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In February 2010, I hit “publish” on my first blog post about how one could have avoided hedge fund fraud based on an episode of American Greed on CNBC.

It was a scary moment.

Not because it was controversial or I had feared some retribution, but because I was putting myself out there for the first time and I was worried what other people would think.

Was I wrong about my conclusions?

Did I misstate a fact?

Would people find it interesting?

Would anyone other than my mom read it? (Shoutout to Mom, who is undoubtedly reading this. 🙌)

I think about 14 people might have read it. I was refreshing Google Analytics every 10 minutes to see if anyone else had looked at it.

That didn’t stop me from getting the opinion of four other investigators before I wrote my second, third, fourth and fifth blog posts.

And 10th, 11th and 12th posts too.

Sharing can be uncomfortable. Not everyone will agree with you. Some may actually dislike what you share or dislike the fact that you are sharing anything. And others will simply dismiss it.

But for me, sharing has been the most powerful thing I have done professionally.

Why?

Execution Is Everything; Secrets Are Nothing

Some of the earliest negative comments came from fellow investigators who would contact me about how I was giving away too much information. You know, the “secrets” that all the investigators before me had held so close to the vest for so long were now being exposed to the public. Like when I wrote about free public records links or myths about what a private investigator can get. The argument made to me was that keeping the mystique is a good thing for our profession.

My feeling at the time, and one that still remains, is that most secrets are not really secrets at all, and that the mystique is actually hurting our business more than helping. I can have dozens of secret sources, but when it comes down to it, it’s how I utilize those “secrets” that matters.

Clarity

Writing helps you clarify your thoughts. Just last week, I was writing a story about a local businessman whom I had helped track down someone. From the time that I started writing to the time the piece was finished, I was in a completely different place. It was only when I wrote the story that I was able to have clarity in my thoughts, discover the gaps in my thinking and devise a message worth reading.

The same sort of clarity of thought has come from writing about topics such as a code of ethics, pretexting, crossing state lines or the idea that being a former law enforcement officer somehow immediately makes you a better private investigator.

Generosity = Opportunities

Over the past 10+ years, I’ve had more than 2 million visitors read my posts. While most of those 2 million visitors I have never heard from or met, I have received countless notes from people thanking me for sharing information.

From a business perspective, Diligentia Group received more than 150 new clients from blog posts we have written. We’ve received client referrals from people we have never met based on blog posts.

And I have personally been invited to countless speaking opportunities and podcasts, and met people I probably never would have had the chance to meet otherwise. I even got a chance to visit the American Greed studio at CNBC, which, coincidentally, was the reason I wrote my first blog.

Digital Memory Bank

I end up referring to my own blog more than I like to admit. Like how to verify military service or in what states it is legal to record a conversation. These aren’t things I think about all that often, so when I do, I refer to my own posts.

Or one-off cases, in which I spent time chasing down some records that were new to me. Like the time I spent tracking down travel records or airplane ownership information. So anytime those come up, I have a handy reference.

It is also a great way to capture the journey, the moments that you forget, as well as reflect on where it all started and what Diligentia Group has become.

The Power of Sharing…

Sharing can be exhilarating, uncomfortable, emotional, awkward and delicate, all at the same time.

But it’s the most important thing I have ever done.

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I don’t think you’d get much of an argument from anyone that 2020 was a giant pile of diarrhea. And if the first seven days are any indication of what is to come in 2021, we might be literally up shit’s creek without a paddle.

The private investigation business was not totally up shit’s creek in 2020. According to an informal poll I did on LinkedIn last week, the opinion of others in the investigation business was a bit mixed:

Each year, I typically like to reflect on the previous year and to come up with some kind of a “plan” to do better. I use the word plan loosely, as over the years I have tried a bunch of different ideas. It’s not a New Year’s resolution, because New Year’s resolutions are stupid. I just try to self-audit and figure out what I need to do to make the next year better.

I’ve already signed up to learn a few new skills, I’ve got some cool ideas percolating in my head, and we are doing a rebranding thing that I am excited about.

This year, however, my goal is to communicate better. Because the world needs to communicate better.

