Thanks to Hollywood blockbusters and binge-worthy TV shows, there are a lot of myths about private investigators embedded into our culture. Flashy cars, superhuman powers, computer hacking skills — we’d hate to break it to you, but that’s not how it works on the job.
Below, we’ve demystified those misconceptions with the help of our sleuthing experts.
Investigations Aren’t Glamorous
On screen, private investigators are heralded as heroes with sports cars and fancy technology who will do anything — even break the law — to solve the case.
Brian Willingham, the president of private investigation agency Diligentia Group, assures us a day on the job is not like a Magnum P.I. episode. He doesn’t drive a Ferrari, he doesn’t live on the edge, and he never breaks the law.
But while Hollywood puts a glossy shine on PI life, they also make solving a case seem lightening fast. It doesn’t work that way. Private investigators spend long hours on the job tracking persons of interest to crack the case.
“Don’t believe what you see on TV,” Trustify Director of Operations Mike Hunter advises. “We’re very good, but we’re not going to find the radical extremists in 60 minutes with commercial breaks.”
Instead, expect at least a few days or more to have your answers from your private investigator. After all…
Private Investigators Aren’t Superhumans
Sure, private investigators can crack a case that a normal civilian can’t. But that doesn’t mean they have superhuman strength or flying abilities, like the Marvel superhero Jessica Jones. In fact, they’re pretty ordinary.
“We’re regular people, with regular powers,” says Brian. “We have an expertise in gaining information, but we certainly don’t have special powers that say we don’t have to abide by the law.”
What makes private investigators different from your average person, however, are their experience and resources. Usually this comes from years of working on the police force, training as an apprentice, or earning state-official private investigator license.
Not every state requires a license, but Trustify Sales Manager Sam Rosenberg says it helps them avoid harassment or stalking charges while sitting on a house or following a person of interest. After all, they aren’t cops, and must follow the law like every other citizen. As such, there’s a lot of red tape private investigators can encounter.
Private Investigators Aren’t The NSA
While private investigators have the know-how to obtain public records, they often hit a wall when it comes to the digital world. “People think we’re the NSA,” Mike says. “We don’t have that technology.”
What’s more, they can’t hack into anyone’s accounts without breaking the law. That goes for phone, email, social media, and bank accounts, explains Sam. “The only methods available to obtain that information are all illegal.”
But what if a husband wants to see if his wife is cheating on him? Surely he can just check the phone records to see if she’s calling someone else. Not quite, according to Sam.
“Say he’s paying for her phone bill, and technically it’s his account. But even in that situation, he would have to get a subpoena to see that. Without the subpoena, he could see the outgoing and incoming phone numbers, but he needs the subpoena to see the content. That’s protected information.”
Even snooping through your partner’s phone has its limitations. Sam says it might be legal, but it may not be admissible in court. If you want evidence of your partner’s affair, you’ll have to get undeniable proof without breaking the law.
They Do Stake Outs
That’s where surveillance comes into play. “If you think your husband is cheating on you,” Mike says, “we can’t get the text message, but we can put surveillance on him and follow him to see if he is cheating.”
How do surveillances work? Mike reveals private investigators usually “sit on the house, see who’s in the house, who’s going to the house, figure out who’s there, and follow the person from the house to a different location.”
But stake outs only go so far. They can only be conducted on public property. Sam points out if they get caught on private property, and someone asks them to leave, then they must leave.
And if their target leaves? Well…
They Do Mobile Surveillance
“Mobile surveillance is where we follow a person,” Mike explains. “That’s more exciting, [since] you have no idea where they’re going to go or how they’re going to get there.”
That sense of unpredictability, though thrilling, can make the surveillance complicated. The private investigators must follow a target through crowds, onto subway trains, and if it gets really chaotic, the private investigators might even lose them.
But with all their years of experience, private investigators are professionals who “think on their feet and adapt to circumstances very easily,” Mike says. They make it look easy, even when it’s not.