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Ten years ago this month, I was about to take the biggest risk of my life: starting my own business. And I was doing so with a mix of excitement and exhilaration, along with a healthy dose of fear and terror.

It was also kind of bittersweet. I was leaving a firm where I had formed so many important relationships and I had literally learned everything I had known up until then about this business, having started as a complete schlep.

I wasn’t just any schlep, though; I was the boss’ son, which always complicated things. I always felt I needed to prove something. I never wanted anyone to think I was handed anything. And was constantly fighting the urge to prove everyone wrong, including the boss.

I always had the bug to start my own business. I’m not totally sure why. Maybe it was the entrepreneurial bug that I always read about? Or just the idea of running my own business? Or not having to take orders?

But I do remember thinking that I wanted to be able to do whatever I wanted to do and wanted more freedom to escape from regular work hours.

And despite my confidence (or complete ignorance, depending on how you look at it) that I can make a living on my own, looking back, it might be one of the dumbest things I have ever done.

I’m not exactly sure what I was thinking.

I had two small children under my roof.

If you are 33-year-old private investigator who suddenly has to fend for himself, you better have some qualifications up your sleeve other than the fact that you worked for your father’s private investigation firm.

My wife was a stay-at-home mom and my salary was the sole source of our income.

And I had only been a private investigator for eight years, which puts me somewhere between an infant and a toddler in this business.

I also had zero law enforcement experience. Which is not at all necessary in this business, but if you are 33-year-old private investigator who suddenly has to fend for himself, you better have some qualifications up your sleeve other than the fact that you worked for your father’s private investigation firm.

Lastly, having only worked for one firm for my entire investigative life, I really had no idea whether I was really any good at what I did. I was pretty confident I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know how well I stacked up against everyone else.

I was about to find out.

With $10,000 of my own money, I set up an S corporation; designed a logo; registered my domain; applied for a New York private investigator license; bought a Dell desktop computer, two monitors, and a laptop; and built myself a home office in the basement of my condo.

It was mid-August and about five days into my new adventure, with dozens of “feeler” emails having been sent to old friends and colleagues, when I got a call from an old colleague of mine that his firm needed assistance on a case that was about to go to trial.

Monday, August 24, 2009, I started my first case, helping to prepare for a trial. For the next few weeks, I commuted from my suburban New York home into New York City. For two and a half weeks, I worked long days and nights, including a 17-hour day on Labor Day. 

I noticed the irony in my circumstances on working on that Labor Day almost immediately. I was trying to have more freedom and escape regular work hours by going out on my own, only to be stuck in a Manhattan high-rise for 17 hours while my family barbequed the Labor Day away.

But by the end of September, I was turning a handsome profit.

The next month, I hooked up with some other investigators working on the Bernie Madoff case.

A few months after that, I was spending weeks at a time in Alaska, working on a high-profile case.

As I look back, it was probably the most exhilarating few months of my professional life.

I got to work on cases that I would only read about in the newspaper.

But more important, I learned pretty quickly that I belonged.

And I’m still here…

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One of the most frequently asked questions that a private investigator typically receives is “Can you get a credit report?”

The short answer to this inquiry is “yes,” an investigator can legally obtain a subject’s credit profile report, however there are a few important caveats to consider before asking the question.

Caveat #1 – You must have an “Official” signed release from the subject

The first requirement is that you must have a signed authorization or waiver from the subject of the inquiry to obtain their credit report.

Due to enhanced federal privacy laws, there are no (legal) means to obtain a subject’s credit report unless you have a signed release.  Regardless of what “loopholes” another rogue investigator may inform you, there is truly no way around it.

Caveat #2 – You must have a “permissible” business purpose

Access to a subject’s credit report is governed by the Fair Credit Report Act (“FCRA”) which was initially enacted in 1970 and has been amended to address heightened privacy laws.  Sweeping and substantial amendments to the FCRA were made in the Consumer Credit Reporting Reform Act of 1996 that further limited access to information contained in a consumer credit report through a set of “permissible purposes” that would later be adopted by the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA)  and the Gramm Leach Bliley Act (“GLBA”).

These federal statutes limit the use of a credit report to certain “permissible purposes” such as a person acting in a fiduciary or representative capacity, for employment screening, or a “legitimate” business need on behalf of the consumer.

So how does a private investigator typically obtain a credit report?