Let me illustrate with a little story.

A fun little fishing expedition…

A few weeks ago, a local successful businessman whom I have known for several years texted me. He asked me if I had any resources to track down the owner of an old auto repair company that had gone out of business 50+ years ago in a small Fairfield County, Connecticut town. All he had was the name of the business, Murano Auto Repair (not the real name), and an old address.

Under normal circumstances, I would probably have grilled a potential client about the reasons for wanting to find the person, but I thought to myself, “This sounds like a fun little challenge.” Besides, I was sure this was going to be more an exercise in searching old newspapers and Ancestry.com, rather than investigative databases, which might need some permission. And I was pretty sure the guy wasn’t an axe-murderer. 

However, I didn’t have any sources at my fingertips to find information about the shop. Corporate records and old newspapers would probably be a good start. State licenses for running an auto repair came to the top of my head. Or calling the local library to see if they had any sources. But this was 50 years old, and I didn’t think this was something I would be able to do quickly.

Judging by the text, I was guessing that he didn’t really want to spend any money. That’s a big problem in my business; everyone thinks what I do is easy. Just a few clicks of the mouse.

But it’s not. Twenty years of knowledge, sources and experience might get me there a lot quicker than most people, but it’s almost never easy.

That being said, I am a sucker for a challenge. I was bored the night he sent it and I took the bait.

Hook, line and sinker.

Taking the bait…

Corporate records were a dead end, and a few quick database searches were useless as well. I couldn’t find any businesses at that address called Murano Auto Repair—or anyone even reporting the address. Even doing some advanced googling turned up nothing.

This made me suspicious—like maybe he had the information all wrong—so I wasn’t about to waste my time.

After digging through some old newspaper archives, I found an advertisement from the 1950s that showed the business address and phone number. I then found some old articles that talked about how the auto repair shop had been in business for three generations. A little while longer and I was able to find an article about the owner, Mr. Sexton (not his real name), and then one about his wife, Susanna, and an unnamed son who were running the business.

So I tracked them down. First, it turns out Mr. Sexton died in 1976. Mrs. Sexton took a bit longer to find; she lived until 1995. So now I had to find her next of kin. Luckily, a 1940 census (the most recent census available) showed that the Sextons had three children: two daughters, Ruth and Sylvia, and a son, Steven. I knew finding the two daughters would be tough; they had probably been married and changed their names long ago, before any electronic databases would have been keeping track of them.

But Steven? I was pretty certain I could find him. The census from 1940 said he was eight years old when the census was taken, so I had a pretty good idea of his age.

I found Steven. He was now living out in Arizona, in a nursing home with his wife. I sent the businessman his contact information.

“You’re fucking amazing,” he texted to me.

“If this is what your job is like, I’m envious!”

It felt good. Despite not charging anything for this, it was a fun little exercise. 

Kind of like a skill sharpening. And it was a nice goodwill thing, even if I didn’t make any actual money.

But a few weeks later, the businessman reached out to me again by text, saying that he had spoken to Steven Sexton at his nursing home and “he doesn’t remember” if his family owned the auto repair. “He doesn’t remember” sounded a bit suspicious.

He also tried speaking to the wife, but she hung up on him.

“I was so excited; thought you were onto something.”

Looks like I wasn’t onto anything after all…

Looking back, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by that comment, but in the moment, it got to me. Nobody likes being wrong; especially me. 

I was certain I had the right guy.

In fact, I still am.

Maybe the guy had dementia. Or there could be a million other reasons why he couldn’t remember or didn’t want to remember. But, oh well.

I told the businessman I could track down one of Steven Sexton’s two sisters, but I knew that would take some time, and I was busy enough (and not certain enough that I could find them) that I didn’t want to put too much time digging into this for free.

But the businessman kept digging. He had come across a phone number of an unnamed auto repair in the same town from the 1970s and was wondering if I had access to old phone books to see whether the phone number was for the Murano Auto Repair we were looking for.

I sent him an ad that I had come across, which showed the phone number and address for the right auto repair, which didn’t match.

