Ever since I started in this business more than 10 years ago, I have been fascinated by people’s perception of what private investigators do.
It seems that years of television and movies have warped any true sense of what a private investigator really does.
When I am first introduced to someone and tell them what I do for a living, I’m usually met with some oohs and ahs.
Then I am asked if I do stakeouts on cheating spouses (I don’t), or if I could tell them how much money was in so-and-so’s bank account (I can’t … it’s illegal). Or they’ll tell me they think I know everything about them even though I’ve never met them before (I don’t, but I guess I could if I really needed to).
Can You Break the Law for Us?
We get inquiries all the time from people who want us to do something that’s against the law.
Like break into someone’s house to steal tax returns, or hack into someone’s computer and read their emails, or even just access someone’s telephone records. In case you are wondering, none of these can be done without breaking some sort of law (unless we get the subject’s permission, of course).
Alternatively, we get asked to do something that can only be done in movies. Recently I was asked if I could conduct facial recognition scanning to determine whether a particular person has ever starred in any pornography films under a false name. Nope, can’t do that either.
What Is the Public Perception of Private Investigators?
I wanted to see what the general population thinks about private investigators, so I turned to Google Consumer Surveys.
There were two main questions that I wanted to gain more insight into. I wanted to know whether people think that private investigators abide by the law and I wanted to see what term people would use to best describe a private investigator.
It turns out that my limited view of what people think about private investigators was true.
The overwhelming majority of respondents — 94.6% — think private investigators break the law at least some of the time.
And 20% of respondents said private investigators never abide by the law.
On a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being that private investigators never abide by the law and 7 being that they always abide by the law, 81% of people voted 4 or lower.
There was still some hope.
The second question randomly displayed six terms. People were asked which of the six terms — law abiding, skillful, resourceful, honest, shady or unprincipled — best described a private investigator. Respondents were allowed to pick only one.
The most popular answer was “resourceful,” with 36%.
Finally, a shining light.
But the second most popular was “shady,” with 21.3%.
“Law abiding” and “honest” came in next-to-last and last, respectively.
Investigators Have an Image Problem
Of course, this is not a scientific study. We could probably have used some better terms to describe a private investigator. Or better choices to indicate whether private investigators abide by the law. You can certainly look at both of these in a completely different light.
But regardless of how you slice it, private investigators have an image problem.
Do other industries have image problems? Absolutely. Investigators are certainly not the only ones.
Look at Wall Street. Or the U.S. Congress, whose 9% favorability rating ranks below such things as colonoscopies and root canals.
Is the Perception a Reality?
Is perception always reality? Absolutely not. But in the case of private investigators … maybe.
From where I stand, I can see lots of investigators who like to perpetuate the mysterious, secretive, shady, working-on-the-edge-of-the-law mystique. I personally know investigators who work in that vast grey area.
We aren’t among them.
We’ve built a company around being transparent, legal and ethical. Even a whiff of any unscrupulous behavior might undermine a client’s best interest, our reputation and our license.
But I guess a transparent, legal and ethical private investigator is not as sexy as a mysterious, Ferrari-driving, pipe-smoking, living-on-the-edge renegade.