There are a number of misconceptions about what a professional private investigator can legally obtain. These myths may begin with your matrimonial client’s insistence that her husband has secret bank account, or your colleague has boasted about how his investigators found the smoking gun in the opponent’s phone records, or it’s possible that you picked up some ideas from the latest corporate espionage page-turner…

No matter what the reason, you need the information and you need it now! So why can’t your private investigator get it for you?  Typically, there are two reasons for this:

  • First, the information may be private and protected by either state or federal statute. In this case, your investigator may be able to identify where the information is located. Location is extremely useful information for leverage in negotiations, future subpoena requests, or discovery motions. In some cases (e.g. employment or insurance fraud investigations), you may have a previously-signed release from the subject that will allow you to access this private information.
  • The second reason is that the information simply doesn’t exist. The information may not be compiled into a single database or a comprehensive format. An investigator may ultimately be able to obtain the information, but the process isn’t as simple as you might think.

The 5 biggest misconceptions by clients involve private investigators’ access to the following:

1Banking and Financial Records

There are two things to consider here – where are the accounts and can we gain access to account-specific information?

First, there is no comprehensive registry of bank accounts in the United States and identifying undisclosed or hidden accounts is no small feat.

A seasoned investigator may be able to identify accounts linked to an individual through interviews, public records searches, or other legitimate investigative techniques. Once accounts are identified, legally obtaining account-specific information is nearly impossible without a court order or the consent of the account holder.

The Gramm-Leach Bliley Act, passed in 1999, imposed strict penalties for individuals who obtain information about a third party account through pretext or deceit.  Check out Fred Abrams, Esq. post on Violating Federal Law In Asset Search for a great case study.

Dig Deeper: Can a Private Investigator Get Bank Records or Account Information?

2Telephone Records

Telephone records are private and third party access is restricted by a host of state and federal statutes, including the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006.

Similar to bank records, an investigator can use legitimate tools to try to identify the telephone carrier for a particular phone number or individual.

There are a number of online tools that allow you to input part of a phone number to determine the carrier (e.g. www.phonefinder.com). However, those cannot be completely relied upon for accurate information, particularly in today’s age of portable cell phone numbers, Skype, and Voice over Internet Protocols (VoIP).

Dig Deeper: Can a Private Investigator Get Phone Records? or Can a Private Investigator Get Cell Phone Records?

3Credit Information

In recent years, the federal government has placed a number of restrictions on the ability of third parties to access and use credit information.

Most important here is The Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) and subsequent amendments.

FCRA not only restricts how a third party can obtain credit information about an individual, but it also places requirements on third parties to make certain notifications to individuals when certain actions (including employment decisions) are taken using that information.

Dig Deeper: Can a Private Investigator Get a Credit Report?

4Nationwide Criminal Records

The closest thing to a nationwide criminal records check in the United States today is the National Criminal Information Center (“NCIC”) database.

Access to this database is strictly limited to law enforcement agencies and authorized criminal justice organizations; private investigators and information brokers do not have access to its contents.

Dig Deeper: The Truth About Access to National Criminal Records

5Comprehensive Individual Profile

Type “background investigation” into Google and you’re sure to be bombarded with claims of “Only $19.99 for a complete background check!” or “$14.95 for instant background investigations!”

Such claims are dangerously overstated – it’s virtually impossible feat. Buyers beware…these bargain sites generally just pull together information from various online sources.

They are not comprehensive and miss many online public records (not to mention those records that haven’t yet made it out of the courthouses and onto the web!).

Whatever information is provided in the “investigation” is frequently filled with inaccuracies and extraneous details.

Dig Deeper: Professional Background Check v. Free Background Check

Guide to Hiring a Private Investigator

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66 replies
  1. tanya
    tanya says:

    If my husband and I have a joint email address, and I found that he deleted emails proving he was having an online affair from that email. Can a PI recover those deleted emails? Does he have to know that those emails are being recovered?

  2. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    My ex husband, I believe received a settlement for an injury on the job. Recently, he took himself off of worker’s compensation, started his own church and purchased 2 vehicles. We go back to court in October, now he has no income, is there a way I can obtain a financial background check the point to where his money is and then subpoena those accounts or organizations? How can I do this? I forgot to mention that we are in court for child support.

  3. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    My ex husband, I believe received a settlement for an injury on the job. Recently, he took himself off of worker’s compensation, started his own church and purchased 2 vehicles. We go back to court in October, now he has no income, is there a way I can obtain a financial background check the point to where his money is and then subpoena those accounts or organizations? How can I do this?

