A little more than 12 years ago, in one of my first weeks on the job, I was speaking with a colleague named Jeff. He had been a private investigator for more than five years. He said that when people asked him what he did, he replied that he was a garbage man.
I could not imagine why on earth he would want to do that. Private investigators have pretty cool jobs. At least that is what I always thought to myself. So I asked him.
“I got tired explaining to people what I did,” Jeff told me. “Besides, private investigators don’t have the best reputation in the world. You’ll find out soon enough.”
It’s taken me a while, but I finally understand.
While I used to get giddy telling people what I do for a living, I don’t any more.
In fact, I try to avoid it.
Jeff is not the only one. I know many licensed private investigators who like to call themselves fraud examiners, corporate investigators, or investigation experts. They think the stigma of being a private investigator costs them work.
A friend of mine who owned his own investigative firm in California hung up his investigative cleats to pivot his career in another direction. He’s been looking for a job for more than a year. Despite the fact that he’s one of the most talented people I’ve met in a while, he thinks that he can’t find a job because of his former investigative experience.
Just pick up the newspaper—you can easily find all kinds of sleazy examples of private investigators. In the past month, there were stories about an investigator on trial in the United Kingdom for hacking into cell phones, an investigator in Georgia who got busted impersonating an officer, and a Connecticut private investigator who was convicted of bribing a witness.
Or there’s the story of Christopher Butler, the former police officer who is serving eight years in jail. He thought it was a good idea to hire attractive women to lure men to bars, get the men drunk, and then have the men pulled over and arrested.
Or the story of private investigator Bob Cohn, who had the guts to call banks claiming to be an “investigator” asking about bank account information; he somehow was only “technically” violating the law, which explicitly says that you can’t do this. Thankfully, he changed his policies, but only after he obtained information for one of his clients that left two people dead.
Private investigators even get bad-mouthed among their own peers. At a conference of fraud investigators just a few months ago, speakers at few of the breakout sessions had no problem slamming private investigators. One speaker told a room of a few hundred “fraud fighters” that he didn’t like hiring private investigators because they were “shady.”
I am on private investigator message boards, in which nearly every day private investigators ask if anyone has a “source” to get some type of information that can only be obtained by illegal pretexts or some other shady, most likely illegal, way.
No wonder why 95 percent of the people we polled think that private investigators break the law and are “shady.”
Maybe I am sensitive to it. Maybe I should start telling everyone I am a garbage man. Or maybe I shouldn’t pay as much attention.
But I do.
It’s my profession. And I am still not all that comfortable admitting it.