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As every investigator knows, palm trees aren’t the only shady things in Florida.

I was bored a few weeks ago, and started doing some research on a company that had sent a blast email promising “medical records” and “prescription info.” Given that obtaining these records is completely illegal and this person included a price list in the email, I was a tad bit surprised.

But after digging into this a bit more, maybe I shouldn’t have been so stunned.

A colleague in the investigations industry had forwarded me an email a few years ago. It was a blast email from a Florida business — for those of you not in the know, Florida is the most popular state of residence among shady investigators — and it too had provided a price list running from $20 to $600 for things like bank records, food stamp records, credit card activity, hotel room activity, and college and high school transcripts. Knowing full well that nearly all this information would be obtained by shady/illegal means, I was intrigued.

At the very least, there was likely a whole lot of pretexting going on—of the not-so-savory kind.

What was most surprising was the offer to provide “medical records” (for $495) and “prescription info” (for $395). While the other offerings were certainly shady and more than likely obtained through illegal means, obtaining medical records and prescription info on someone without their permission is 100% illegal.

Seriously, just think about that for a minute. Imagine if anyone could purchase your medical records for around $500.

Let that soak in for a second.

Many people seem ambivalent about investigators’ obtaining bank records. But medical records?

Anyhow, this blast email was like hundreds of other blast emails I get from shady data brokers peddling information.

So I ignored it.

That was until a few weeks ago, when I stumbled across this old email and decided to dig into it. You know, the world is literally on fire and we are in a global pandemic, so I have a bit of extra time on my hands.

I clicked on the company website and not surprisingly found that it is no longer operational.

This made me chuckle, because my general approach is to not worry too much about these sorts of fly-by-night firms, as they seem to disappear just as quickly as they appear. I am pretty sure that Starting & Running a Business for Dummies tells you that if you want to have a long-lasting business model, selling shady, illegal stuff is not the way to go.

But that didn’t satisfy my interest, so I kept digging.

Since its registration, the company’s domain history has been protected by a proxy registration service to protect the identity of the true owner, so that proved a dead end.

I went back and looked through the domain history on archive.org. Of course, as expected, the company claimed to be in full compliance with the law, including HIPAA (which protects medical records) and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (which protects banking records). I haven’t found one firm that peddles bank records and other shady records that says it isn’t compliant, so that claim means virtually nothing.

(The website also claimed to be in compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley, which is a law enacted in 2002 that predominantly concerns reporting requirements for public companies. Other than the fancy-sounding name that has a nice ring to it for marketing purposes, this has absolutely nothing to do with data protection, but I digress.)

There were also a few people listed on the website, two of whom had common-sounding names. They were common enough and the bios lacked enough detail to ensure that these people weren’t going to be easy to find. 

And they weren’t.

The third name was uncommon enough that I ran it through a couple of investigative databases, only to find that there was nobody in the entire country with that name.

The owner of the company, Kristin (not her real name), did have a LinkedIn profile, with nine followers, a cropped photo, and some limited details, including the name of the university she attended. Not much of a lead there either.

So I turned to Florida corporate records, where I found some records for a company with the same name, but a woman with a totally different name, whom we will call Laura.

Interestingly, Laura, who was the only officer listed on corporate filings, happened to live in the same town in which Kristin reportedly did and reported an address in the same college town, and—despite the cropped, overly exposed photo of Kristin on LinkedIn—I found some photos of Laura that looked strikingly similar.

The bottom line is that I am nearly certain that Kristin was a fake name being used on this website to sell all kinds of personal records. I mean, if you are selling shady records, it’s probably not a good idea to use your real name.

So, the punch line here is that for a business owner who has two kids about to go to college, a license, and a reasonably good reputation to uphold (or just an ethical and moral bone in your body) it’s probably not a good idea to take any chances by getting information from some data broker who claims to get information that by any normal stretch of the imagination can only be obtained by shady or illegal tactics.

I don’t care how compliant they are, who referred them, or how desperate my client is to get information.

It’s just not smart business practice.

Unless, of course, you want to rely on Kristin (aka Laura), who has now shut down her business and is living in a million-dollar beachfront home sipping on piña coladas.

