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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn by Doing

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

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

Keep Up With Trends

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

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

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

Read Books

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

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

How to Find Out Anything, by Don MacLeod

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

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

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

Write About It

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

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

Only then is it forever etched in my memory.

Find Mentors

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

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

Attend Industry Conferences

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

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

Take a Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts…

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

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


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7 replies
  1. Paul Chambers
    Paul Chambers says:

    If you are in NY, Defense Investigator training is available. We try to provide practical and useful information which can be applied immediately.
    EVENT: Interviewing Witnesses – plus Give PEACE a chance! A new approach to investigative interviewing.
    Presented by the New York State Defenders Association and Ontario County Public Defender’s Office

    DATE:Friday, October 21st and Saturday October 22nd 2016
    LOCATION: Ontario County Safety Training Facility 2914 County Rd 48, Canandaigua NY 14424 – paul.chambers@co.ontario.ny.us

  2. Jackie Phillips
    Jackie Phillips says:

    I saw that California is not on the list of states that approve your training. Any chance that will change?

  3. Manchester detective agency
    Manchester detective agency says:

    Learn by doing, practice, speak to other people in the industry, discuss cases and methods. All great ways to learn.
    In the Uk most agencies are 1 or 2 man teams, who are usually self employed. I think this leads to many investigators to miss out on continuing professional development.
    Like many walks of life the industry moves quick. I think having a target of a minimum number of courses over a year to aid development is crucial, particularly in areas where you may not get much practice and therefore experience.

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