When I tell people that I am a private investigator, nine times out of ten the envision the “‘snooping’ type who sits in a car, drinking black coffee, smoking cigarettes and chasing unfaithful spouses.” That’s not what I do.

The investigative world has been turned upside down over the last 15 or so years. A new breed of private investigators has emerged: investigators with research skills to find information that other people cannot, who search through the depths of the Web, investigative databases, government repositories, public records and court filings.

I like to say that I’ve been undergoing on-the-job-training for the last 10 years. There are no textbooks for what I do. I make it up as I go along and have learned mostly by doing and learning from others. Having some basic knowledge on how to find information is critical, but almost everything I do on a daily basis requires knowledge gained through various means.

Here is an article that I wrote for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners about the things you don’t learn from books.

This post originally appeared on ACFE Insights, a blog run by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.

4 Things Textbooks Can’t Teach You about Investigation

I am a private investigator — not the “snooping” type who sits in a car, drinking black coffee, smoking cigarettes and chasing unfaithful spouses. Gone are the trench coats, “secret sources” and back-alley handshakes. I am a 21st-century PI who gathers information, analyzes it and then turns that information into something useful. My job is to find information legally and ethically. Keeping up with ever-changing technology is just as much a part of my everyday life as understanding how to get audited financial statements from a broker-dealer. (In case you are wondering, in the U.S. you can send an FOIA request to the SEC for the X-17A.)

There are no textbooks for what I do. I make it up as I go along, and I have learned mostly by doing. While books and research have taught me many things, I just could not learn everything from them. Here are a few things I didn’t learn from textbooks (your experience may vary):

1Frame of Mind

When I first started in this business, I quickly realized that investigators thought differently. Most people trust their senses and believe what they hear or see; investigators don’t. They are skeptical and do not believe much of anything without proof. But, they aren’t just skeptical. They also have a different frame of mind when approaching investigations. Strong investigators know there is something out there for them to find — they just need to find it.


After more than 10 years doing this work, I can spot the characteristics of an embellisher, a fraudster or people who I would simply avoid from a mile away. I have been asked to share my thoughts on boyfriends or girlfriends (I have about a 98.2 percent success rate in relationship advice). You develop an instinct for these things. At first, I was so involved in the mechanics of what I was doing that I couldn’t see the forest through the trees. Now I can see the forest and the trees.


“I’ve been in this business for 35 years!” Sound familiar? People like to pull the “experience card” as a compelling reason why they are good investigators. You will never hear me say that. While experience is helpful in any business, it will not get you anywhere unless you can use the wisdom and knowledge learned through that experience to be better at what you do. Experience will teach you when to go down a certain path or change the direction of an investigation, and it will tell you where to look and the right questions to ask.


People in their 20s think they know everything. I certainly did. I see it often in new investigators, too. Confidence is not only believing in yourself; it’s also being able to admit that you don’t know everything. Be humble. If you think you know it all, you are going to be out of this business as quickly as you came in. I don’t know everything… and neither do you. So go ahead and read some more textbooks.

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4 replies
  1. Emily Webb
    Emily Webb says:

    Stumbled across this article while doing research on a client. What an excellent peek into the modern world of the P.I. Thanks for sharing your authoritative insights on this misunderstood career!

  2. Greg Martinez
    Greg Martinez says:


    I trained a few NY state investigators over the years, & something I impressed on them was that being an investigator is a daily learning experience. Even though I was their supervisor, and was an investigator for decades, I admitted to them that I was still learning. Investigators are students for the rest of their lives.

  3. mm
    mm says:

    Sounds kind of like something I’ve read: Wisdom is a combination of knowledge, intuition, and experience in the right amounts.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Well put…it’s really no different than many aspects of the rest of our lives.

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