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There are very few topics that get me as agitated as do discussions regarding ethics and private investigators. My enthusiasm for this topic falls somewhere between my obsession with food and making the perfect paella (sorry, but no Spaniard would ever put chorizo in a paella) and drinking good beer (sorry, but Coors Light does not qualify as “good beer”).

Since I spend the vast majority of my time on my work (and unfortunately not cooking paella and drinking beer) and much of my day on social media with news alerts set left and right, I get reminded of ethical issues with private investigators all the time.

A few months ago, I stumbled across a message board where a licensed private investigator asked about how to get an “unauthorized credit report” (Hint: the word “unauthorized” should be a clue).

I joked that it was kind of like asking where to buy an 8-ball of cocaine on Twitter. OK, I guess it’s not the same. Cocaine is probably easier to get than a credit report. 

But I digress.

That same week I got a message from another private investigator asking how he could get a credit report without a signed release. (Hint: a Google search can quickly confirm you MUST HAVE a signed authorized release).

There have been a number of infamous private investigator ethical lapses splattered across the news over the years, some of which have led to changes in laws and access to information.

In the 1980s, the actress Rebecca Shaeffer was murdered after a 19-year-old “obsessed fan” hired a private investigator to track down where the actress lived. California changed the law so that DMV information no longer included address details.

Anthony Pellicano, known as a “fixer” and “Private Eye to the Stars,” spent 10 years in prison for, among other things, threatening witnesses, wiretapping phones (including the phones of Sylvester Stallone), and unlawfully accessing confidential records from members of the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills police departments.

Then there was Chris Butler, who set up “Dirty DUIs” for his clients, where he would hire female decoys to get a male drunk, get the males to drink a sufficient amount of alcohol, and then follow them in their vehicle as they headed home, all in order to call the police in order to get them pulled over.

In 2006, Hewlett–Packard hired private investigators to access the private phone records of board members and nine journalists. One private investigator was later convicted and sentenced to prison. Because of the national outcry, in 2007, President Bush signed the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006, which made it a federal felony to fraudulently acquire telephone records.

More recently, there was the story of Black Cube, who used ruses, fake websites, false identities and cellphone tracking to obtain information for its client, Harvey Weinstein. As you may have noticed from the news, that didn’t end well.

In addition to these front-page news items, there have been dozens of other stories in the media every day of private investigators who hacked email passwords and credentials, posed as an airline worker to get copies of a passport; committed sex acts with a prisoner (and client) in jail;  bribed and tampered with witnesses; intimidated a witness; impersonated a law enforcement officer; attempted to get the president’s tax returns; flashed their old badges to give people the impression that they are law enforcement officers; illegally installed a GPS tracker; hired a shady subcontractor with spotty criminal records to get phone records; illegally obtained bank records through a pretext; or represented themselves as an “investigative firm” in order to dig up dirt on the opposing counsel by pretending to be a reporter.

Those are just the ones that crossed my radar over the past few years.

And I have had a bunch of my own personal experiences with other ethical breaches, including dealing with investigators who wanted to charge another investigator a handsome sum for public records and another investigator who told me he would put a GPS device on anyone’s car, anytime, anywhere, despite the fact that laws suggest otherwise.

I’ve also had a client call me to ask whether I would break into someone’s house to steal tax returns and dealt with a hedge fund manager who wanted me to threaten and intimidate someone.

The argument I get all the time is that these are just rogue investigators; but personally, I think it’s more of a pattern of behavior. We may not be to blame for these rogue investigators, but we can all do something about it. 

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There are a few things that I think could dramatically decrease these ethical lapses. First, most states do not require private investigators to get continuing education. So once you have received a license, you can maintain that license for eternity without a single iota of learning anything new, like pesky little things such as laws, privacy restrictions or even investigative techniques.

Imagine going to a doctor who learned how to practice medicine 30 years ago and was never required to learn anything new ever again. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the doctor I would want to be seeing.

The other thing that could dramatically decrease ethical lapses is a code of ethics. Nearly every single professional service has them; why don’t private investigators? While many investigators belong to various associations that have their own code of ethics (e.g., National Association of Legal Investigators; The New Jersey Licensed Private Investigators Association; World Association of Detectives; Association of Certified Fraud Examiners; Council of International Investigators; Associated Licensed Detectives of New York State), there is no universal code of ethics. And as far as I know, very few (if any) states have a real code of ethics for investigators to abide by.

