5 Myths: What a Private Investigator Cannot (Legally) Get

5 Myths: What a Private Investigator Cannot (Legally) Get

There are a number of misconceptions about what a professional private investigator can legally obtain. These myths may begin with your matrimonial client’s insistence that her husband has secret bank account, or your colleague has boasted about how his investigators found the smoking gun in the opponent’s phone records, or it’s possible that you picked up some ideas from the latest corporate espionage page-turner…

No matter what the reason, you need the information and you need it now! So why can’t your private investigator get it for you?  Typically, there are two reasons for this:

  • First, the information may be private and protected by either state or federal statute. In this case, your investigator may be able to identify where the information is located. Location is extremely useful information for leverage in negotiations, future subpoena requests, or discovery motions. In some cases (e.g. employment or insurance fraud investigations), you may have a previously-signed release from the subject that will allow you to access this private information.
  • The second reason is that the information simply doesn’t exist. The information may not be compiled into a single database or a comprehensive format. An investigator may ultimately be able to obtain the information, but the process isn’t as simple as you might think.

The 5 biggest misconceptions by clients involve private investigators’ access to the following:

1Banking and Financial Records

There are two things to consider here – where are the accounts and can we gain access to account-specific information?

First, there is no comprehensive registry of bank accounts in the United States and identifying undisclosed or hidden accounts is no small feat.

A seasoned investigator may be able to identify accounts linked to an individual through interviews, public records searches, or other legitimate investigative techniques. Once accounts are identified, legally obtaining account-specific information is nearly impossible without a court order or the consent of the account holder.

The Gramm-Leach Bliley Act, passed in 1999, imposed strict penalties for individuals who obtain information about a third party account through pretext or deceit.  Check out Fred Abrams, Esq. post on Violating Federal Law In Asset Search for a great case study.

Dig Deeper: Can a Private Investigator Get Bank Records or Account Information?

2Telephone Records

Telephone records are private and third party access is restricted by a host of state and federal statutes, including the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006.

Similar to bank records, an investigator can use legitimate tools to try to identify the telephone carrier for a particular phone number or individual.

There are a number of online tools that allow you to input part of a phone number to determine the carrier (e.g. www.phonefinder.com). However, those cannot be completely relied upon for accurate information, particularly in today’s age of portable cell phone numbers, Skype, and Voice over Internet Protocols (VoIP).

Dig Deeper: Can a Private Investigator Get Phone Records? or Can a Private Investigator Get Cell Phone Records?

3Credit Information

In recent years, the federal government has placed a number of restrictions on the ability of third parties to access and use credit information.

Most important here is The Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) and subsequent amendments.

FCRA not only restricts how a third party can obtain credit information about an individual, but it also places requirements on third parties to make certain notifications to individuals when certain actions (including employment decisions) are taken using that information.

Dig Deeper: Can a Private Investigator Get a Credit Report?

4Nationwide Criminal Records

The closest thing to a nationwide criminal records check in the United States today is the National Criminal Information Center (“NCIC”) database.

Access to this database is strictly limited to law enforcement agencies and authorized criminal justice organizations; private investigators and information brokers do not have access to its contents.

Dig Deeper: The Truth About Access to National Criminal Records

5Comprehensive Individual Profile

Type “background investigation” into Google and you’re sure to be bombarded with claims of “Only $19.99 for a complete background check!” or “$14.95 for instant background investigations!”

Such claims are dangerously overstated – it’s virtually impossible feat. Buyers beware…these bargain sites generally just pull together information from various online sources.

They are not comprehensive and miss many online public records (not to mention those records that haven’t yet made it out of the courthouses and onto the web!).

Whatever information is provided in the “investigation” is frequently filled with inaccuracies and extraneous details.

Dig Deeper: Professional Background Check v. Free Background Check


  1. Wendy Marie says

    Hi! Great info. here! My question is, if a PI finds out that the client actually has a restraining order against them and they were hired to do surveillance on the victim, are they still obligated to provide all of their findings to their client? I am extremely concerned that impounded information on my whereabouts or that of my children has been compromised if the information was given to this person. Do you just go by the word of someone who says that they do not have any restraining orders against them or is there a way to confirm this? Thanks for your help!

  2. Shae Soto says

    Can a private investigator retrieve deleted facebook messages? The proof would really help my case. I tried looking online for request of the full profile data, or using retrieval tools but they are all dead end.

  3. Brian says

    I’m currently separated and believe my wife was having an affair and know for sure she’s sleeping with someone now. I have a restraining order against me stating no contact indirectly or directly. Can I hire a PI so can show infidelity to the courts? If not, what other options do I have to show the adultery?

