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For the past three years, around this time of year, I’ve been visiting Putnam Valley High School to speak in front of a class of seniors. The class is run by Bob Baker, whom I’ve known since I was 9 years old.

Mr. Baker, as I have been asked to call him in class, teaches math, but once a year he gives a math-applications course where he teaches seniors about applying some of the math they have learned in school to real-life situations like paying taxes, obtaining a mortgage and making investments.

The class also has a bit of career, entrepreneurship and business advice thrown in; the students listen to a few guest speakers in class, go down to Wall Street and attend a career day at MetLife Stadium.

I truly love speaking to this class every year, and I’m not really sure why. First off, who doesn’t like talking about themselves for about an hour?

But I also feel like I have an interesting story to tell, one that high schoolers can relate to.

I think it’s also because by my own definition, I’ve had a pretty successful career and I think I have the best job in the world. When I talk to the students, I share some of my past about how I got to where I am, some of the things that helped get me there and some stories of my most interesting cases.

I also talk to them about being careful what they post on social media, but hopefully I’m not the first one to do that.

While we all have a story, I can totally relate to where they are as high school seniors. This investigative story seems to be the fan favorite.

Here are a few things that always seem to resonate with the students.

Be a Writer

I was a horrible writer in grade school and high school. I literally couldn’t put a few sentences together. I couldn’t collect my thoughts or write anything cohesive. I remember my father literally throwing an entire draft “book report” in the garbage because it didn’t make any sense. I know that probably frustrated my family members; after all, I am the grandson of a novelist and screenwriter.

Things started to change in college. I’m not sure what happened, but I do recall one class where we were required to write no more than two pages for anything that we handed in. I remember being forced to write more succinctly and clearly, and without jargon, fluff or extra words.

Also at that time, I started to read a lot more. I started mostly with the newspaper, which I have been reading religiously every day since. (I think I picked up that little nugget from Rick Pitino’s book Success Is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life, which I highly recommend.)

Ironically, today I write a lot, including this blog, which is up to about 300 posts. I also write investigative reports and memos on a daily basis; for those, I need to be to-the-point, factual and jargon-less.

I still don’t think I am a great writer, but I do know one thing – writing takes work. Lots of it. So my advice is to write. Whatever it is – poems, emails, journals, fiction, fantasy or haiku – just keep writing.

And read too. Whatever floats your boat. (Maybe start with a newspaper.)

Build a Network

There are two things that I credit my “success” to. The first is hard work. I have never pretended to be the smartest person in the room, but I can outwork just about anybody. And that doesn’t require any special skills or superpower.

The other thing that I credit success to is networking. Ten years ago, when I left my cushy salaried desk job with medical benefits to start my own business, I had a wife, two young kids, a fairly substantial mortgage to pay and a whole lot of confidence (also known as ignorance) that I was going to make a living on my own.

One thing I did have was a good network of people I had come to know and trust over the years. When I sat down on day one of my entrepreneurial venture, I called and emailed everyone I had come across in my professional and personal life.

Shortly after, I began my first case, helping my client prepare for a trial. For two and a half weeks, I worked long days and nights, including a 17-hour day on Labor Day. That first client has turned into a 10-year client. The rest, as they say, is history.

What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that my network literally started my business. I had always treated people with respect and made it a point to keep in touch with them, help them out when needed and ask for favors when appropriate. I did it to be a decent human being, not because I wanted to be a good networker.

What I have come to realize is that every interaction you have is literally building your network. A network that might be able to help you in the future. That person next to you at your lunch table might be able to help get you a job in the future or maybe even inspire you to do something that you hadn’t thought of.

So go ahead and be kind to people, take an interest in someone else’s life, or just be a good listener.

You never know when you might need someone in your “network.”

Perseverance

I am a competitor at heart. My younger brother would frequently let me beat him in basketball just so I wouldn’t quit playing. I’ve also been known to get a little too amped-up during family game night.

Early in my career, I was told that I wasn’t a very good investigator. People openly doubted that I would make it when I opened my own business. They doubted that I could run a business since I was insecure, not mature enough or lacked the skills to be a manager.

Sure, I needed to grow up a bit, and some of that criticism was well deserved.

But all the doubters did was put a bit of a chip on my shoulder, making me want to prove them all wrong.

Athletes like to call that finding an edge.

Whatever it’s called, I like to push my own personal boundaries.

It’s worked out pretty good so far.

High School and College

I was a terrible high school student. I broke my arm in the ninth grade and thought that was a good excuse not to do any homework or study for any tests during the six weeks my cast was on (I think I failed every class that semester).

I got kicked off the baseball team in my senior year because I hadn’t shown up to my first-period biology class in months.

I finished exactly 106 out of 212 students in my class, just between the biggest burnout and the class clown.

I applied to exactly one college, 30 minutes from my house, only because all my friends were going to college and I didn’t want to be left behind. After a year, I dropped out, realizing that I had exactly zero ideas about my future.

I ended up working in the sports industry for a local photography firm that licensed professional sports photos. That led me to pursue a degree at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which at the time had (and maybe still does) the best sports management program in the country.

I graduated cum laude and ended up working in the sports industry for a few years before determining that wasn’t for me either.

All this experience led me to work as a private investigator at the age of 25, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

I was 17 years old when I graduated from high school. I had no idea what I wanted to do, which scared the hell out of me.

The reality is that most graduates really don’t know what they want to do. My colleague just found his passion at the age of 40.

I love what I do, but frankly, I could have loved 30 other things too. Who knows?

If you are 17 or 18 years old, you have time to figure things out, so be patient, don’t settle, work hard, persist, hustle and keep following your passions until you find one that sticks.

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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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Enjoyed What You Read?

Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date with what Hal Humphreys, from Pursuit Magazine, believes to be one of the absolute best blogs in the investigative industry!

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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