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Ever since I started in this business more than 10 years ago, I have been fascinated by people’s perception of what private investigators do.

It seems that years of television and movies have warped any true sense of what a private investigator really does.

When I am first introduced to someone and tell them what I do for a living, I’m usually met with some oohs and ahs.

Then I am asked if I do stakeouts on cheating spouses (I don’t), or if I could tell them how much money was in so-and-so’s bank account (I can’t … it’s illegal). Or they’ll tell me they think I know everything about them even though I’ve never met them before (I don’t, but I guess I could if I really needed to).

Can You Break the Law for Us?

We get inquiries all the time from people who want us to do something that’s against the law.

Like break into someone’s house to steal tax returns, or hack into someone’s computer and read their emails, or even just access someone’s telephone records. In case you are wondering, none of these can be done without breaking some sort of law (unless we get the subject’s permission, of course).

Alternatively, we get asked to do something that can only be done in movies. Recently I was asked if I could conduct facial recognition scanning to determine whether a particular person has ever starred in any pornography films under a false name. Nope, can’t do that either.

What Is the Public Perception of Private Investigators?

I wanted to see what the general population thinks about private investigators, so I turned to Google Consumer Surveys.

There were two main questions that I wanted to gain more insight into. I wanted to know whether people think that private investigators abide by the law and I wanted to see what term people would use to best describe a private investigator.

It turns out that my limited view of what people think about private investigators was true.

The overwhelming majority of respondents — 94.6% — think private investigators break the law at least some of the time.

And 20% of respondents said private investigators never abide by the law.

On a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being that private investigators never abide by the law and 7 being that they always abide by the law, 81% of people voted 4 or lower.

There was still some hope.

The second question randomly displayed six terms. People were asked which of the six terms — law abiding, skillful, resourceful, honest, shady or unprincipled — best described a private investigator. Respondents were allowed to pick only one.

The most popular answer was “resourceful,” with 36%.

Finally, a shining light.

But the second most popular was “shady,” with 21.3%.

“Law abiding” and “honest” came in next-to-last and last, respectively.

Investigators Have an Image Problem

Of course, this is not a scientific study. We could probably have used some better terms to describe a private investigator. Or better choices to indicate whether private investigators abide by the law.  You can certainly look at both of these in a completely different light.

But regardless of how you slice it, private investigators have an image problem.

Do other industries have image problems? Absolutely. Investigators are certainly not the only ones.

Look at Wall Street. Or the U.S. Congress, whose 9% favorability rating ranks below such things as colonoscopies and root canals.

Is the Perception a Reality?

Is perception always reality? Absolutely not. But in the case of private investigators … maybe.

From where I stand, I can see lots of investigators who like to perpetuate the mysterious, secretive, shady, working-on-the-edge-of-the-law mystique. I personally know investigators who work in that vast grey area.

We aren’t among them.

We’ve built a company around being transparent, legal and ethical. Even a whiff of any unscrupulous behavior might undermine a client’s best interest, our reputation and our license.

But I guess a transparent, legal and ethical private investigator is not as sexy as a mysterious, Ferrari-driving, pipe-smoking, living-on-the-edge renegade.

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11 replies
  1. David Childe
    David Childe says:

    This goes to show that working for the public is generally not going to pan out into a successful PI business. They have no clue what we do or who we do it. Without working under the umbrella of an attorney with an active or soon-to-be active case, we don’t have the same protections.

    Working for a business is better than working for the general public. You can have an in-house attorney to consult with and to get backing from.

    The morale here is to build your business with attorneys. It is what they think of you that matters.

    I would like to see a similar survey with attorneys as the respondents.

  2. Anonymous PI
    Anonymous PI says:

    I’ve stopped counting the number of times I’ve been blatantly asked to break the law.

    I don’t mind being asked. I do mind not being offered bags of money when they do.

    It seems not only do individuals have a negative perception of PIs, they also think we are cheap!

  3. Scott Ross
    Scott Ross says:

    Great story. I’m in a murder trial as we speak (write). I subpoenaed a witness who, after being told I was with the defense and a PI, said he was not coming to court unless the investigating (police) officer calls him and tells him he needs to come to court. He said “You’re a PI, I don’t believe you when you say I have to be there.”

    I explained he was served with a subpoena and really has no choice. He didn’t care. I advised the judge of the issue who was happy and prepared to send the bailiff to hook him up. My defense attorney talked to him so we would not have to take the aggressive posture. He eventually did come in and testify and it all worked out.

    Oh, by the way, he is a civilian employee of the LA County Sheriff.

  4. Wayne Mortensen
    Wayne Mortensen says:

    A agree, I stopped working for the general public and limit my business to other businesses and government agencies. I also was being asked to “break peoples legs” and engage in other illegal activities. I also found that a number of people who wanted me to find others lied about the reasons and had restraining orders. I believe we need to be more restrictive on the requirements to become a private investigator and increase continuing education requirements. People are asking these things becouse others have done them for them . We need to become more of a profession and have professional people.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      I like the idea of continuing education requirements, Wayne. I know a number of states have requirements, but New York, for example does not. Especially with the constantly changing legal requirements and laws with things like privacy, GPS, etc.

      Changing perception requires a group effort; we all need to pitch in to raise the overall perception.

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