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.

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18 replies
  1. Kavinn Moore
    Kavinn Moore says:

    Private investigators are a popular way to get security and surveillance.They can assume to help provide safety and security needs for individuals and businesses.It’s such a great professional work.Thanks Brian for sharing your whole investigation information.

  2. Sam Nassrouie
    Sam Nassrouie says:

    The article was very honest and based on the facts.Thank you.
    I believe Private Investigator or Private Detective is a very respectful occupation. A private detective,in general, has always been respected by the society.Now what hurts and damage this industry most, are some non-sense TV shows like Cheaters which absolutely has no content.I hate it when someone ask me what I do for living and I reply I am a private detective or investigator,he or she smiles and say please don’t give your business card to my wife or husband. Unfortunately the only image that comes to their mind of a private detective is a guy with a camcorder running around and following cheating spouses.
    So ,unwillingly, I have to explain over and over, infidelity is not the only field of investigation that a PI does. We do criminal defense investigations even better than the cops, we do deep background checks and provide our clients with hard to get information and intelligence, we surveillance teens for their safety and security, we locate missing persons who vanished and so on..
    Then they realize who they are talking to. I am a Persian -American and have done so many cases in Persian American community in U.S. Persians respect a Private Investigator very much and I think that is because they haven’t seen much of cheaters show on TV but rather have seen somehow more decent detective stories. Neverthe less,Infidelity is not my favorite part of investigations but I have to do it because it is a money maker and pays the bills.

  3. Gail Hickman
    Gail Hickman says:

    I have been a private investigator for more than 20 years and find that the public really do not take the profession seriously. The first question is usually ‘Oh so you expose errant husbands/wifes?’ Nope, never done that. People also think that we just randomly investigate people we come into contact with, so I’ve had people suddenly get all cagey when they find out what I do. I couldn’t imagine meeting a heart specialist at a party and asking for a free consultation, but I get asked for freebees all the time, Perhaps we should just refer to ourselves as ‘detectives’

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Thanks for the comment Gail. My feeling is that we need to collectively change the perception; not pretend that are someone that we are not.

    • Paul K
      Paul K says:

      A few times, usually at social functions, when having been asked the usual “So what is it that you do…?” opener – and given the standard “private investigator” reply – the asker lowered their voice, glanced around, and whispered conspiratorially “should you be telling me that?”

      Like I just told them I was a spy for a foreign power, or something.

      Also, over in my part of the world, we cannot refer to ourselves as ‘detectives’ as that is the sole purview of the police.

    • Theresa
      Theresa says:

      “I couldn’t imagine meeting a heart specialist at a party and asking for a free consultation, but I get asked for freebees all the time”

      Ha! As a former veterinarian I can safely say that I hardly ever went to a social occasion where I _wasn’t_ asked for free advice/diagnostics/samples/etc. One of my fellow residents used to tell people she worked for the IRS when she went on plane flights just to avoid that sort of thing.
      Yes, I love animals. No, I don’t necessarily want to spend all of my free time listening to that cute thing that your dog does when he’s pooping in a strange place. That’s not the reason I left the profession, but I consider it a perk of being a programmer that peoples’ faces glaze over when I tell them what I do now.

  4. Ruben Roel
    Ruben Roel says:

    Fantastic piece, Brian.

    I was visiting a few people this past week that required me to be on a couple of planes, and while I do love working as a Private Investigator, the number of times people ask for a 3 page synopsis with reference and sources of what I do, can make a plane trip miserable.

    At first it gives you a kind of “joy” that people are interested in the type of work that we do, but after having to recite the same speech 5 different times, I just began to tell people that I worked as a bank teller. Not because I wasn’t proud of my profession, but because I felt like I was defending my line of work through every single question.

    The first one asked me to tell her stories of my career. The second one asked me if I was like the guys from Cheaters. The third one said that we did things illegally and that we were normally “shady” people. The other two just kept asking question after question and giving me “What if” scenarios. Such as “What if a PI was hired to follow you, would you catch him?” While they were fun to talk too, it wasn’t something that I wanted to continue on doing for the remainder of my trip.

    My wife avoids telling people what I do as well, and she’s very proud of my profession. But she runs into the same issues with the people she meets. She either runs into the stories scenario, or “I’m your friend, can you have him find someone for me?” Now she simply says, He works with insurance companies.

