A few weeks back, I gave an intensive two-day training course for private investigators at a New York City-based investigative firm. The course was called Gathering, Analyzing and Interpreting Internet Intelligence – Master Class (I totally stole the “Master Class” from my friend Eli Rosenblatt). It was an exhaustive look into how to gather and interpret information from open sources and public records (if you want to learn more about that, email me).
Teaching and learning are things I love to do. And I have come to learn over the years that I have a unique set of knowledge and a unique viewpoint, having worked with some of the best investigative firms in the world.
So here are a few lessons I came away with.
Education Is a Lifelong Commitment
While many states have requirements for obtaining a private investigator license (although a few states don’t have any licensing requirements), there is no standard “course” to become educated in conducting investigations, especially when it comes to searching open sources and public records, which happen to be some of the most critical sources of information for investigators these days. And very few states have any continuing education requirements.
While many private investigators are former law enforcement officers, they may not have training in gathering information without access to their old law enforcement tools. Other private investigators who enter the field come from all walks of life, with varied backgrounds and no formal training in anything.
This produces a diverse group of people with a varying knowledge base. For the end client, it creates a confusing set of standards, ethics and knowledge regarding investigative firms. Why does this background check cost $100 at one firm and $5,000 at another? Why does one firm say they can get bank records, while the other says that is not legal?
Investigators with a lack of any formal training and limited (good) resources learn through a varied system of “work by doing” and learning from colleagues, and a system of institutional knowledge is created and rarely shared. It’s a shame.
In order to stay current and relevant, you need to educate yourself.
[You can start by taking Eli Rosenblatt’s new course, Social Media & Background Investigation Master Class 2015.]
Tricks Are for Kids
There is an infectious disease in the investigative community called IANGSAS, or more commonly known as I Am Not Going to Share Any Secrets. It’s pervasive, but easily treatable.
In all seriousness, investigators like to hold things close to the vest. Sharing their “tricks” or “secrets” is akin to providing keys to the vault. While sharing investigative techniques may be more common with your own small group of colleagues, it is rarely done widely. The truth is that most tricks have been used by many investigators and are not tricks at all; they have probably been used by hundreds before you.
Tricks also get old. I was reminded of this while preparing for the training course. I had learned some “secrets” on how to hack Facebook a few months back while working on a case, only to find that Facebook had inexplicably removed those features and the secrets were completely useless.
However, a funny thing happens when you start sharing your secrets – people might share a secret or two with you. Or do you a favor when you need it most. Sharing is caring.
Understanding the Nuts and Bolts Is Critical
The nuts and bolts of conducting investigations through open sources are absolutely critical. Understanding what information you can obtain (or, more important, can’t obtain), how to get the information and where the information comes from provide a foundation for all investigators. Most investigators know how to run a name through a database, but they don’t actually know what they are searching, how the information is obtained or whether or not it’s complete or accurate.
The Science and the Art
I can teach everything I know about how I go about my investigations (the science), but the mindset of an investigator is something that is much harder to develop (the art). You can provide just about anyone with a checklist of things to do, and they will do it. But understanding and interpreting that information takes practice.
One person may look at a UCC filing with crossed eyes, while an experienced investigator may see it as a source for hidden assets (hint: check the collateral), bank relationships or possibly real estate ownership (shares in a cooperative apartment).
The collision of the art and the science is where all the magic happens.
It just takes some time, experience and training to get there.