  4. Jay
    Jay says:

    My wife claims that she has a PI that downloaded all my text messages,website data etc. from my phone pertaining to an affair that I admitted to. She says she is getting texts that have been deleted as well as background info bank account info as well. The person who is the PI is ex-FBI apparently. My question is: is any of this possible and legal without my consent? I gave my wife my phone because she said she was going to have is checked for any bugs or tracking device put on by girl I had affair with

  5. Vick
    Vick says:

    Is it legal for me to hire a PI to find out if my EX has a new boyfriend since she claims she wants to get back together and claims to be single still and to have stayed single since our break up can I hire a PI to find out if this is true before I try a relationship with her again, I just don’t want to waste my time if she is lying

  6. Dawn
    Dawn says:

    I am dating a man that has been in divorce court for about 2 1/2 yrs and she hired a PI to investigate me to find out where I lived since he and there kids come and stay on the weekends and sometimes a day or 2 in the week every once in a while. what are MY rights in this matter? I feel violated! Why investigate me? I saw the file and it clearly shows they went to great depths to investigate me.. goes back about 10 years and shows my last 4 residences! What can I do? Can i file stalking charges? How do I know she isn’t driving by my house all hours and how do I know if I’m safe now? Please help!

  7. Kandice Williams
    Kandice Williams says:

    Today I heard my brother’s crazy girlfriend say her mom has an PI following my family. Is there anything I can do if a PI really is following me? I have done nothing wrong and I feel like me and my daughter’s safety is in jeopardy.

  8. Sam
    Sam says:

    May I ask if a private investigator are allowed to interview a few neighbours of mine about possibly MY personal information? (How much would this cost?)
    Also do private investigators have access to police data records? Or do they at least collaborate?

  9. Sebrina
    Sebrina says:

    Can I hire an investigator to find out who is harassing my husband and I someone is calling his job saying things that are not true and they are following us totally harassment someone is trying to distroy us and I really need to find out who it’s been 3 years of torture

  10. Angie
    Angie says:

    My son was at a party at his friend’s home last year where a girl claimed she had been raped. My son gave a statement at the police station about what he knew of the events which wasn’t much since he wasn’t in the room to see it occur. A few weeks later, he was contacted by a PI for the defense. My son spoke with him once and now he won’t leave him alone. He claims he needs his text records from that week and that my son will have to appear with hom at the hearing. He calls him nearly every day. My son has not been subpoenaed to appear. What should he do? I thought about calling the prosecutor to see what my son’s responsibilities are here.

  11. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Hello, I was recently pulled into the office at work and the pi had me confess to violating company discount policy, which I did a few months back. He then accused me of stealing from the store and wouldn’t stop asking if I did, I felt harassed in a way because I have never stole anything and I told him that but he kept on asking. Are pi’s allowed to do that? Also I had to write down a statement for the company and he told me to write down that he had treated me fairly and since I was afraid if didn’t write that down I would some how lose my job I wrote it down. Is that also something they could do?

  12. Johnathon
    Johnathon says:

    Is a PI allowed to investigate you because the person that hired them is an angry and jealous, psychopathic ex boyfriend , they watch their house and follow them to restaurants , basketball games and such , there has to be something to know for sure if there is actually someone I would say harassing this family for over 3 years now

    • Bobbie Charles Davies
      Bobbie Charles Davies says:

      I am not quite sure if I have this right. You are asking if a PI can be hired by a man to investigate his ex?
      The short answer is legally, yes he can.
      That said, the investigator would be unlikely to take a case if the man said he was angry, jealous, or psychopathic and so wanted the investigator to terrorize the ex. That would very probably not be the rational given for an investigation. The legal ramifications boggle the mind.
      Unless the ex is as rich as a small country, it would also be highly unlikely that he would have an investigator staking out their home and following them around for three years.
      I am guessing that you are saying that an investigator is doing so now and that the ex has been harassing the ex for three years. How do you know that an investigation is taking place or who the client is?
      You used the word family. Do the man and ex have children together? Is there a custody issue? Investigations based on custody battles are quite common and legal. Are there unresolved financial, property, or familial issues, again quite common and legal.
      If the ex feels harassed, and there is a potential for danger, especially if there is potential danger to children, you should RUN not walk to the police, potentially an attorney, and the courts and seek assistance regarding any threat posed by the ex. Stalking is illegal. Harassment is a grey area but if there is a fear of harm a restraining order should be sought.

  13. biff
    biff says:

    Do private investigators engage in harassment of workers comp clients if they are required to find out specific information that would be otherwise hard to find if the injured person was bedridden or something like that? Ie: talking to neighbors and filling them in on the case details and private information and asking them to spy on their neighbor for money? I have read this elsewhere in a few places but would like your take on it.

