On the surface many of the activities involved with an investigation appear to be understandable, and a client might be tempted to perform a “DIY Investigation.” Following a subject, looking up background information, and asking questions of 3rd parties is not that hard. However, there are pitfalls for the unlicensed citizen in doing their own investigation.
Legality – A licensed private investigator needs to be aware of the constantly changing laws governing the activities on a case. Video recording, pretexting, surveillance, and interviews each have state and Federal laws which restrict how these can be performed. If a person does something the wrong way, the results of their investigation can be voided, and they may even be liable for civil damages and criminal prosecution. For example, pretexting is the process of making up a scenario in order to gather information. Calling a business pretending to be the relative of an employee to see if they came to work that day, for example. Some types of pretexting is legal, some is not. Pretexting to get basic information is usually legal, pretexting to get personal or financial information is not. We are working on a case now where an investigator allegedly used a pretext to attempt in obtaining the bank account number and balance of a subject.
Surveillance has to be done correctly. There is a fine line between surveillance and stalking. A private citizen doing surveillance can easily be perceived as stalking or intimidating the subject being followed. A licensed investigator, working on a valid case knows how to properly observe a subject without crossing the line. Surveillance should be done covertly. If the subject catches the person following them easily, the claim could be made that the discovery was intentional in order to scare the subject. Investigators are 3rd parties without personal involvement in the case, taking the emotional factor out of it.
Something as simple as video recording can get an ordinary citizen in hot water. In most states recording of a conversation requires the permission of both parties. When video recording a person, the camera will normally have a microphone catching sound. Even if the subject is far away, the voices can be picked up. This can technically be construed as illegal eavesdropping. Courts have determined that even deleting the audio is not good enough, because recording it in the first place was the crime. Many private investigators disassemble their $1000 video cameras to defeat the microphone recording capability for this reason.
Licensure – Most of the activities thought to be part of an investigation are licensed activities meaning that anyone who performs them must be licensed. Taking part in this without a license is a crime by itself. Even if the non-licensed investigator is not found out, if any of the information is ever used in court, or used to decide to bring a case to court, the opposing attorney may ask how the information was developed. If it turns out that an amateur unlicensed investigation was done, it can result in the case being thrown out of court, and the plaintiff responsible for the legal fees of the opposing side.
Techniques – Even though some of the investigative activities seem easy to understand, subtle techniques go into making them successful. Years of experience and training o into learning how to gather information, document it properly, and analyze it for maximum results. More importantly, when the case is complete the results are legally usable in court if needed. The investigator is a qualified witness with no bias or ulterior motive. A direct party to a controversy who did their own investigation will have the credibility of their reports questioned.
Data access – A licensed professional investigator has access to private secure databases that a citizen is not allowed to get at. The investigator knows how and when they can use this information legally on a case.
Professional network – On most cases there will be some aspect that a specialist in an area of expertise will come in handy. A fraud investigation might get a head start if a computer forensics examiner can answer a few questions. A professional investigator has dozens of colleagues with different expertise and experience to call on during case. A well developed network works together so each person helps the other out when needed. Local groups or investigator associations are put together for this purpose. This is like getting an entire team of experts for no additional cost since most of this internal consultation is not charged between the members.
The answer to the question you are looking for in an investigation is probably an important issue in your life or business. Doing it yourself to save some money almost always defeats the purpose of why the answer is valuable to you. Think about your own profession and consider how it probably does not make sense for a person to try and do for themself the service or product you provide.
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