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Three Keys to Success in Investigations

I have had people ask me how can they become a successful investigator?  I sat down the other day and came up with these three key points.  If you really want to succeed as an investigator, you need to continually learn new ideas and methods, but not forget about the basics.  With all of the electronic shortcuts, some investigators forget to actually investigate things, which is a shame.  The following are the three key points I have come up with:

1. One of the most important things I know for anyone to have in their work is a passion to do well in their job.  This passion may be that you just really love what you do.  I for one am one of those people that really love what I am doing right now.  I am a people person, and I am constantly meeting people all the time and I love the interaction.

 I also love studying people and their behavior.  I know of no other job that lets me do this – including being a psychologist.  They almost never get to study people when they are totally unaware that they are being observed.  If you are a people person, loving the investigations business and having a passion for your work can come easy.

2. Another key element to success in investigation, is perseverance.  Now, I know that you will not always be compensated to persevere, so we cannot always check out every single lead to the end.  But you need to have the never-give-up attitude.  When your clients see this attitude in you – you give them the confidence that you will succeed.

This does not mean you will always catch a cheater cheating.  It also does not mean that you will catch the fraudulent insurance or disability claimant.  Sometimes they are not cheating.  Sometimes the claimant is really disabled.  You cannot make them actually cheat or commit fraud.  Also, sometimes they can just avoid being caught for a period more than your client can afford to pay you.

3. Honest self criticism is necessary for you to continually improve as an investigator.  For the inexperienced investigator, I suggest finding an experienced friend who will do this with you.  Do not get offended if they find something you have missed or have done wrong.  Be open to suggestions, even from people who are not “experts” as new ideas should always at least be considered.

What I have done when doing self criticism, is that when I notice I did something wrong, or I missed something, I make a note of it, both in the file, and in a notebook I use for generic notes for myself.  In a recent case, I forgot something as basic as to confirm the identity of someone I was interviewing.  I feel silly for doing it, but I did not even realize I did it until I wrote the report of the investigation.  You can bet that is not going to happen again.  When I make mistakes in an investigation, I do not charge the client to correct the issue, because that one is on me.

If you do these three things on a consistent basis, you will have good investigations that get better as time goes on.  Always study, learn, and especially learn from your mistakes.  Becoming not just a good, but an exemplary investigator is goal I have, and you can attain that goal yourself with a little self discipline.

Cell Phone Recon - a Review

I decided to try out Cell Phone Recon.  I installed it on my own phone to see how it performs and what all it really does.  Here is what I can do.  I can see what calls came into the phone, calls made from the phone, text messages to and from the phone.  Emails to and from the phone (though some of these have not been tracked well).  I also can track where I have been (via the cell phone) by GPS.  Also you can switch phones when you want - but you can only monitor one phone at a time.

The program has a way to back up all of this information.  I initially tried it out so I could recommend (or not ) the product.  I decided it works really well, and I am going to keep it on the phone for 2 reasons.

1.  It is a great CYA tool for work.  I can prove where I have been and calls I have made, etc.
2.  It is a good security tool for the phone.  If my phone gets lost/stolen - I can find it via cell phone recon. I really like that idea.

Over all cell phone recon works as advertised.  It is a great tool for you to use in investigations (if used properly under the law) and a great security feature for your own phone.

I highly recommend this product.  You can get it from Brickhouse Security

Whatever you do - stay safe!

No Excuse for Shoddy Investigation!

 Photo: Melissa Phillip / © 2011 Houston Chronicle
Whenever you have a criminal case - one of the most basic things is to check the criminal history of the defendant.  Often this information cannot be used against the defendant during the trial.  However, it always can be used for the defendant in the trial.

This basic step of investigation really stands out in the case of LaDondrell Montgomery.  He was wrongfully convicted of robbery.  How do I know he was wrongfully convicted?  He was in jail at the time!

It seems more and more I come across cases with shoddy investigative work.  Why the basics are over looked in felonies baffles me.  Sure, in our age of surveillance cameras and instant information, there are a lot of things that  make our job easier.  However, you cannot get away from the basics in a good investigation.  If you do, it may just bite you in the butt.

See more about the story here.

Is It Time You Got Your Smart Phone?

Smart phones are really great tools.  They are especially great for private investigators.  I finally broke down and got an Android phone, and I have used it like crazy.  You can take notes, keep track of your mileage, integrate photos with map locations, browse the web, and you can use skip trace services on the spot.

I use the maps and latitude feature on my phone all the time.  I can track movements from surveillance and spot my exact location right away.  I have a Tom Tom which I love, but this app helps me go back and follow up much easier.