  14. Candy
    Candy says:

    My husband drinks and drives (literally) all the time. I’ve called the counties nearby along with city agencies to be on the look out for him numerous times, yet he is still able to stumble in the house every night. It is absolutely unbelievable he has not had a DUI yet or killed somebody. Can I hire a PI to follow him and call the police as an anonymous citizen? My husband is an alcoholic and he really needs to hit rock bottom before he puts himself or someone else 6′ under.

    • Jonathan Noel
      Jonathan Noel says:

      Yes this is very possible to do so.
      I did a similar case back in 2013 where
      The said subject was going to his car to drink while he was under restriction by order of the court. To say the least we had accrued evidence to support my clients concerns, and she won the case. This would be very similar, except dangerous, and risky, the aime would be to try to obtain evidence before he could turn the key.

    • Jimmy
      Jimmy says:

      Yes we can help. It’s not uncommon for law enforcement to ignore a call by a spouse or friend about DUI, suspended license…They will tell you that they would have to witness it themselves.

      But I’ve work cases that are like yours so if you want to contact me I’ll be glad to help you.

      Jimmy Maheux

      Lead Investigator


  15. Olivia
    Olivia says:

    Can a private investigator obtain flight information to know if a person boarded a plane?

  16. Andres
    Andres says:

    I’m currently a PI in IL. Is it illegal for a PI to obtain video outside of the subjects house where the residence is located in a Private road. I’m afraid of the video evidence being inadmissible I’m court do to it being obtained in a private road.

  17. Mark
    Mark says:

    Can deleted sent/received text messages be recovered as evidence by a private investigator in NY State?

  18. Wendy Marie
    Wendy Marie says:

    Hi! Great info. here! My question is, if a PI finds out that the client actually has a restraining order against them and they were hired to do surveillance on the victim, are they still obligated to provide all of their findings to their client? I am extremely concerned that impounded information on my whereabouts or that of my children has been compromised if the information was given to this person. Do you just go by the word of someone who says that they do not have any restraining orders against them or is there a way to confirm this? Thanks for your help!

    • Melanie
      Melanie says:

      I need to know this too. If a P.I is hired to allocate an address because client is claiming its for custody, is there some form of protocol a P.I must take before allocating the address and providing client the address. In short, if a woman- subject A, has been the victim of domestic violence and the D.A has recorded information that the lady is indeed a victim of abuse…and then batterer- subject B, walks into a P.I’s office with custody papers he wants served to the woman he battered twelve months prior, is a P.I not obligated to run a quick check first, that the information they are about to convey to their client subject B, would not be putting the Subject A and her children’s lives and safety at risk?
      And I am not asking about restraining orders etc because a R/O is NOT A shield to murder. I am just wondering if it’s legal for the P.I to just hand out Subject A’s address simply because the price paid by Subject B was right or must P.I search a database etc first, to establish if Subject A is indeed recorded somewhere as having been a victim, and a victim of attempted murder etc? Irrelevant of R/O or court orders or whether or not Subject B ever faced criminal charges or even an arrest- I’m wondering if a protocol exists what with us now living in a generation fearful of terrorism, it seems a little odd to me that a P.I be allowed to walk around a neighborhood armed and informing batterers of their victims addresses etc. Should this happen, who would Subject A need to inform, as in- is this a crime on P.I’s part or completely legal to not do any form a background check on the situation?

  19. Shae Soto
    Shae Soto says:

    Can a private investigator retrieve deleted facebook messages? The proof would really help my case. I tried looking online for request of the full profile data, or using retrieval tools but they are all dead end.

  20. Brian
    Brian says:

    I’m currently separated and believe my wife was having an affair and know for sure she’s sleeping with someone now. I have a restraining order against me stating no contact indirectly or directly. Can I hire a PI so can show infidelity to the courts? If not, what other options do I have to show the adultery?

  21. Renee
    Renee says:

    I was issued a subpoena to appear in court for a divorce trial. I am happy to testify but I am very nervous about cross-examination. The law firm is a large one and probably has access to a PI. Do I have to worry about personal things like emails, affairs, and such being brought up to discredit me? How much do you think a PI would look into such matters for a small civil court divorce?

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Depending on how critical your testimony is, it is very possible that the law firm would hire a private investigator and how deeply they would look into your past. I would say that access to things like emails would be forbidden unless there was a court order.

  22. Todd
    Todd says:

    My question is in regards to military information showing up on a background check I had a PI do. The person states that they were in the military for 28 years. Upon my check there were many addresses that showed up. None of which were any military base po box or address. The PI said he would have to believe that this person was not in the military because of this. Is that a reasonable assessment or is it possible he could have existed in the military that long with no trace of it showing up?