  4. Renee says

    I was issued a subpoena to appear in court for a divorce trial. I am happy to testify but I am very nervous about cross-examination. The law firm is a large one and probably has access to a PI. Do I have to worry about personal things like emails, affairs, and such being brought up to discredit me? How much do you think a PI would look into such matters for a small civil court divorce?

    • says

      Depending on how critical your testimony is, it is very possible that the law firm would hire a private investigator and how deeply they would look into your past. I would say that access to things like emails would be forbidden unless there was a court order.

  5. Todd says

    My question is in regards to military information showing up on a background check I had a PI do. The person states that they were in the military for 28 years. Upon my check there were many addresses that showed up. None of which were any military base po box or address. The PI said he would have to believe that this person was not in the military because of this. Is that a reasonable assessment or is it possible he could have existed in the military that long with no trace of it showing up?

  6. Phil says

    I’m trying to find out if someone is married in a State where vital records only releases that information to immediate family. Do you know if accurint, Transunion, etc. would have that information and if not, any suggestions on how to go about “legally” confirming if this individual is married or not?

  7. Amy says

    I have heard private investigators are researching voy boards…can they find out who wrote what on these kind of boards and where these people are located? If so how much would this service cost?

  8. Frank Morales says

    I let some guy borrow $10,000 at a casino. He promised to pay me back and its been 2 months since I lent him the money and I havent recieved a dollar. Can I hire someone to legally collect the money for me?

  9. Ainsley Wolk says

    Firstly I compliment you on a fantastic site! My question is can a PI get facebook to give them ip addresses of users in order to find out who they are and where they live? I thought the security act was good on Facebook, but I’ve been hearing differently from some people.

  10. Elle says

    Question. Divorcing. Husband has deferred income through supposed loans in friend ‘s company in another state. Also overseas contracts . All this we know but can not prove it. Can a PI help ?

  11. says

    I’m glad you broke down these myths! There are a lot of legal issues a PI has to follow, and sometimes it can restrict them to certain methods, etc. However, in my opinion, it shows how creative a PI can get without breaking the law. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Sarah hill says

    Recently someone told me he hired a PI and said they could get into my Facebook account and read my private messages, and also read deleted messages. Is this true? Also, he said they could read my text messages to find out information just by knowing my cell number. Is this even legal?

  13. Deborah says

    I received a strange call from an investigator claiming my previous tenants where under investigation for bank fraud. They provided me with a case number. They would not give me the name of their company. I didn’t trust it and wouldn’t give them any personal information about my previous tenants. Does an investigator have to tell you which company they are affiliated with?

  14. Emily Nineveh says

    Hello there! My husband has a friend who is a private investigator and I am always thinking he is hiring this person to always check up on me. My question: Can this private investigator access my text messages or my work computer in any way? I mean, could she enter an IP address by an email I have sent to my husband from work and obtain info about my searches that are conducted through my work computer? Can she check my texts just by knowing my cell phone number? HELP!

  15. Carolyn says

    I am involved in a custody case where the other party (my son’s grandparents) admitted that they hired a PI and got transcripts of my text messages (they actually told me personal things that they read.) They told me they were sorry and that their lawyer advised them to do it. I also have a witness to this (counselor was present during the conversation). Is this legal? What can I do? Can I sue their lawyer? Can I find out who the PI was and sue him? I feel so violated :(

    • Brian Willingham says

      Neither a private investigator, nor anyone else for that matter, can obtain a copy of your text messages without violating some sort of the law, unless the account was somehow in your son’s grandparent’s name which does not appear to be the case here.

  16. Lisa Brown says

    Somehow this gal who has a friend who is a Private Investigator got all this personal info on me, my address home phone number and I think banking info? All they had was my cellphone number and if you type that in nothing comes up on me. I’m wondering how they got all this info? Can you do a search on me on whatever’s supposed to be available to P.I.’s and tell me what comes up? What do you charge for that?

  17. Pete Price says

    Great information, Thank you!
    I have a question. Some time ago I asked a person that I know who is a PI if they could get me a business owners phone number. I was given the persons phone number along with other information including this persons yearly salary. I was a bit surprised to see that information, I didn’t ask for nor did I want it.
    Does this PI have the ability to find out peoples annual incomes ?? Can I find out if this person is looking at my annual income (sadly, this PI is nosy by nature) ?? Is there a way I can block my annual income information from being accessed ??

    Thank You,

    • Brian Willingham says

      Salary information is not readily available to private investigators or anyone else. However, in some cases, if you have a position with a public entity (local, state or federal government) or you are part of public company, some salary information is available.

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