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Private Investigations Ethics Law & Legal Limits

I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics lately. A few articles have caught my attention. Pursuit Magazine ran a great piece by Kevin Macnish regarding ethical behavior, which describes, among other things how ethics and the law are not one in the same.

Then I ran across an article the other day about an investigator who had hired another investigator who did some shady (to say the least) work.

Then there was the story of another investigator who was found guilty of bribing a witness.

And a Michigan investigator who is touting a “high tech” surveillance vehicle that records sound, which is a clear violation of the law.

I guess stories about investigators who are actually doing their jobs legally are not fit for the newspaper, as the stories I usually read about investigators involve more or less the same unflattering, unethical, and illegal behavior.

The black and white, and everything in between

There are a variety of laws and regulations in place that make things pretty cut and dried for private investigators. For example, obtaining phone records or financial information through “pretexting” or obtaining medical records, travel documents, or tax records are all out of bounds.

But between the black area and the white area, there is a vast gray area. So, for example, if you hire someone else to obtain something illegal for you, are you breaking the law? I suppose not. I guess you could be charged as an accomplice. But you would have to ask a lawyer that.

Or if you call a bank and type a Social Security number into its automated system to see if someone banks there, is that really pretexting?

Nobody claims they do illegal or ethical things

Have you ever heard of anyone who considered themselves unethical? Or of someone who admitted doing illegal things to do their job?

Why not?

Well, ethics is in the eye of the beholder. What is ethical to one person may not be ethical to another. From an investigator’s point of view, one investigator may think it’s perfectly legitimate to, say, lure an individual into some illegal behavior, but to another it might (and should) be totally off limits.

This New York firm says that they put out a heavy garbage can in front of a person’s car to coax a person who is supposedly on disability to move it. Illegal? No. But unethical? In my opinion, 1,000 percent.

People also justify their actions

A deeply religious friend of mine justified cheating on his taxes, saying “everyone does it.” (They don’t.)

Investigators in the U.K. justified hacking into people’s phones in the name of getting the story out to the public.

Or an investigator might justify pretexting a bank to find money that a deadbeat dad owes to his former spouse and children.

Maybe impersonating a cop and waving down traffic is a good idea if you are trying to track down a missing juvenile.

Don’t turn a blind eye

“I don’t want to know how you do it” or “I don’t want to hear how you got this information” is something that will never come out of my mouth. You see, my license and reputation rely on my knowing where my information comes from and how my client got it.

Like the California investigator who hired a woman in Alabama as a “subcontractor” — even though the case had nothing to do with Alabama. Turns out the woman, who was an unlicensed investigator with quite a past, was pretexting phone companies to obtain phone records of a public official.

The California investigator may claim that they had no idea what the woman in Alabama was doing. And they might be telling the truth. But you are responsible for the people you hire and you are responsible for the information you obtain.

I am certain that they knew exactly what they were doing when they hired her, but that’s beside the point.

Until there is a specific law that states that private investigators can’t do it, I am doing it.

Two years ago a Virginia investigator told me “we can put a GPS device on any car, anytime, anywhere.”

I was flabbergasted.

I am no expert in GPS tracking, but it’s widely understood that you can only put a GPS tracking device in a vehicle if you share ownership.

The truth of the matter is that there is no cut-and-dried answer regarding GPS tracking, especially with non-law enforcement individuals. The law has not kept up with technology.

But any car, anytime, anywhere? This was about a month or two after a landmark 2012 Supreme Court ruling that stated that warrantless GPS tracking was unconstitutional.

So I asked him about the Supreme Court ruling.

His response was: “It said nothing about private investigators. It only had to do with law enforcement. Until there is a specific law that states private investigators can’t do it, I am doing it.”

I never used him. If he’s willing to go rogue on one thing, I am pretty certain he’d break other laws as well.

If you can’t tell me where the information comes from, it’s not really any good to me.

There are hundreds of firms out there that claim that they can obtain bank account information for as little as a few hundred dollars. Given that there are explicit laws in the U.S. that make pretexting for banking information illegal, I was curious about how they did it.

I contacted five different firms. Not surprisingly, not one of them could tell me how they got the information.

I get it, trade secrets. Blah. Blah. Blah.

To anyone who tries to pull “trade secrets” on me, I say bullshit.

The bottom line is if you can’t tell me where the information comes from, it’s not really any good to me. First, because I strongly suspect that you are not getting it legitimately. In part I know this because I have gotten calls from people who clearly have been on the wrong side of a bank search as someone was trying to pretext their way through the bank.

Second, because turning a blind eye to how the information is obtained is nearly as bad as doing it myself. Sure, it may insulate you from the worst offense, but are you really any more ethical or legal than the other guy?

Being ethical and following the law is not a choice

As a Certified Fraud Examiner, I study ethics every year. I also keep close tabs on the laws and regulations.

I do this not just because it’s required, but because I want to stay on the right side.

When a situation comes up that doesn’t fit into a vast gray area, I can act swiftly and confidently. It’s not worth it. I’ve worked too hard to potentially ruin my standing in this industry.

So when a witness wants to be compensated, I know that it just smells like I am bribing a witness, no matter how innocent it may be.

And no matter how critical those phone records are, I know that I won’t be able to get them without a subpoena.

Or when that client is in desperate need of banking information to crack open a money laundering case, I will wait for that court order.

It’s not worth the risk to me.

Or my clients.

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2 replies
  1. Curtis Moore
    Curtis Moore says:

    Question if you send someone a check and they cash the check would be ethical to use that information. The information would be used in child support or judgement recovery. The government does not use ethical ways to get their taxes. In judgement collection and child support you can get court orders but with information subpoena but the people don’t reply to them and in NY the fine for not replying is $50.00.

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