Confessions Of A Private Investigator

By John Powers


I am a private investigator. Which means if we met at a party you'd immediately ask: So do you, like, follow people around? Are you an ex-cop? Where'd you park the Ferrari?

Then you'd confess: Wow, I've never met a real P.I. Which partly explains your misconceptions, though in my experience the most popular delusions about this business can be blamed on Sam Spade, Tom Selleck and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

Following People for Law Firms, Insurers and Crazy Jealous Spouses

For starters, yes, we follow people. It's called surveillance. And -- sorry -- it's typically less sordid and less adventurous than it sounds. The subject of my first solo surveillance was a woman in New York City who allegedly suffered from agoraphobia and panic disorder. She claimed that her boss was a jerk and her stressful job aggravated her condition, so she stopped showing up for work. Then she sued her employer. The company thought she was faking and retained my firm to capture her on film. I spent a long weekend parked outside her high-rise in Hell's Kitchen. A very long weekend. Hundreds of people came and went, but she never once left the building. By the third day, I became so desperately bored that I followed the wrong woman for several blocks as she walked to the bagel store, convinced the subject had dyed her hair and donned a disguise. Needless to say, this little excursion wasn't mentioned in my final report to the client.

These days, as director of a national investigative firm, I have the benefit of not being the guy parked at the end of your driveway with a video camera. We have field investigators in 45 states who specialize in that stuff, including worker's comp, insurance, and child custody cases. Sometimes they catch a more exciting case. Earlier this month, one drug-addled subject in the Bible Belt managed to get arrested three times during the course of a seven-day domestic surveillance. His soon-to-be-ex-wife wanted to prove that he had a girlfriend and was acting erratically. Mission accomplished! Our investigator chased him around town at 90 mph -- between police stops for drug possession and violating a restraining order. The investigation ended soon after the guy's girlfriend skipped town in the married couple's Cadillac.

More: 'Confessions Of A Male Nurse'


Former Feds, Ex-Cops and Shakespearean Actors

Most of the other employees at my firm -- and in this business, in general -- have a background in law enforcement or military intelligence. Not me, frankly. I entered the field 15 years ago with an Ivy League liberal arts education, beginning as an entry-level trainee at a very exclusive agency with offices on Union Square, a firm so discrete that there was no company name on the office door and we only accepted new clients by referral. After several years as a rookie, I became comfortable digging for dirt in databases, making funny phone calls, spying on strangers, diving into dumpsters, and asking all kinds of awkward questions.

Over the course of my career, I've had the pleasure and privilege of working with many former law enforcement professionals, including FBI special agents, forensics analysts and homicide detectives. Yet two of the best investigators I've ever met were a couple of ex-actors in Manhattan. They were masters of pretext, which is industry-speak for telling lies in order to determine the truth. If they called you on the telephone, you'd believe whatever they told you -- and you'd tell them whatever they wanted. This isn't to say Shakespeare is necessarily more important than the skills they teach you at Quantico, but being a capable investigator in the private sector frequently requires creative thinking and the ability to improvise. Which, of course, you already know from watching "Burn Notice."


Finally, the Ferrari

Chief among the career tips I picked up from "Magnum P.I.," as an impressionable middle-schooler in the mid-1980s, was the lesson that sports cars are the best part of being a private investigator. Quite recently, as it happens, I was admiring the Ferrari 360 Spider, Ferrari 430 F1 Spider and Lamborghini Murcielago roadster owned by the target of a multimillion-dollar fraud investigation. All convertibles, naturally. And all seized by his creditors.

John Powers private investigatorFraud investigations -- and post-litigation searches for recoverable assets -- are among the most complex, and most satisfying, areas of private investigation. It's a focus of professional specialization that also happens to be recession-proof. The past few years have been a boom time for securities fraud, bank fraud, mortgage fraud, oil-and-gas industry fraud and healthcare fraud. Basically anywhere there's still money to be made in this mess of an economy, you're going to find chiselers, cheats, swindlers and sharks.

Within the past year, for example, I've supervised and conducted investigations of major fraud in a $110 million military procurement contract and a $200 million hedge fund, and identified upward of $30 million in undisclosed assets for post-judgment relief. Such cases typically require several simultaneous avenues of investigation -- surveillance, confidential sources, forensic document examination, and many long hours of due diligence, connecting disparate dots through thousands of pages of public records, financial histories and witness transcripts. We also conduct extensive background investigations for investors, corporations and small business owners to minimize their risks when dealing with potential new partners -- providing peace of mind before any contracts are signed.

None of this means you'll catch me behind the wheel of a flashy red Italian roadster. Personally, I drive a Civic. It's ubiquitous and anonymous. If I happen to appear in your rearview mirror, you won't think twice. You won't even blink. Until I appear to testify at your trial.


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John Powers is director of Beacon Investigative Solutions, a national private investigation firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter or visit his blog.



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21 Comments

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Tanmoy Singha

Thanks John for sharing this article.

I am really interested in PI Jobs, even I am taking training from http://www.beaprivateinvestigator.net/pi-jobs .

Additionally, your story regarding these 3 aspects is motivating me more. Great stuff!

March 24 2014 at 1:44 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
IN MY OPINION ONLY

I agree with Nancy, I'm gonna have a good night's ream while the P.I. are miserable.

August 30 2012 at 2:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nancy

No need to feel nervous if you have nothing to hide...

August 30 2012 at 2:06 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Penny

P.I.'s are very much needed now a days. So many people are corrupt, and lie and can really cost other people a lot of money or a lot of grief. They help catch the cheats, and the bad guys. They help prove the truth when there are no other means. P.I.'s are great!

August 29 2012 at 11:44 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Claudia

this was quite interesting and I really needed a diversion today.

August 29 2012 at 9:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Claudia's comment
Adam

That was the purpose of the article...to create a diversion as they go through your trash.)

August 29 2012 at 10:18 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
exotiquejunque

Thought police, everywhere, acting upon " information, not deemed to be correct..." Very comforting...

August 29 2012 at 9:00 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
justin

Most PIs do their investigating with the internet, most with workers comp fraud.

Heres a story about some PI SCUM.
I dont think its possible to be any scummier than Progressive Auto

http://www.californiainjuryblog.com/2007/10/insurance_investigators_join_p.html

A Georgia couple is suing their insurance company, Progressive, saying that the company spied on them by having their investigators, undercover, join their private church confessional group. The investigators joined the group in the hopes of getting information to use against the couple in an auto accident claim according to a news article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

August 29 2012 at 9:00 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
boodiemama

sounds like this guy just wanted his resume online////boring

August 29 2012 at 8:27 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to boodiemama's comment
Jenny

I found it interesting. Maybe it didn't have enough pictures, or had too many big words for you?

April 26 2013 at 1:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
leone1127

Um, don't you mean "discreet?"

August 29 2012 at 7:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rerunsix

Maybe he could find Obama"s REAL birth certificate , along with those "secret" student records of his.

August 29 2012 at 4:47 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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