    John: Hal & Kevin are both spot on about Brian.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Thanks for the comment Ruben. I think your experience is all too common. The question is, what do we do about it?

  5. Paul Kozlovskis
    Paul Kozlovskis says:

    Well, the phenomenon is certainly a global one, I can assure you.

    A close friend of mine, a professional, goes so far as to introduce me to others as ‘Dodgy Koz the PI’.

    Perhaps the real issue is that we, and what we do, has been largely romanticized in the public perception through TV, film, and that old chestnut of ‘detective fiction’. What we actually do, and how we actually do it, doesn’t often make for exciting reading.

    Instead, we are automatically presumed to operate, if not flagrantly outside the law, certainly in the fringes – that ‘gray area’.

    Denials fall upon deaf ears.

    For my own part, I have stopped referring to myself as a ‘private investigator’. Now I’m just ‘an investigator working on behalf of…’ or, on my updated CV, a ‘professional investigator’.

    To others, however, I’ll always remain Dodgy Koz.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Thanks Dodgy Koz, I mean Paul. I totally get it. It’s really a shame if you ask me. Hopefully, we can change the perception.

  6. Hal Humphreys
    Hal Humphreys says:

    Brian, Thank you for this piece.

    Kevin, spot on.

    John Scandalious, Mr. Willingham is one of this industry’s best. Not only is he a designated member of a professional organization, one of the most well respected and difficult designations to obtain, he is a presenter for that organization. He is a thoughtful and respectful writer. The editorial staff at Pursuit Magazine’s only quibble with Mr. Willingham is that we covet more of his wisdom and insight.

    Nice work Mr. Willingham.

  7. Kevin Cosgrove
    Kevin Cosgrove says:

    With all due respect Mr. Scandalios, I too believe that you completely overshot your landing here. If you are a “regular” follower of Mr. Willingham’s pieces (which I presume you are given that you must have signed-up to receive these), you will not find a more passionate and down-to-earth Investigator out there than Brian Willingham…

    My take is that his metaphorical self-reflection comes from the reputations generated by those few “bad apples” who watch too many movies or feel as if the FCPA or GLBA are nothing more than letters in the alphabet to them.

    While it is noble that you have 40 years in the business and enjoy the work you do, I feel it is both unjust and unwise to spit in the face of anyone who is trying to raise awareness of the issues we as professionals face everyday in not only saving our clients, but our own reputations.

    If you are not a fan of Mr. Willingham’s blogs, then here is an idea….stop reading them. I am sure that you will find many other enjoyable forums of former old school PIs flexing their muscles of how they “cracked the case” by pretending to be the subject while talking with their banks!

    Congrats Brian for raising the bar here for all of us to strive harder to achieve our case objectives while staying between the lines!

  8. John Scandalios
    John Scandalios says:

    I have one suggestion for Mr. Willingham, quit. Become a garbage man. I have over 40 years in the profession and I am very proud of the work I do and have done as well as the professionals that I associate with. Perhaps if you upgraded your standards, joined (if you qualified) professional associations and took accredited courses to advance your knowledge you might feel better about what you claim not to do. If you are that ashamed, just quit.

      • VIctor H
        VIctor H says:

        I can see things in this industry haven’t changed all that much since I left 15 years ago. One person is candid enough to publically speak the truth and immediately there is a certain group of people who become disgruntled at his frankness and immediately begin pompously defending against the truth as though they were being personally attacked.

        Reading this response immediately took me back to the days when I would attend meetings at some of those coveted “professional associations” where you would pay $12.00 for a chicken dinner (Pricey in my day) listen for 30-45 minutes to a guest speaker that was about as exciting as a 16 hour stakeout and then sit around over cocktails and hear everyone lie about having more “Cases” than they can handle. They referred to this nonsense as networking, camaraderie or a learning experience; I referred to it as a waste of time. If an association doesn’t offer recognized industry credentials such as the ACFE, it’s not worth the yearly dues or the effort.

        I am not going to get into the discussion about obtaining information through the use of pretexts or other means that some people may view as “shady” I worked before the advent of the internet and before things like Gramm-Leach-Bliley. I will go so far as to say this, If anyone claims to have been in this line of work for decades and denies ever having used a pretext, you are not only being disingenuous with yourself, you are insulting the intelligence of every seasoned investigator that reads that comment.

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