He responded, “The ad gives me the answer to the question! They did work at the address shown! That’s the only information I was seeking. Thank you again.”

Wait, what?

I was digging through 1940 census records in the wee hours of the night to find the owners’ children.

“I thought he wanted to find the owners or their next of kin,” I said to myself.

Turns out the businessman was involved in a property deal and wanted to know if the auto repair had previously operated at the property. You know, chemicals, liability issues.

Shit.

You see, the businessman thought he knew what he wanted, that he could just call the family of the owners, who would tell him, “Yeah, that’s where we were.”

Of course, it’s not that easy.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate…

That one simple question might have saved us both a lot of time, and saved me resources and expenses. I made it way more complicated than I needed to.

He could have simply asked me whether there was any way to tell me if Murano Auto Repair was at 100 Park Place in Wilton, Connecticut in the 1970s.

Or I could have simply asked, “Why do you want to find the owner?”

Also, things often get lost in translation through the written word. My competitive side had gotten to me and had taken his text the wrong way. 

In our fast-paced world of firing off texts or emails, not taking the time to talk through things, reading just the headline, or assuming you know what people mean, things can easily get jumbled, misconstrued or conveyed wrong.

I think a lot of the problems we have in the world right now stem from the fact that we don’t communicate with each other well.

We don’t say what we really mean because we don’t want to piss people off. Or we do the opposite—say too much without thinking about how it might affect people.

On the whole, human beings are terrible listeners too. We only listen to what we really want to hear. Or we just skip over the stuff that is not what we believe.

Or we don’t pick up the phone and talk things through.

Ineffective communication leads to misunderstandings, conflict and mistrust.

I don’t know about you, but I have complications in my life that I don’t need to inflame with poor communication.

So I’m gonna do my part and communicate better.

Starting right now.

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Recently, a New York–based private investigator reached out to me about conducting surveillance in a neighboring state in which he was not licensed.

So, here was the question (edited for clarity):

I am licensed in New York state as a private investigator. If there is a case that is “venued” in New York state, and the person moves to any other state, am I allowed to conduct surveillance in the other state, as long as the case is initiated in New York state?

The person was injured in New York state and there is ongoing litigation in New York state. The person recently moved to New Jersey. An attorney who I am working with is questioning the legality of initiating a surveillance in New Jersey with someone who is not licensed in New Jersey.

I have some top attorney firms that send me out of state for work, and they all say it’s legal. I can’t find a statute that says that I can work in New Jersey.

I don’t do any surveillance work, and I don’t pretend to be qualified enough to answer legal questions. But doing work in other states does come up quite a bit with fellow investigators, and my answer is pretty clear-cut: My understanding is that if you started a surveillance in New York (where the case originated) and the person drove into New Jersey, you are always OK.

When I say OK, I mean that this was not a typical situation; the person happened to drive into a neighboring state. You don’t need to stop doing surveillance because you are not licensed in that state. I don’t think any court of law is going to throw out the evidence because you happened to be driving through a state in which you were not licensed. Likewise, you will be hard-pressed to find any licensing body sanctioning someone for temporarily traveling through their state.

But if you are starting a surveillance in New Jersey, you need to be licensed in New Jersey—not necessarily where the case was filed or venued.

Each state’s licensing board wants to make sure that everyone who is operating in the state has a license and acts within the bounds of the law. It also helps protect the local private investigators from out-of-state competition.

What’s the risk if you do operate in another state?

To be perfectly frank, if you are operating in another state without a license, there is also not a whole lot of risk involved. Like I said, I have never heard of a licensing body sanctioning a firm for operating out of state. Also, there is very little enforcement going on within state regulatory bodies.

For God’s sake, absolutely nothing has been done to Black Cube, which operated in New York and all over the country on behalf of Harvey Weinstein with some extraordinarily shady and illegal tactics. And what about, in fact, the licensed private investigator who was doing the shady/illegal stuff for Black Cube? He still has an ACTIVE private investigator license and has not been sanctioned, according to a few of my sources.

BUT (there is a big BUT there), if whatever you are collecting may end up in court and may end up getting thrown out because it would not be collected by a licensed professional, you might want to think twice.

