After the Pandemic: The One Thing Private Investigators Must Do

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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4 replies
  1. Fred Jones
    Fred Jones says:

    Hi Brian, Good comments. Regarding interviews I too like in person for body language and other signs. However that has changed abruptly. I have done phone interviews that are working out quit well. Many people are working from home and don’t have any personal contact. I find them very chatty if you approach them right. ie: Hi I’m a private investigator and I was hoping you could help me out on a matter I’m working on”. I always try to get them to talk about themselves first, that usually breaks down any aprehentions they may have.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      The majority of the interview work I have done has always been by telephone, so that doesn’t surprise me. Ideally, it’s always better to visit the person, but this may be the new normal. And I don’t think it changes the game all that much…

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