Basic investigating is a pretty easy task, but it’s important to remember that nearly all fifty states in the US require private investigators to be licensed, and many government municipalities are starting to crack down on unlicensed operations. What does this mean for you? It means that you, as a civilian, start your own business as a private investigator without a proper license, nor are you allowed to conduct any private investigations for hire. However, there is nothing illegal about conducting your own private investigations for personal matters. Virtually anyone with the proper training and lots of practice can conduct their own investigations, but, according to Dan Ribacoff, there’s a few questions that you need to ask yourself first if you want to be successful in getting the results that you want:
1. Are you willing to work around the clock?
Being a private investigator isn’t your typical Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 job. You’ve got to be able to work holidays, weekends, late nights, weather storms, or whatever it may be. Sometimes, you can be on a stakeout doing surveillance, having to “sit on” a guy for sixteen, seventeen, or even eighteen hours at a time (See how to conduct physical surveillance). You have to be willing to put in the work at any time.
2. Are you willing to do your homework?
For licensed professional investigators, private investigation is a para-law enforcement-type of position. Often times, you have to testify in court, so you have to familiarize yourself with the legal dos and don’ts of investigating. Amateur investigators also need to understand lawful matters, such as citizens’ rights and privacy laws. You don’t want to do anything illegal by accident and you definitely don’t want to end up on the wrong end of a civil lawsuit.
3. Do you have a good poker face?
Sometimes, in order to find out the truth, you have to tell a lie and make it seem believable. Private investigators and even police officers do it on a daily basis. Once, I was conducting a stakeout outside of a target’s house and then all of a sudden, a guy comes up and knocks on my car window.
He asked, “What are you doing here?”
Without hesitation, I answered “I’m an auto repossessor.”
“Who’s car are you here to repossess?”
“I can’t tell you that, because then the guy’s not going to give me the car.”
“You’re not here to repossess my car, are you?”
“Do you drive a Mercedes?”
“Then you’re find bro.”
After that, he left me alone and didn’t even give me a second glance. As long as you look and act credible, you’re polite, respectful, and not breaking the law—it’s pretty likely that they’re going to believe you.
4. Are you a good actor?
Sometimes, telling a good lie isn’t convincing enough. If you’re trying to gather information by deception, you have to be able to play different roles, just like an actor. One day, I’m a news reporter working on a groundbreaking story. The next day, I may be your old high school classmate looking to organize a thirty year reunion party. I could also be doing a background check for an employer. Hell, I may even be your long-lost Uncle Fred. (Trust me, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep have got nothing on me.) You have to ask yourself if you can convince somebody that you’re someone else? As a private eye, you may have to.
5. Are you willing to travel out of your neighborhood?
A good friend of mine is a veterinarian. He owns a chain of veterinary clinics and, at this point in his career, he just does the management and lets his staff take care of the rest. Long story short, he gets bored and needs something to occupy his time every day. He calls me one day and says, “I’d love to be a private investigator. It seems so exciting. Would you hire me?” I told him “Yeah, I need to interview a couple of people in the Marcy Houses project in Brooklyn for an investigation, why don’t you come with me.” He goes, “Are you kidding me? I’m not going to the housing project!” Guess what? That means that you’re not cut out to be a private investigator.
Lots of people come up to me asking to be a private investigator because they think that it’s glamorous work all the time. It most definitely is not. We often rate neighborhoods based on how many guns we need to carry when we’re conducting an investigation there—a one-gun, two-gun, or three-gun neighborhood. I’ve had to investigate in plenty of three-gun neighborhoods and trust me, it’s not a fun experience. As a private eye, you have to go wherever the job takes you.
6. Are you willing to travel out of your comfort zone?
Remember those old Motorola beepers that everyone had in the 90’s? We used to have a beeper that had a little pinhole camera with a wire that you could attach to a video recorder. My agents would put it in a backpack and walk around the streets of Manhattan like messengers, and they’d have the beepers in their pockets and they could then film people in public areas without being spotted. One time, an insurance company executive came to me and said, “This girl was in a car accident. She says she can’t work, but we think that she’s working and I need proof.”
It turns our that the woman who we would have to investigate was an exotic dancer in the New Jersey area. We followed her, and she went to this place called Heartbreakers, the strip club that she worked at. I put one of my best agents on the case, a Puerto Rican guy named Carlos. (You can put a Latino guy anywhere—in the city, the suburbs, a farm—and he’ll fit right in. That’s why it is so important and effective to have a diverse team of investigators.)
I said to Carlos, “You have to get footage of this girl dancing to prove that she’s not injured and able to work. Be careful because they search you when you go into these clubs to make sure that you can’t get in with a camera.” So Carlos goes into his car, takes apart his camera equipment and sticks it into his pants by his crotch, knowing that security won’t reach down there when they search him. When he got into the place, he went into the bathroom and put the camera back together. He then stuck the unit back into his pants and put that beeper camera through his shirt, puncturing a hole for the wire.
He took a seat near the stage and waits for the target. All of the dancers come out and get into a circle, including the girl who was supposed to be injured, but she was dancing with full range of motion and not wearing the back brace that she claimed she needed at all times (Though, she wasn’t wearing much else either).