I realize that this answer may be different depending on which part of the country you are living in. For example, some states have reciprocity laws, in which you can enter a neighboring state as long as it’s temporary. As far as I am aware, there is no reciprocity agreement between New York and New Jersey.

Because I was not completely satisfied with my own answer, I reached out to a few New York–licensed private investigators, who also happen to be attorneys, who added some excellent points.

Most legal practitioners know little about private investigator licensing

In the original question, the private investigator pointed out that he works with some top attorney firms that have sent the investigator out of state and that employ lawyers who say it is legal. On that point, your typical legal practitioner knows little about private investigator licensing. David Boies of Boies Schiller Flexner, who at the time was one of the top lawyers in the country, hired the firm Black Cube for Harvey Weinstein. Not only was Black Cube doing all kinds of unethical things, but it was sending operatives all around the United States, to places where they do not have offices, let alone any licensing. 

As an attorney, if it was a case that could potentially go forward in either state, I would also want to be sure I had someone licensed in each state. The risk seems pretty minimal in most cases, but it really only takes one bad situation for it to come back and bite you in the a$$.

State statutes will probably not be helpful

State statutes relating to private investigator licensing typically will have some language that requires you to have a private investigator license if you are conducting/engaging in investigative services for a fee in that particular state. So, in this case, if you are in the act of conducting or engaging in investigative services for a fee in that particular state, you need to be licensed. I don’t think you will find a specific state statute that says, “You can’t come into New Jersey if you are licensed in New York.”

Case law

There is, perhaps, some case law that will support crossing state lines, but I am not aware of any. If anyone in the investigative community knows of any, please let me know.

What if you need to cross state lines?

First, I would check the local state reciprocity agreements, as well as local licensing. For example, North Carolina has limited reciprocal agreements with seven states and California has reciprocity agreements with five states, but in California you have to fill out a form and notify the state. New York, as far as I know, does not have any reciprocity agreements.

Many investigative firms will hire a local investigator in the local jurisdiction, and have one of the investigators from out of state tag along. This offers protection with regard to local licensing laws. This would typically be in a situation in which you needed to conduct interviews, especially in cases with some complexity, and for which getting a local investigator up-to-speed would be difficult. Or cases in which the investigator from out-of-state has some institutional knowledge of a case that might be hard to replicate.

Having said all of this, I don’t think that crossing state lines in every situation requires you to jump through hoops and to get a license. For example, if I am going to pick up some court records in Connecticut, doing some historical news media research in a library in New Jersey or dropping off a request to a police station in Pennsylvania, I am all set; I personally would not be worried about being licensed in that state in any of these scenarios.

But, if at any point in your out-of-state work you are considering doing interviews, surveillance, witness canvassing, scene photographs, “door knocks,” or any other activities that would be considered (or even may be considered) under the private investigator law (I am thinking of things like computer forensics) in a state in which you are not licensed, especially for a case that may end up in a court of law, I would be sure to consult with an attorney.

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Spoiler alert: Adapt.

But before I ponder the future, I want to share some history.

During my nearly 20 years as a private investigator, I’ve ridden several waves of business. 

Your mileage may vary.

When I became a private investigator in 2001, disability insurance surveillance was at the end of its business cycle for the firm I joined. For years before, disability insurance had been the lucrative bread and butter of a lot of investigative firms, but at some point in the 1990s, competition grew fierce, hourly rates stabilized (and in some cases contracted) and things eventually went away. The work that remained in disability insurance surveillance wasn’t like it used to be, and the firm I worked for eventually lost all its work to hourly-rate firms that charged lower fees and were willing to do one-man surveillance jobs. (I’ve completely oversimplified this, but you get the point.)

After a rash of corporate fraud in the early 2000s from the likes of Enron, Worldcom and Tyco, class action lawsuits became all the rage. The firm I worked for took on hundreds of cases, conducting thousands of interviews relating to class action lawsuits – that is, until some law firms specializing in this area started bringing this work in-house, hiring their own investigators and doing the work themselves. (Fact: Outside investigators are an expense; internal people are a profit center.) Slowly but surely, the amount of this type of work, just like disability insurance surveillance, decreased significantly for the majority of outside investigative firms. Yes, these firms can still find work in this area, but they can’t command the rates they used to.