Some private investigators act as a third-party source for credit reporting agencies and have a direct link to obtain a subject’s credit report, however most investigators will utilize outside sources to obtain the information through legitimate third parties. These third party resources typically have access to only one of the three major credit reporting agencies in the U.S. (i.e. Experian, Equifax or Trans Union).

Does obtaining a person’s credit report affect their credit score?

Whenever a potential creditor (bank, lending institution, utility company, etc.) obtains a person’s credit report as part of a lending decision, his/her score is ultimately negatively affected as a “hard inquiry.”

However, when a subject’s credit report is requested by a potential employer or landlord it is considered a “soft inquiry” which does not have a negative affect on the credit score.

 

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There are a number of misconceptions about what a professional private investigator can legally obtain. These myths may begin with your matrimonial client’s insistence that her husband has secret bank account, or your colleague has boasted about how his investigators found the smoking gun in the opponent’s phone records, or it’s possible that you picked up some ideas from the latest corporate espionage page-turner…

No matter what the reason, you need the information and you need it now! So why can’t your private investigator get it for you?  Typically, there are two reasons for this:

  • First, the information may be private and protected by either state or federal statute. In this case, your investigator may be able to identify where the information is located. Location is extremely useful information for leverage in negotiations, future subpoena requests, or discovery motions. In some cases (e.g. employment or insurance fraud investigations), you may have a previously-signed release from the subject that will allow you to access this private information.
  • The second reason is that the information simply doesn’t exist. The information may not be compiled into a single database or a comprehensive format. An investigator may ultimately be able to obtain the information, but the process isn’t as simple as you might think.

The 5 biggest misconceptions by clients involve private investigators’ access to the following:

1Banking and Financial Records

There are two things to consider here – where are the accounts and can we gain access to account-specific information?

First, there is no comprehensive registry of bank accounts in the United States and identifying undisclosed or hidden accounts is no small feat.

A seasoned investigator may be able to identify accounts linked to an individual through interviews, public records searches, or other legitimate investigative techniques. Once accounts are identified, legally obtaining account-specific information is nearly impossible without a court order or the consent of the account holder.

The Gramm-Leach Bliley Act, passed in 1999, imposed strict penalties for individuals who obtain information about a third party account through pretext or deceit.  Check out Fred Abrams, Esq. post on Violating Federal Law In Asset Search for a great case study.

Dig Deeper: Can a Private Investigator Get Bank Records or Account Information?

2Telephone Records

Telephone records are private and third party access is restricted by a host of state and federal statutes, including the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006.

Similar to bank records, an investigator can use legitimate tools to try to identify the telephone carrier for a particular phone number or individual.

There are a number of online tools that allow you to input part of a phone number to determine the carrier (e.g. www.phonefinder.com). However, those cannot be completely relied upon for accurate information, particularly in today’s age of portable cell phone numbers, Skype, and Voice over Internet Protocols (VoIP).

Dig Deeper: Can a Private Investigator Get Phone Records? or Can a Private Investigator Get Cell Phone Records?

3Credit Information

In recent years, the federal government has placed a number of restrictions on the ability of third parties to access and use credit information.

Most important here is The Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) and subsequent amendments.

FCRA not only restricts how a third party can obtain credit information about an individual, but it also places requirements on third parties to make certain notifications to individuals when certain actions (including employment decisions) are taken using that information.

Dig Deeper: Can a Private Investigator Get a Credit Report?

4Nationwide Criminal Records

The closest thing to a nationwide criminal records check in the United States today is the National Criminal Information Center (“NCIC”) database.

Access to this database is strictly limited to law enforcement agencies and authorized criminal justice organizations; private investigators and information brokers do not have access to its contents.

Dig Deeper: The Truth About Access to National Criminal Records

5Comprehensive Individual Profile

Type “background investigation” into Google and you’re sure to be bombarded with claims of “Only $19.99 for a complete background check!” or “$14.95 for instant background investigations!”

Such claims are dangerously overstated – it’s virtually impossible feat. Buyers beware…these bargain sites generally just pull together information from various online sources.

They are not comprehensive and miss many online public records (not to mention those records that haven’t yet made it out of the courthouses and onto the web!).

Whatever information is provided in the “investigation” is frequently filled with inaccuracies and extraneous details.

Dig Deeper: Professional Background Check v. Free Background Check

Guide to Hiring a Private Investigator

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