe, John” – Many public records, including things like voter rolls, can be listed last name first.

“J. Doe” or “Doe, J.” – Use this just in case the first initial is used instead of the full name. 

“John * Doe” – When you use an asterisk in a search term on Google search, it will leave a placeholder that may be automatically filled by the search engine later. So in this case, you may come up with John Smith Doe or John Kamren Doe.

There are dozens of advanced operators and searches you can try, and there are endless possible combinations. Try using the details collected in the first step along with the name.

Bonus Tip

If you are not finding anything on Google, set up a Google Alert to notify you when something new related to your search is published on the internet.

Bonus Bonus Tip

If you know that the person went to the University of Pennsylvania, you may be able to get a digital copy of the yearbook through the school website. Also, you can do a site-specific search to look for specific mentions of the person you are looking for on the University of Pennsylvania website: site:upenn.edu “john doe”

Google Alternatives

Google is the 800-pound gorilla and still the king of the hill, but there are dozens of other really good search engines, like Bing and DuckDuckGo, and country-specific search engines like Yandex, which is great for Russian-language searches. 

There are also some alternative and specialized search engines, like Runnaroo, which integrates dozens of deep search sources to provide more relevant search results.

Bonus Tip

I love using search engines like millionshort.com, which lets you remove any results from the top one million websites, so you can get some really deep search results that normally wouldn’t show up until page 167 on Google.

Bonus Bonus Tip

If you have an old photo, try uploading it to the Yandex Image search engine. They have a shockingly good facial recognition search engine. It’s a real long shot, but it might be worth a try if you have a photo of the person as a young adult.

Social Media

There were about 3.5 billion social network users in the world and about 2.3 billion users on Facebook as of 2019, so there is a pretty good chance the person you are looking for is on one of the various social media platforms, and the best place to start is probably going to be Facebook.

Virtually all social media sites, including Facebook, have some type of search functionality to search for a person’s name. You also typically can search by phone number, email address and username to varying degrees on each of the platforms. But keep in mind that Facebook users can restrict their names from showing up on public searches. It’s also smart to keep in mind that many people will use a different username or alternative name on their forward-facing profiles.

Bonus Tip

In addition to using the using the built-in search functionality of the biggest social media platforms, you can get some additional results using a site search.

site:facebook.com “John Doe”

site:twitter.com “John Doe”

site:instagram.com “John Doe”

Bonus Bonus Tip

Everyone has heard of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. But don’t forget sites like LinkedIn (professional networking), country-specific social media platforms like VK (Russia) or WeChat (China), popular messaging apps (Telegram, Skype and WhatsApp), niche sites popular with younger generations (TikTok and Snapchat) or one of the dozens of niche social media platforms.

It’s also helpful to remember that not everyone is on social media. While 3.5 billion sounds like a lot, that’s only about 45% of the population, and while 68% are reportedly on Facebook, not all of them can be found on public search engines, and some may be using a different name.

Paid Databases

In the United States, there are a number of available commercial investigative databases that are good at tracking down people IF you have enough information to find them. In fact, we did a review of some of the most popular databases out there (Intelius vs. Spokeo vs. BeenVerified).

Many of these sites make bold claims about how much information they can obtain and their accuracy. Personally, I think it’s a lot of marketing speak and they don’t have a lot to back it up. I say that because I use professional investigative databases that I pay thousands of dollars a month to access, and they have huge holes as well. For example, phone numbers and email addresses are often inaccurate, and address history is really difficult to nail down with any real degree of accuracy without other data to back it up.

That being said, these databases also can be really helpful. If you do end up shelling out some money for these databases, don’t let it go to waste. If they give you 17 different phone numbers, email addresses and physical addresses, write or call each and every one of them. Take notes on the responses to each.

Nobody said it was going to be easy.

Other “Free” and Paid Sites

There are literally hundreds of free sites that could be useful, but here are some sites I have found to be the most valuable resources (paid sites are marked with $):

  • Alumni Networks/Yearbooks – Most schools have some type of alumni network that can help you connect with a former classmate. Many colleges and universities post old yearbooks on their respective websites. Archive.org also has a massive collection of old yearbooks.
  • Archive.org – Do you know, for example, that in 2002, the person you are looking for was the owner or an executive of a small business or the owner of a website? While the website and the business might be long gone, you can check Archive.org, for any pages captured back during that time period that might help provide some details about the person’s background. 
  • SearchSystems.net – This is a guide to over 70,000 public record databases across the country, including county clerk websites, criminal repositories, civil litigation searches and real-property records. 
  • Ancestry.com ($) – This site can assist you with finding historical records like marriage records, census records, old phone directories, military records and the like. Much of the information on Ancestry is more than 30 years old. 
  • Newspapers.com ($) – This is a great source of old newspaper clippings.

