Are You Gonna Be A Dick? Primer For The PI Wannabe

Private investigators are known by many nicknames: Dick, flatfoot, gumshoe, private detective, private eye.

If you’re going to be one, get used to the nicknames. Your friends will have a field day and you’ll be known among them as Magnum P.I. pretty soon.

I get at least one call or email per week from someone wanting to get into the business, asking me for advice. I’m happy to give it to them. The more educated someone can get before they break into the business, the better they’re going to be and the better it will be for our industry.

Unfortunately, lately and historically, P.I.’s have gotten quite a bad rap. Thanks to idiots like Anthony Pellicano ( ) and the dim bulbs from the HP scandal ( ), as well as television shows displaying gumshoes playing free and easy with the law, we’re looking like a bunch of criminals.

Fortunately, I believe the majority of the public can think for themselves and will understand that there are bad apples in any group or profession. Just because the media may focus on a few of those bad apples, doesn’t mean the rest of us are rotten, too.

I’ll tell you what I tell anyone who contacts me wanting to break into private investigation: learn as much as you can before, during and after getting set up.

First, you need to understand the licensure in your state for the profession. Find out if your state requires licensure for private detectives and by what other requirements you may need to abide.

Here’s a basic link from Jimmy and Roe Mesis’ PI Magazine, however, it needs to be updated. For example, they don’t show that state licensure in Missouri is under way. Obviously, you’ll need to double check with your state board of professional licensing to be certain:

You’ll most likely need a state license, possibly a municipal license, a bond and insurance. Check around for pricing on the bond and the insurance to make sure you get the best deal. There are several insurance companies which offer discounts to organization members. Therefore, it might be beneficial to join your state PI organization and a national organization or two.

The national organization I recommend is NCISS. They are the only national body which lobbies for private investigators rights:

You’ll also need to decide if you want to start your own agency or if you want to work for someone else first. Some states require a period of time working under another’s license, so make sure you check it out. If you open your own agency, make sure you’re licensed properly for that, too. Your state board will most likely be very helpful in getting you set up.

So, now you’re legal to operate. What next?

You still need to get educated.

First, check into your local municipal, state and federal laws. Know them well. You’ll find that most municipalities and states have their laws listed online, which makes life easier. Research them, especially the privacy laws.

Make the courthouse a frequent stop. Get to know the layout, the judges, the clerks and sit in on hearings and trials that are open to you. You’ll learn how the judges and attorneys work in your local environment. You’ll learn more about local procedure than you will from any book. You’ll learn there’s often a big difference between what should happen and what really happens in a courtroom. You’ll also learn what kind of witnesses, and witness behavior and appearance draws the most respect from a judge, most fear from opposing counsel, and believability from a jury. On a side note, you might also get a few jobs from schmoozing. Just don’t get overzealous and start a marketing frenzy inside the courthouse.

Network as much as possible. It really is “who you know” that can get you the good gigs. Get an internet presence by joining as many substantive PI email groups (yahoo has a boatload), build a good website, get on the social networking sites, and create your own blog. Just remember that anything you put out there on the net can be used against you in court. Be very aware of what you write. For example, the title of this blog might completely put some people off. You need to decide what can come back to bite you on the witness stand.

Find your niche. There are so many specialties and sub-specialties of private detective work that you could spend a lifetime finding your forte. As a friend of mine used to say, “Do something you love about something you hate.” For me, that is the embodiment of PI work. I enjoy helping people. I hate problems and especially abuse of children and of integrity. So: I use my PI skills to nail liars, cheaters, and abusers. Figure out what you love and use it to fight something you hate. Don’t let someone else lead you down the wrong path. If it feels crappy…try a different road to your destination.