If you do civil process service there is an app that is great for that too.   You can get a good app from for about $80. I contract with a company and do process service and they have their own app.  It seems to work pretty well.  

I also use Droid Scan a lot for copying documents.  All you need to do is have decent lighting and use the phone's camera to capture the document.  The program does a good job of automatically cropping the edges of the document.  It works really well and you can upload scanned documents to Google docs for later use.  The OCR feature is pretty good if you need to make reports using information out of the documents.

It takes some practice and time to get really good at all of these apps, but there are many free ones that can get you going and help you with your work.  I went a route that many may or may not want to go - I did the straight talk thing with the $45/month unlimited talk, text, and data - so far I have been happy with the phone, features and service.

Whatever you do out there - be safe!

Tracking Phones Using GPS

There are a lot of people that just do not understand about GPS tracking of cell phones.  A lot of people believe that just because a phone has GPS capability, that the phone can be tracked using GPS.  That is simply not the case and here is why:

1.   A GPS unit does not transmit anything to the GPS system.  It simply receives signals from multiple satellites to allow it to calculate its current position. This it true for hand held GPS units, cell phones, TomToms and all other GPS capable devices.

2.  For someone to be able to track a phone using GPS a few things need to take place first.

      a) The phone must have the GPS activated.  This may seem obvious, but a lot of people do not realize     this.  Some phones have GPS activated in the default setting - so check your phone if you are not sure.
      b) The phone must store the locations after acquiring the GPS coordinates.  Most phone do this automatically if the GPS function has been activated.  Note: All iPhones and iPads appear to log your location to a file called "consolidated.db." This contains latitude-longitude coordinates along with a time-stamp.  Technically these are not done using GPS, but by cell tower triangulation.  This information does not leave your phone unless you have certain apps (see c)

      c) Some type of location sharing application has to be activated for the phone to be able to be tracked. This means the phone either is connected via the internet or sends the coordinates through text messages to a certain location.

I will expand on c just a bit.  There are a lot of apps that may not tell you that you are sharing your location.  At least they do not tell you overtly.  An few of these applications are:  Family GPS Tracker, GPS Tracker (for Android), Google Latitude, There are several "stealth" programs that can be installed, but a lot of social networking apps reveal and store your location in servers not in your phone.

3. Getting the GPS information from cell companies takes a subpoena for private investigators, but that information may be available for a lot of phones nowadays.

Whatever you do - stay safe.

How Long Do the Cell Companies Keep Information?

Wired Magazine broke a story that includes a memo "For Law Enforcement Only" that covers how long each cell phone carrier keeps information on cell phone calls and tracking.  This includes information on where a cell phone has been (for ATT from 2008 to present) to billing information , calls made, text messages, etc.  This can be useful information in many cases.  For a PI in Texas you will need a subpoena to get this, but knowing how long the information is kept by the carriers is very important. You can see the memo here.

The story is about the court ruling that the government does not need a warrant to get cell tower information  from the cell phone service carriers.  This includes tracking the movements of the cell phone.  The ruling basically says it is up to the district courts to decide if law enforcement needs a warrant.  That is Federal Law.  Texas state law requires a subpoena to obtain the records.

Ars Technica has a good article with detailed information concerning all of the stored infoprmation.  They have an easy to read chart for your viewing pleasure.

The point is - knowing how long the data is kept by the companies can be very useful when investigating  a case.

Remember to stay safe!

Employee Background Checks: Even the Smallest Businesses Need Them

Sometimes when people have a really small business they do not think they need to get a background check done on potential employees. What they fail to realize is that they can actually save a lot of money and a lot of headaches by simply getting a basic background check done by professional investigator. Why is that? It is simple. It is much easier to be in a relationship with an employee that you feel you can trust. Wouldn’t you rather know a little something about that new employee than hire them blind? Maybe you are old school. And you will go by your "gut feeling."

Most investigations companies charge a very reasonable fee to conduct a background check. Some agencies offer a variety of background checks depending on how deep you want to go. Most background checks will include a check of the public records for criminal violations and driving history. A better background check will also include checking past residences and confirming previous employers. Some investigators will go even more in depth and verify education.

Stop and think about it. Unless you really, really know the person you're hiring, such as they are a son or daughter, then you really need to get a background check to verify what they're saying. How much is peace of mind worth to you? Can you risk hiring a felon? Can you risk hiring a known thief? Maybe you can. Maybe you trust everyone still. But for a very small fee and not much extra time you can get a background check and this check can help you make a realistic hiring decision.