In the video, you can see that all of the guys who are watching give her $10, too which she opens up her bikini top and lets them have a squeeze. Eventually she gets to Carlos, and what does he do?… he gives her $10 and has himself a squeeze… on the video that I would have to show in court! I’m like, “Carlos, we have to show this to a judge, and he’s gonna see the insurance investigator squeezing a stripper’s boobs!” He said, “I had to do it. Everyone else was doing it and I had to blend in.” He was absolutely right. This is a prime example of being able to get out of your comfort zone. This is the kind of craziness that you are bound to wind up doing as an investigator.
7. Can you be adaptable?
As a private investigator, you always have to expect the unexpected. I had a client who wanted me to follow her husband. No problem. She says he’s planning a trip to the Poconos in Pennsylvania to go fishing with some friends, so I put two of my agents on him. The husband had a Ford Expedition and my agents both had smaller Hondas. All of a sudden, the guy starts heading north instead of west, where he said he was going, and he just keeps on driving further and further for hours. My guys call me up and say, “We’re in Vermont and we’re almost out of gas.” I told them to keep going because if they stop for gas, they’ll lose the target for sure.
Finally, when they were quite literally running on fumes, the husband pulls into a motel and meets his girlfriend. Here we thought we would just have to follow him for about two hours to the Poconos, and end up driving all the way to Vermont. You just never know what’s going to happen during an investigation. Once you’re tailing someone, you could be gone for a few hours, days, or even a week.
8. Can you be discreet?
One of my part-time agents, Bill, previously was an FBI surveillance operative. He’s a real nebbishy, nerdy guy—no wife, no girlfriend, no kids. whenever I had a surveillance in New York City, I would use him as a foot agent. I’d go with Bill and a few other agents on a job to follow a target, and I’d say into my phone, “Bill, the target is looking in the window at Men’s Wearhouse.” And Bill would say, “Yeah I’ve got him.” Meanwhile, I’m looking around and I say to myself, “Where the hell is Bill?”.
The guy could basically disappear and still have the best view of the target. That’s how good Bill is. As a private investigator, you have to be like a chameleon and blend just like Bill did. If people are looking and staring at you, you’re not doing your job.
9. Do you have a network of friends to help you out?
A good private investigator will often utilize teams of operatives. The more sets of eyes and ears on the case, the better. When I have to do surveillance in New York City, I’ll always use another two agents at the very minimum. Together, we can watch all of the exits and entrances of a target’s building, forming a full 360 degrees of surveillance around them. I’ve been on operations where I brought five or six guys with me and it still wasn’t enough to get the job done. It always pays to have good friends!
10. Are you tech savvy?
A lot of investigations that I conduct today are done via my computer or smartphone: locating assets, tracking people, etc. It is incredibly essential that you have basic technology skills like using search engines, social media, digital cameras, and voice recorders.
11. Do you have the guts?
To be an investigator, you have to have guts, chutzpah, cojones. You have to be willing to put yourself into risky or potentially dangerous situations. Remember that with most cases, you will be dealing with lowlifes, liars and bottom feeders—fathers who walked out on their families, mothers who stole from their own children, employees who schemed their bosses. You have to track them down and interact with them, all while remaining as cool as a cucumber (even though you may be shaking in your boots).
One time, I was working with the NYPD on an insurance investigation and wearing a wire in order to enter the home of a very high-ranking member of the Gambino Crime Family and gather evidence. I was pretending to be an art buyer who was looking to purchase stolen artwork. The cops were waiting outside, and would come barreling in if they heard me say the code word, “How ’bout those Mets?”. Luckily, the operation went smoothly and I didn’t have to say the code word, but I had to remain calm and collected for that to happen.
12. Can you think on your feet?
When I was first starting out, I used to do a lot of disability and worker’s comp investigations for insurance companies. We often performed what is called a telephone activity check, where I would try to develop a pattern of when a target was home and when he wasn’t home so I could plan a surveillance.
Now, I couldn’t just repeatedly call this guy without raising suspicion, so I would create pretext of some kind. Sometimes I would say that I was calling from the programming department to conduct a survey to see what TV shows the subject was watching. Other times, I would tell them that if they cooperated with me, I’d send them a gift card, and then I actually would (otherwise I would be defrauding them.
My favorite one was when I would call a subject and pretend to be a crazy religious fanatic. I would say, “This is Virgil. I’m calling to praise the Lord.” They’d hang up, and then I’d call back and say, “How come you have so much hatred in your heart for the Lord?” and they would hang up again and again, but eventually, I would get a good feel of when they were home or when they were out. They’d be annoyed with me, but never suspicious.
One time, however, things didn’t exactly go as I planned.
“Is Richard home?” I asked when a woman picked up the phone.
“Yes, who’s calling?” she said
“This is Virgil. I’m calling to praise the Lord.”
She said, “Oh, hallelujah, brother. I go to church every day and my husband is reading the Bible right now.”
I was stunned and said “May I read you some passages from the scripture?”
“Yes!” she said.
Meanwhile, I don’t have a Bible in front of me. My secretary at the time, Jean, was a religious woman, and she was whispering, “Bible.com… Bible.com”, so I go on Bible.com and start reading a passage. That lady almost busted me! That’s why it’s so important to be able to think on your feet as a private investigator. Things don’t always go to plan, so you have to be ready the second that [you know what] hits the fan.