Be well read. Whether or not you find your niche, there’s a ton of literature out there on PI work. I know it sounds silly, but I wholeheartedly recommend Steven Kerry Brown’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigation:

First, Steven knows his stuff. He’s been around the block a few dozen times both in the public and private sectors. He’s written and re-written this book and is available by email and phone to discuss PI work. The guy’s a gentleman and often freely gives advice to those who ask. Its a great resource book from someone who runs a successful firm. Get it.

Practice, practice, practice. If you don’t have to be licensed under someone else and you don’t have a mentor, you’d better practice this stuff before you get out there by yourself and screw it up.

Try it out: follow some dope around on foot at the mall, in your car in various environments, etc. What’s nice is that the majority of individuals are oblivious to the world around them. That certainly makes our job easier. However, you will find the paranoid ones who think everyone’s eyeballing them. Whatever you do to practice, be safe.

Take a friend to the store and sit in the parking lot. Ask them to pick out an invidivual (alone or in a group of others) who’s walking into the store. Have your friend give you a description (but exclude clothing description) of the individual after the subject has entered the store. Sit, wait, and see if you can figure out who it was they picked as the subject exits the store. Picking up a target based on physical description alone can be a very difficult thing and requires practice. I hate doing these at airports. Difficult stuff.

Practice focusing on details of descriptions. Pick someone in public, take a picture with your cell phone. Sit and describe them to yourself in every detail down to shoe color. Go back, look at your pic and see what you missed. You can do this with friends in restaurants as well (what’s the lady at the table behind you wearing? Who’s she with? Did she enter alone or with someone else? Can you hear their conversation? In what type of vehicle does she depart? Did she order drinks? What and how many? etc).

Learn how to write a stellar report. This is the one thing that will keep clients coming back. Brown’s book has a nice section on this. Check it out.

Research rules of evidence: gathering, maintaining, presenting and record-keeping/reporting. Learn the “best-evidence” rules and how it applies here.

Learn as much about how to search on the web as possible. Using search engines are great and there’s little tricks and tips to tweak any search that the average user doesn’t even know. There’s also a ton of free tools on the internet to help your search which can save your client money before going to our proprietary databases or be used in conjunction with the propietary data.

As you get your own gear, practice, practice, practice with it. Never take an unused/untried tool on a job and expect it to work. Always have extra batteries and get a power converter for your vehicle so you can plug in any charger while on the go.

Find a local attorney you can respect and count on to whom you can refer your own clients. In this way, there will be no worries about conflicts of interests with other PI’s and their attorneys.

Cover your ass, cover your ass, cover your ass. Learn how to keep spectacular records of communications whether email, audio, telephonic, etc. Hone your organization skills.

Get PrePaid Legal to cover your ass in a highly litigious society. (recommended contact: siedow @ (spaces added to cut short the email data miners)

Create a “go bag” that you can grab and take with you when you’re in a hurry to get out the door for that “Oh, my God, I need someone on a surveillance downtown in fifteen minutes!” job.

Our go bags include a digital voice recorder, at least one digital video camera, at least one covert digital video camera, tape, pen, paper, spare batteries, a walkie talkie, scissors or a utility knife, and a small amount of cash and change, a baseball hat, a magazine, etc.

Our vehicles are pretty much a go bag on wheels. They contain a power inverter, cell phone charger, magnetic signs with various names and busy back numbers or trap line numbers, a camping toilet, sleeping bag, change of clothes, cooler, etc.

Be sure to research the latest equipment for your niche. Check with other PI’s on those email lists and see what they recommend based on their experiences with the gear. For most detectives, the video camera is their best friend. I recommend getting the best one you can afford.

In future bloggings, I’ll discuss privacy laws when it comes to pretexting, audiotaping, GPSing, videotaping, background checks and more. In the mean time, study up on your local privacy laws. The downfall of many an investigator is thinking that they can pick a lock, plant a bug, or pay some shmoe at the phone company for private information. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it. If in doubt about what you can and cannot do, check with your attorney to be safe. You’re a help to the law. You don’t want to end up on the wrong side of it.