  23. Phil
    Phil says:

    I’m trying to find out if someone is married in a State where vital records only releases that information to immediate family. Do you know if accurint, Transunion, etc. would have that information and if not, any suggestions on how to go about “legally” confirming if this individual is married or not?

  24. Amy
    Amy says:

    I have heard private investigators are researching voy boards…can they find out who wrote what on these kind of boards and where these people are located? If so how much would this service cost?

  25. Frank Morales
    Frank Morales says:

    I let some guy borrow $10,000 at a casino. He promised to pay me back and its been 2 months since I lent him the money and I havent recieved a dollar. Can I hire someone to legally collect the money for me?

  26. Ainsley Wolk
    Ainsley Wolk says:

    Firstly I compliment you on a fantastic site! My question is can a PI get facebook to give them ip addresses of users in order to find out who they are and where they live? I thought the security act was good on Facebook, but I’ve been hearing differently from some people.

  27. Susan
    Susan says:

    Is there a way to look at my husband’s work computer and see the history or what is saved on it?

  28. Elle
    Elle says:

    Question. Divorcing. Husband has deferred income through supposed loans in friend ‘s company in another state. Also overseas contracts . All this we know but can not prove it. Can a PI help ?

  29. Caryl Anne
    Caryl Anne says:

    I’m glad you broke down these myths! There are a lot of legal issues a PI has to follow, and sometimes it can restrict them to certain methods, etc. However, in my opinion, it shows how creative a PI can get without breaking the law. Thanks for sharing!

  30. Sarah hill
    Sarah hill says:

    Recently someone told me he hired a PI and said they could get into my Facebook account and read my private messages, and also read deleted messages. Is this true? Also, he said they could read my text messages to find out information just by knowing my cell number. Is this even legal?

  31. Deborah
    Deborah says:

    I received a strange call from an investigator claiming my previous tenants where under investigation for bank fraud. They provided me with a case number. They would not give me the name of their company. I didn’t trust it and wouldn’t give them any personal information about my previous tenants. Does an investigator have to tell you which company they are affiliated with?

  32. Emily Nineveh
    Emily Nineveh says:

    Hello there! My husband has a friend who is a private investigator and I am always thinking he is hiring this person to always check up on me. My question: Can this private investigator access my text messages or my work computer in any way? I mean, could she enter an IP address by an email I have sent to my husband from work and obtain info about my searches that are conducted through my work computer? Can she check my texts just by knowing my cell phone number? HELP!

  33. Carolyn
    Carolyn says:

    I am involved in a custody case where the other party (my son’s grandparents) admitted that they hired a PI and got transcripts of my text messages (they actually told me personal things that they read.) They told me they were sorry and that their lawyer advised them to do it. I also have a witness to this (counselor was present during the conversation). Is this legal? What can I do? Can I sue their lawyer? Can I find out who the PI was and sue him? I feel so violated :(

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Neither a private investigator, nor anyone else for that matter, can obtain a copy of your text messages without violating some sort of the law, unless the account was somehow in your son’s grandparent’s name which does not appear to be the case here.

  34. Lisa Brown
    Lisa Brown says:

    Somehow this gal who has a friend who is a Private Investigator got all this personal info on me, my address home phone number and I think banking info? All they had was my cellphone number and if you type that in nothing comes up on me. I’m wondering how they got all this info? Can you do a search on me on whatever’s supposed to be available to P.I.’s and tell me what comes up? What do you charge for that?

  35. Pete Price
    Pete Price says:

    Great information, Thank you!
    I have a question. Some time ago I asked a person that I know who is a PI if they could get me a business owners phone number. I was given the persons phone number along with other information including this persons yearly salary. I was a bit surprised to see that information, I didn’t ask for nor did I want it.
    Does this PI have the ability to find out peoples annual incomes ?? Can I find out if this person is looking at my annual income (sadly, this PI is nosy by nature) ?? Is there a way I can block my annual income information from being accessed ??

    Thank You,

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Salary information is not readily available to private investigators or anyone else. However, in some cases, if you have a position with a public entity (local, state or federal government) or you are part of public company, some salary information is available.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] All background checks are not the same. The laws impacting which types of background checks you can perform and the ways that information collected from them can be used vary from state-to-state. Details that you are not allowed to attain without consents in any state are their credit score and record of military service. A private investigator is aware of the laws in your state and can obtain the appropriate background checks for your specific use. It is important to understand that all the methods used by the private investigator to gain information are completely legal. […]

  2. […] 2) 5 Myths: What a Private Investigator Cannot (Legally) Get Equally important to understanding what a private investigator can legally obtain, is understanding what they cannot obtain.  Retrieving bank account information, bank records , telephone records, credit reports (without authorization) is not only off-limits, it’s illegal. […]

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