So where do we start to try to fix this?

Well, having a standardized code of ethics would probably be a good starting point.

So, for the past few months, my friend and fellow private investigator Molly Donaldson of Waverly Research (who is also an attorney) decided to put together our own code of ethics.

There were a few specific criteria for this private investigator code of ethics.

First and foremost, it needed to be in plain language; no legal jargon would be allowed. I know that it’s an attorney’s job to add disclaimers, provisions, clauses, rights, duties, etceteras, notwithstandings, heretofores, definitions and “including but not limited tos,” but it’s time we took a stand for plain language.

Secondly, we wanted this to be shared with the investigative community, so while we tried to hit every point, we tried to keep it as broad as possible while being concise and fitting on one page. We thought of this not as a set of exact rules, but as general guidelines that we must follow. Trying to cram every ethical scenario in a concise set of rules was not very practical.

Lastly, both Molly and I wanted to share this code of ethics with the investigative community— so please steal it, post it, edit it, sign it, blog about it, tear it apart or do whatever you want with it.

Maybe, just maybe, this might create some dialog about standardizing a code of ethics for all of us.

Or we can all decide to just completely ignore it, which is pretty much what the industry has been doing for quite some time.

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Private investigator Scott Ross called me a few months back and relayed a story about a Florida investigator whom he had spoken with a few years ago. Scott is a nationally renowned expert on cell phone towers and has worked some really high-profile cases. The Florida investigator had called Scott a few years back, wanting to pick his brain about a case that needed some analysis of cell phone records.

Scott and I share a similar philosophy. He is happy to share some insight and information about his expertise, knowing that if there is a serious need, he’s the guy that they will think of. Plus, it’s just a good human trait to want to help people.

Scott helped the investigator out. Never charged him a penny and didn’t think much about the investigator until several months ago, when Scott was about to be retained on a Florida murder case. Scott needed some police reports from a local Florida police department, so he called the Florida private investigator. The Florida investigator said he had a source in the police department who could get the records. Scott told the investigator that he hadn’t been retained yet, but if his source could get the record without too much trouble, it would be helpful.

Shortly thereafter, the Florida investigator sent the two-page document—and a bill for $100.

Even though he was a bit surprised by the bill, Scott sent the investigator $125 as a thank-you for his time. The Florida investigator said that there were several more police reports relating to the person in question. Scott told the investigator to hold off, since they hadn’t been retained by the attorney.

But shortly thereafter, Scott received six other police reports along with a bill for $300.

Scott was a bit perturbed, given he had explicitly told him not to do any additional work, but paid it anyway.

And that was that.

Or so Scott thought. 

Some time thereafter, Scott was making some inquiries about getting an autopsy from the same Florida murder. Unlike in California, where you have to pay a $76 fee and jump through hoops, he was told that the report was free. (Gotta love Florida Sunshine laws.)

Curious, Scott called the police department that had the police records he wanted. First, Scott asked about the original police report he had inquired about. The search was free, and not only did they have the record he was inquiring about, they had six others. The officer at the police department told him that the fee would be $10, copies cost $0.15, and that he could email the request.

So much for that “source.”

And the $400 in invoices.

And the professional courtesy of helping out another private investigator.

I too have had some similar experiences. 

There are a couple of things to learn from this.

  • When your source is an open records request, you have to rethink your business model. It’s 2019—people are too smart and have access to too much information to have the wool pulled over their eyes.
  • Nobody likes to be nickel-and-dimed. Nobody.
  • The investigative business is a small world; people find things out.
  • Investigators need to work together. Enough of the BS of your secret sources and desperately needing to increase your self-importance.
  • There’s plenty of work out there for all of us—if you are good at what you do. 

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This week, Ronan Farrow, the investigative reporter, published a three-part series (read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here) on the Israel-based “intelligence firm” Black Cube, whom Farrow had some run-ins with while exposing Harvey Weinstein.