Last Resort

Even with all of these resources, there’s a chance that you may not find the person you are looking for. We’ve had cases in which we spent weeks tracking down a homeless man in New York City and another in which we ultimately found a birth mother living off the grid in a trailer in Oregon. While these results are more the exception rather than the rule, they do happen.

If you are at the end of your rope, you may be ready to hire a professional. Certain cases are just best suited for a professional, someone who does this on a daily basis and can give you an honest assessment of what can be done.

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Last week, the San Francisco 49ers played the Cleveland Browns in Monday Night Football. It was a pretty unremarkable game (the 49ers won 31 to 3).

But what happened after the game was more interesting.

Richard Sherman, the outspoken cornerback of the 49ers, called out the Browns’ controversial quarterback for his “bush league” act before the game. In a postgame interview, Sherman said that Mayfield snubbed him during Monday’s pregame handshake.

“What’s amazing—and annoying—was him not shaking hands at the beginning,” Sherman said Monday night, according to NFL.com. “That’s some college s—. It’s ridiculous. We’re all trying to get psyched up, but shaking hands with your opponent—that’s NFL etiquette. And when you pull bush league stuff, that’s disrespectful to the game. And believe me, that’s gonna get us fired up.”

The snub obviously fueled Sherman, who had an interception, and the 49ers defense in holding the Browns to three points.

But the next day, video surfaced that showed Mayfield slapping hands with Sherman before the coin toss, then running to his sideline after the referee picked up the coin.

The following day, Sherman said he would apologize, saying that “sometimes you remember things a little differently than it happened” but “obviously, it still motivated me the same way.”

I don’t think Sherman was lying when he originally recounted the snub. After all, millions of people watch Monday Night Football, and cameras would have been sure to catch the snub. And it was only a few hours after the incident, so time was certainly not a factor for his memory to have gone sideways.

But Sherman clearly had a bias and an agenda (to get motivated) and misremembered the story to get himself fired up.

That’s totally cool, but it’s just a good reminder that you can’t always rely on one person’s word.

Especially when it can be confirmed or denied through other sources.

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This week, Ronan Farrow, the investigative reporter, published a three-part series (read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here) on the Israel-based “intelligence firm” Black Cube, whom Farrow had some run-ins with while exposing Harvey Weinstein.

It’s a pretty captivating story if you are into espionage, spies, surveillance, intrigue, counterintelligence, spooks, and snooping—or if you just have a pulse. ;)  

This has been a huge personal interest story for me over the years that Farrow and others have been writing about Black Cube in part because of their shady tactics and Hollywood-style bravado. [I’d bet my life there will be a movie about them in a few years.]

Another point of interest is that I have personally spoken to Black Cube. While my discussions with them were completely cordial and above-board, I can recall pretty vividly how suspect I was of the firm, even from a few brief emails and telephone calls. In addition, I have had contact with a few other people mentioned in the story.

As a private investigator for nearly 20 years, I was at times shocked, partly saddened, but mostly captivated by the stories in the articles. I’ve already preordered Farrow’s book (you can order Catch and Kill here), as I am sure that will bring more shock and awe.

So, here are some observations.

“That Only Happens on TV”

Private investigators suffer from a perception problem (Hint: 95 percent of the people we polled think that private investigators break the law and are “shady.”) Despite discussing openly all of the things that our firm won’t do under any circumstances, we constantly get inquiries about those same things. We’ve been asked to break into an apartment and steal tax returns. We get asked frequently to hack into emails and get telephone records or the location of a cell phone.

Most of the time, I answer these inquiries with some form of “you have been watching too much TV. That’s just not reality.”

But then, Black Cube went and ruined that.

They used ruses, fake websites, false identities, cell phone tracking, and disguises. I get that this stuff happens in the high stakes game of world politics. Or arms dealing. Or drug lords.

But really? This happens in our industry?

But here is the reality.

