I am not a violent person. Other than a few fistfights with my younger brother, I have been in only one fight in my life. It was in the rear of a rival high school when I was in 10th grade. I got my butt whupped. And he was about half my size.
But every once in a while, I come across something that gets me fired up. The types of people who give private investigators a bad name.
These are the people that I would love to send an envelope of glitter.
If you have actually been around glitter, you know that it’s completely impossible for it not to go everywhere. While it sounds like harmless fun, it’s actually one of the worst creations of mankind and will literally ruin your day. There is even a whole industry of websites who will do this for as little as $7 (and it’s a business expense).
The “I can get medical records, prescription information and the results of their last colonoscopy” private investigator
Just last week I received a spam email from some “investigative” firm that provided a laundry list of information it could obtain for a few hundred bucks. I get these emails all the time. First off, 100% of the time it is total spam. I guess these guys must take a page from the playbook of the Nigerian scammers or Viagra pushers. Quite a business model they are copying.
About 95% of the time, they say they can provide bank account information anywhere in the world for $249.95. Their website is almost always from the 1990s, and they never list any physical address or any people associated with the firm.
But this one was a little different — in addition to the various bank and investment accounts that they could obtain (illegally, or at least shadily, no doubt), they were also promoting the fact that they can provide prescription information and medical records — the same information and records that are protected by federal law, with fines of up to $250,000 and imprisonment of ten years for each offense.
The fact that anyone would openly promote the fact that they are violating federal law is mind-boggling.
They also advertised a host of other investigative offerings, like credit card activity, salary history and even frequent flyer activity.
Are there ways to get this information? Through a subpoena or consent, absolutely. Anything less would require either (1) stepping into muddy/illegal waters (e.g., calling a credit card company and pretending to be someone else or hacking into someone’s computer) or (2) putting someone in a position that violates the law or company policy (e.g., bribing someone for information that is not publicly available).
The “I can find you any bank accounts in the entire world” private investigator
I talked about this in a previous post. In short, there is no central way to identify bank accounts in the world. Period. If there were, do you think the government would have such a difficult time finding the overseas accounts of convicted fraudsters?
In short, in the United States the Right to Financial Privacy Act prohibits financial institutions from disclosing bank records or account information about individual customers to governmental agencies without (1) the customer’s consent, (2) a court order, (3) a subpoena, (4) a search warrant or (5) other formal demand, with limited exceptions.
The rest of the world is a bit of the Wild West, but in general, unless you have some sort of consent or court order, you cannot obtain information relating to a bank account or the amount in the bank account.
I am not blind to the fact that investigative firms advertise that they do this work all the time. I will tell you that nearly every time, they are either doing something illegal (shady at the very least) or they are putting somebody in an extremely compromising position, most likely by using some sort of bribe or payment, by asking them to give out unauthorized information.
If that is up your alley, be my guest — there are plenty of private investigators who will illegally obtain offshore bank records.
As for me, I would rather keep my private investigator license and my rap sheet clean.
The “I am above the law” private investigator
A while back, I was contacted by a client regarding a situation in Virginia in which a concerned family wanted to place a GPS device in the vehicle of an elderly woman. The woman had Alzheimer’s, and they wanted to keep track of her. It seemed like a totally reasonable request and one that I imagine a lot of families might consider.
I spoke to one local private investigator, who came recommended from another investigator in DC. In part, I wanted to see if he was capable of doing this, but also to see what the applicable laws were in Virginia. He told me he could “put a device on any car, anytime, anywhere.”
I was flabbergasted.
I am no expert in GPS tracking, but it’s widely understood that you can install a GPS tracking device only if you share ownership of the vehicle.
The truth of the matter is that there is no cut-and-dried answer regarding GPS tracking, especially with non-law enforcement individuals. The law has not kept up with technology. But any car, anytime, anywhere? This was about a month or two after the landmark 2012 Supreme Court ruling that warrantless GPS tracking is unconstitutional.
So I asked him about the Supreme Court ruling.
His response: “It said nothing about private investigators. It only had to do with law enforcement. Until there is a specific law that states that private investigators can’t do it, I’m doing it.”
I was shocked. So, the police can’t install a GPS without a warrant to catch a criminal, but a private investigator needs no authorization to install one in the car of a private citizen? And you need a specific law to stop you?
I never used him. And I told the investigator who referred him about my conversation. He’s never used him again either.
The “If I told you where I got the information, I’d have to kill you” private investigator
This is my favorite, and it typically means one of two things: (1) It’s so simple to get the information that it’s embarrassing to say, or (2) the information is obtained through shady/illegal means that might land someone in jail.
Here is my philosophy: If you can’t tell me where the information came from, it is (almost always) no good to me. As Canadian private investigator Richard McEachin so accurately points out:
Secret sources always introduce reliability problems into an investigation … Is the secret source doing something illegal to obtain the information? Is the data fabricated?
Case in point is Joseph Dwyer, a private investigator from Investigative Resource Group, who was bribing a police officer to gain access to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database and is now facing up to 45 years in prison. I am pretty sure that he couldn’t tell me where he was getting his information.
Don’t fall into the fictional world trap of the hard-drinking gumshoe with the dark, smoky office and a ready bottle of Scotch in the drawer, fraught with underworld danger, high-speed chases and the commonplace practice of breaking the law to obtain information.
In the real world, there are real implications fraught with legal and ethical issues.
Photo courtesy of ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com