It’s a pretty captivating story if you are into espionage, spies, surveillance, intrigue, counterintelligence, spooks, and snooping—or if you just have a pulse. ;)  

This has been a huge personal interest story for me over the years that Farrow and others have been writing about Black Cube in part because of their shady tactics and Hollywood-style bravado. [I’d bet my life there will be a movie about them in a few years.]

Another point of interest is that I have personally spoken to Black Cube. While my discussions with them were completely cordial and above-board, I can recall pretty vividly how suspect I was of the firm, even from a few brief emails and telephone calls. In addition, I have had contact with a few other people mentioned in the story.

As a private investigator for nearly 20 years, I was at times shocked, partly saddened, but mostly captivated by the stories in the articles. I’ve already preordered Farrow’s book (you can order Catch and Kill here), as I am sure that will bring more shock and awe.

So, here are some observations.

“That Only Happens on TV”

Private investigators suffer from a perception problem (Hint: 95 percent of the people we polled think that private investigators break the law and are “shady.”) Despite discussing openly all of the things that our firm won’t do under any circumstances, we constantly get inquiries about those same things. We’ve been asked to break into an apartment and steal tax returns. We get asked frequently to hack into emails and get telephone records or the location of a cell phone.

Most of the time, I answer these inquiries with some form of “you have been watching too much TV. That’s just not reality.”

But then, Black Cube went and ruined that.

They used ruses, fake websites, false identities, cell phone tracking, and disguises. I get that this stuff happens in the high stakes game of world politics. Or arms dealing. Or drug lords.

But really? This happens in our industry?

But here is the reality.

I have worked with dozens of other firms in the industry. Some of the best and the brightest that this business has to offer. I’ve worked on cases that have been front cover of major newspapers.

Exactly zero of them would have used any of the tactics described in these articles.

So does one bad apple spoil the bunch? Sure.

But this is not an isolated incident…

An Industry in Desperate Need of Some Sunshine

There is an enormous amount of skepticism about the investigation industry. Frankly, it’s a reputation well-deserved.

I just posted a blog last week about three separate front-page news stories involving private investigators who use sketchy tactics. And there are a lot more stories of private investigators being sentenced for making false pretext calls to get personal banking information, a private investigator having sex with a prisoner, and scrutiny about private investigators receiving DMV data.

That was just in the month of September.

Our industry can use a whole hell of a lot of sunshine.

@drowsyGeek

Back in May 2019, a former TV personality private investigator was jailed for promoting prostitution and unlawful surveillance for enticing a man into having sex with prostitutes at a Sunset Park hotel—and then surreptitiously recording the sex acts.

You just can’t make this stuff up.

As Cath (@drowsygeek) said on Twitter, our industry can use a whole hell of a lot of sunshine.

Yes, we can use a who lot of sunshine…and rainbows, butterflies and unicorns too.

Results-oriented Business

If you hire a contractor to build you a house, at the end of the day, you expect a house to be built.

If you hire an accountant to help you file your tax return, you expect your taxes to be completed.

Or if you hire a software engineer to help you produce a piece of software, one would expect a piece of working software at the end.

But if you hire a private investigator to, for example, follow someone that you believe is meeting with some people that you might have an interest in, and you need to follow that person in a city of millions of people under difficult circumstances without being caught, lots of things can go wrong.

The surveillance investigator might lose the person they are following or get caught, or the target might go into a place where they can’t be followed, or simply not meet up with the people they are suspected of meeting. And what you might have thought would cost a few thousand dollars, ends up costing tens of thousands of dollars to do properly. And even done properly, everything might go to hell.

Each of those scenarios brings disappointment to the client.

So what do some investigators do to mitigate their failing results?

They might cheat by resorting to not-so-savory tactics. They might start putting GPS devices on the cars they are following (see stories here, here and here). Track cell phones. Try to hack a computer.

I’ve heard of surveillance investigators letting the air out of the tires of those collecting disability to see if they can change a tire.

There are private investigators who will pretext a bank by providing a Social Security number, date of birth, and other personally identifiable information to a bank to convince them that they are a particular individual in order to get their bank account information.

Investigators get judged by their results, not their efforts. But we don’t always have control over the results of our investigations.

It’s frustrating. Exhausting. Dispiriting.

Which brings out the cheaters.