I have worked with dozens of other firms in the industry. Some of the best and the brightest that this business has to offer. I’ve worked on cases that have been front cover of major newspapers.

Exactly zero of them would have used any of the tactics described in these articles.

So does one bad apple spoil the bunch? Sure.

But this is not an isolated incident…

An Industry in Desperate Need of Some Sunshine

There is an enormous amount of skepticism about the investigation industry. Frankly, it’s a reputation well-deserved.

I just posted a blog last week about three separate front-page news stories involving private investigators who use sketchy tactics. And there are a lot more stories of private investigators being sentenced for making false pretext calls to get personal banking information, a private investigator having sex with a prisoner, and scrutiny about private investigators receiving DMV data.

That was just in the month of September.

Our industry can use a whole hell of a lot of sunshine.


Back in May 2019, a former TV personality private investigator was jailed for promoting prostitution and unlawful surveillance for enticing a man into having sex with prostitutes at a Sunset Park hotel—and then surreptitiously recording the sex acts.

You just can’t make this stuff up.

As Cath (@drowsygeek) said on Twitter, our industry can use a whole hell of a lot of sunshine.

Yes, we can use a who lot of sunshine…and rainbows, butterflies and unicorns too.

Results-oriented Business

If you hire a contractor to build you a house, at the end of the day, you expect a house to be built.

If you hire an accountant to help you file your tax return, you expect your taxes to be completed.

Or if you hire a software engineer to help you produce a piece of software, one would expect a piece of working software at the end.

But if you hire a private investigator to, for example, follow someone that you believe is meeting with some people that you might have an interest in, and you need to follow that person in a city of millions of people under difficult circumstances without being caught, lots of things can go wrong.

The surveillance investigator might lose the person they are following or get caught, or the target might go into a place where they can’t be followed, or simply not meet up with the people they are suspected of meeting. And what you might have thought would cost a few thousand dollars, ends up costing tens of thousands of dollars to do properly. And even done properly, everything might go to hell.

Each of those scenarios brings disappointment to the client.

So what do some investigators do to mitigate their failing results?

They might cheat by resorting to not-so-savory tactics. They might start putting GPS devices on the cars they are following (see stories here, here and here). Track cell phones. Try to hack a computer.

I’ve heard of surveillance investigators letting the air out of the tires of those collecting disability to see if they can change a tire.

There are private investigators who will pretext a bank by providing a Social Security number, date of birth, and other personally identifiable information to a bank to convince them that they are a particular individual in order to get their bank account information.

Investigators get judged by their results, not their efforts. But we don’t always have control over the results of our investigations.

It’s frustrating. Exhausting. Dispiriting.

Which brings out the cheaters.

Leave the Bonus Fees to Wall Street

One of the striking stories that came out of these articles was bonus fees tied to certain objectives. First, in New York, where we are licensed, “success fees” and bonuses are not allowed.

Success fees and bonuses encourage bias and behaviors that may not be aboveboard.

Imagine paying an investigator when he was able to come up with evidence that helped support his client.

What kind of biases and/or moral, ethical, and legal behavior do you think that would encourage?

If you ever hear of paying a private investigator suggesting a bonus, run.


There has been quite a bit of talk about whistleblowers over the past few years, and particularly recently.

This story would not have even been a story if it weren’t for at least two whistleblowers. One appears to be a Black Cube employee who was fed up with Black Cube’s “false and devious ways of obtaining material illegally” that the whistleblower, as a woman, was “ashamed for participating” in the acts by helping Harvey Weinstein.

The other is a New York private investigator who feared he was on the wrong side of the law.

These whistleblowers were motivated by professional ethics and faith in humanity. The reality is that whistleblowers shed light on pressing issues that directly affect all of us. Some call them leakers. Some believe they are disloyal, disgruntled, or even traitorous. Some question their motives.

To me, however, someone who is willing to risk everything to expose something so blatantly wrong is a freaking hero.

Hopefully it will shed some light on this business too.

Final Thoughts

Maybe I am naïve to think that this stuff doesn’t happen all the time.

Maybe I live in some idyllic world where the truth will always come out.

Or that reasonable people will always act ethically, morally, and within the law.

And maybe Black Cube is just eating up every bit of this press, since there are businesses who believe that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

As for me, I hope that this story gives all of us in this industry a chance to take a hard look in the mirror.

Before it all crumbles around us.

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