Your experience might be completely different from mine, but certain things are the same: Business changes. Times change. And now, in a worldwide pandemic, everything is about to change again.

Then came a wave of hedge fund due diligence cases. With millions of dollars flowing into funds of funds (firms that invested in various hedge funds), dozens of these firms across the United States hired investigative firms to perform high-level, in-depth background checks on their hedge fund managers. This wave resulted in a multiyear boom for investigative firms, but when the wave receded, the fund of funds industry all but collapsed. Again, yes, investigative firms can still find hedge fund due diligence work, but it’s extraordinarily price sensitive and the competition is fierce.

When I went into business for myself 10 years ago, a string of Ponzi schemes – including Bernie Madoff’s behemoth – came to the forefront. I, like many other investigators around the world, worked for many years on this massive, multifaceted investigation. Eventually, this type of work died out too.

Over the past several years, white-collar criminal defense and activist investing have usurped disability insurance, corporate fraud, hedge fund due diligence and Ponzi schemes as the investigative area du jour. These days, many investigators work on jobs pertaining to an increasing number of workplace misconduct investigations (#MeToo) and cyber investigations. Monitorship investigations, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigations and corporate internal investigations are part of the new bread and butter – but will that still be the case after the coronavirus cloud clears?

Your experience might be completely different from mine, but certain things are the same: Business changes. Times change. And now, in a worldwide pandemic, everything is about to change again.

So what’s next on the investigative plate?

I have absolutely no idea. Seriously.

(Note: Trying to predict the future is silly. Almost nobody gets it right. I mean, the entire world has been shut down due to a pandemic for more than a month. Who could have predicted that?  Apparently, not even Nostradamus. Besides, I tried predicting the future a couple of times before (see GPS Tracking, the Law and the Future – A Private Investigator’s Take and The Future Private Investigator: 6 Ways the Business Will Change), and I completely mostly failed.)

But I’d be willing to bet there will be a spate of litigation relating to fraud coming out of the billions of dollars the government is lending. It’s a breeding ground for fraud.

And there is bound to be some bankruptcy work in the near future.

And price gouging lawsuits might be bubbling up any day now.

And I’m pretty certain a surge of asset tracing is on the horizon. 

And nursing homes, which are reporting thousands of coronavirus-related deaths, are certain to bear the brunt of lots of lawsuits.

And there has been some chatter about private investigators doing contact tracing work too. 

And it’s not just the type of work; it’s how firms operate. With staff cuts, will there be more competition for a smaller pool of work? Will a leaner staff with less overhead be in the near future? Or will independent contractors be the wave of the future, like many other industries? 

It’s silly to think everything will return to how it used to be.

When the imminent threat recedes and the world emerges to discover its new normal, I imagine there will be a lot less in-person work, at least for the foreseeable future, so you better learn some telephone manners and figure out how to do a proper Zoom call without a Zoombombing. Digital marketing is something you’ll probably have to get familiar with. And it’ll behoove you to learn a few skills that’ll benefit you from the comfort of your home office.

You’re probably already learning some. Most of the country – and the world, for that matter – is working from home. I’ve done more Zoom meetings in the past few weeks than I had ever done before that. (Well, most have been virtual happy hours with friends at Pursuit magazine, but I digress.) I’m also working on a strategy to do investigative telephone interviews for a case in which, just a few months ago, I had been planning to spend weeks on the road, doing in-person interviews.

Something positive to come out of these trying times is an uptick in cases to find long-lost friends and relatives. I’ve noticed a strong sense of nostalgia among people, who are perhaps rediscovering the importance of friends and family.

Here is a simple piece of advice — don’t get too nostalgic about the way things used to be, because it’s probably not going to be the same. 

As private investigators, we’re used to changing our focus in order to meet the market’s needs. So whatever comes next in our careers, we’ll do what we always have and always will: adapt.

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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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