Leave the Bonus Fees to Wall Street

One of the striking stories that came out of these articles was bonus fees tied to certain objectives. First, in New York, where we are licensed, “success fees” and bonuses are not allowed.

Success fees and bonuses encourage bias and behaviors that may not be aboveboard.

Imagine paying an investigator when he was able to come up with evidence that helped support his client.

What kind of biases and/or moral, ethical, and legal behavior do you think that would encourage?

If you ever hear of paying a private investigator suggesting a bonus, run.

Whistleblowers

There has been quite a bit of talk about whistleblowers over the past few years, and particularly recently.

This story would not have even been a story if it weren’t for at least two whistleblowers. One appears to be a Black Cube employee who was fed up with Black Cube’s “false and devious ways of obtaining material illegally” that the whistleblower, as a woman, was “ashamed for participating” in the acts by helping Harvey Weinstein.

The other is a New York private investigator who feared he was on the wrong side of the law.

These whistleblowers were motivated by professional ethics and faith in humanity. The reality is that whistleblowers shed light on pressing issues that directly affect all of us. Some call them leakers. Some believe they are disloyal, disgruntled, or even traitorous. Some question their motives.

To me, however, someone who is willing to risk everything to expose something so blatantly wrong is a freaking hero.

Hopefully it will shed some light on this business too.

Final Thoughts

Maybe I am naïve to think that this stuff doesn’t happen all the time.

Maybe I live in some idyllic world where the truth will always come out.

Or that reasonable people will always act ethically, morally, and within the law.

And maybe Black Cube is just eating up every bit of this press, since there are businesses who believe that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

As for me, I hope that this story gives all of us in this industry a chance to take a hard look in the mirror.

Before it all crumbles around us.

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A few weeks ago we received a call from a local hedge fund manager who was being harassed through a series of text messages by someone who had threatened to create a website detailing the hedge fund manager’s infidelities. It had not reached the point of extortion or blackmail, but it was clear that this person had some inside information and was not going to go away.

The hedge fund manager was concerned that his “private life” would be released to the public, and he wanted to track down the person who was sending the text messages.

All we had to go on was a telephone number that the person was texting from. That’s not much to go on. As I explained to him, there are a 1,001 ways to mask a telephone number so that it would be nearly impossible to track down the owner of the phone without some sort of help from law enforcement.

The problem is that this situation was not at the point where law enforcement would even “take a sniff of it.” The personal issues of a hedge fund manager are not high on the totem pole for the local police department. After all, no criminal offense had been committed.

As a first step, I offered to run some database research on the phone number through a series of professional and proprietary databases to see if the number popped up somewhere. If we had any leads, we could try to track down the person and get a sense of who they were.

But the hedge fund manager had other plans.

He wanted me to call and/or text the person and “threaten” and “intimidate” (his words, not mine) the person into revealing their identity and tell them that they would be arrested and prosecuted if they sent another message or released any information about the hedge fund manager.

Intimidating a person and throwing out empty threats on behalf of someone who called me out of the blue is not a case that I would covet.

It would have been a completely empty threat. You can’t be arrested or charged with anything based on a few texts that say you have some information about someone’s infidelity. Especially if it is true (which I suspect it was).

I nicely told him that it was not something that we would want to get involved with. Intimidating a person and throwing out empty threats on behalf of someone who called me out of the blue is not a case that I would covet.

His reply? “I thought that is what you guys do.”

Intimidate people?

Throw out empty threats?

With all due respect, no we don’t.

Nor would we ever.

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We get some “interesting” inquiries all the time, but this one takes the cake.

A few weeks ago, we received an email from someone in Minnesota who wanted to check up on her ex-husband. She wanted to find out more about his finances.

Normal enough. Everyone thinks their ex-spouse is hiding something. There are legal and ethical ways to check on someone’s finances.

But then she asked:

Can you break into his apartment and get his tax return copies? … Is this something you can do or suggest someone who can do it? I understand it is illegal, but my situation is I don’t want to go back just to support him … Pls let me know.

So if you understand that it is illegal, why would it be OK for us to do?

Some things in life make you question humanity, but as C+C Music Factory eloquently put it, there are other things that make you go hmmm …

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