A background check is not the end all to knowing everything about a person. However, having one is far superior than not having one. If you trust your gut, and I cannot convince you otherwise, then go ahead and hire. For a final question: Have you ever hired someone who was not really who they said they were? This is very unlikely to happen is a real background check.

Remember, Whatever you do - stay safe!

Process Servers Who Conduct Investigations

There seems to be a big fuss over whether or not process servers conduct investigations to locate people they serve. We all know that often a process server does conduct some sort of locate investigation to complete the service, they can do that for themselves all they want.

I think the area of concern is when a process server wants to sell this information that they derived from their own investigation. Once a process server charges a fee for that information, that is when it appears that process server has crossed the line if he or she is not a licensed private investigator. Said line they crossed being “conducting investigations without a license.”

I'm not trying to give legal advice here. I'm just giving my own opinion as to how I see everything unfolding. There are many PIs out there who are also process servers. Obviously there is no problem with these folks charging for the information. But when someone is a process server and not a private investigator, and they are conducting investigations for a fee whether it be before or after the fact is a violation of the law.
OCC §1702.104. INVESTIGATIONS COMPANY. (a) A person acts as an investigations company for the purposes of this chapter if the person: (1) engages in the business of obtaining or furnishing, or accepts employment to obtain or furnish, information related to: … the identity, habits, business, occupation, knowledge, efficiency, loyalty, movement, location, affiliations, associations, transactions, acts, reputation, or character of a person;
I'm not sure why there's any confusion on this issue. There are exceptions listed in the code. The list is quite long but process servers are not an exception.

Remember that not only is the process server violating the law, but the person who hires the process server to obtain the information is also subject to fine. If you ever have a doubt – just make sure you hire a real Texas PI who is licensed.

Whatever you do – stay safe!

Why Do You Need a Real Texas PI?

This should be a fairly easy question to answer.  You need a real Texas PI (a licensed investigator) because hiring a non-licensed investigator can cost you $10,000.00 in fines.  That is a lot of money.  See what the law says:

§1702.381 - A person who contracts with or employs a person who is required to hold a license,  registration, endorsement, or security officer commission under this chapter knowing that the person does not hold the required license, registration, endorsement, or commission or who otherwise, at the time of contract or employment, is in violation of this chapter may be assessed a civil penalty to be paid to the state in an amount not to exceed $10,000 for each violation.

That is 10 grand for each violation.

Don't risk an outrageous fine.  You should always hire a licensed investigator.

Whatever you do - stay safe!

Understanding Hidden Camera Laws

The key term to remember for hidden cameras is "the expectation of privacy."  You cannot have hidden cameras placed in areas where people have an expectation of privacy.  So, where would a person have expectation of privacy?  In your own home, in a hotel room, in your bedroom are places obviously you would have an expectation of privacy.  Where do you not have such expectation?  In lobbies, halls, "public areas", anywhere outside are places you have no expectation of privacy.

So, can you put a hidden camera in a bedroom to catch a cheating spouse?  The other spouse can - but an investigator is likely to be violating the expectation of privacy of the cheating spouse.  The other spouse can place the camera there, because there is no expectation of privacy from the other spouse in the bedroom.  There is nothing preventing you from selling or renting a hidden camera to the other spouse to catch the cheater.

What about in a privacy fenced back yard?  A person has some expectation of privacy in such a yard.  Maybe not like that in a bedroom, but some.  So if you have to use a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), climb a tree or use a hidden camera in the back yard - you are likely violating the "expectation of privacy."   I did not mention UAV in pure jest, as making a UAV out a radio controlled small plane and a tiny camera/dvr is not difficult.  However, if you can take video/pictures from some place another person is likely to be, you can take video and photos, etc.  This may be from a hill above the property, a neighbor's yard, the street or any other type of place.

The point is, be careful when placing hidden cameras or conducting surveillance and do not cross the "expectation of privacy."  If you are not sure - you are best off erring on the side of caution - especially if you are a licensed investigator.

Whatever you do - stay safe!

Keep Cool During Surveillance

Whenever you have to have extended surveillance in one spot, you may have a need to cool your vehicle without running the engine.  I know all about hot cars in South Texas.   They can become ovens.  A relatively inexpensive way you can keep your car cool, is to make your own Cooler-Top.   There are commercial alternatives out there, but making your own Cooler-Top is relatively easy and inexpensive.

The advantage to making your own Cooler-Top is you can modify this easily to fit whatever ice chest you may already have.  I had an old one that I have had for probably more than 25 years.  Ice chests that the lid can be removed can be used in more different places than one with a hinged lid – but either will work.  Sometimes it just becomes a pain keeping the lid propped open.

GPS Tracking - Stay Up on the Law

There are a lot of things happening with GPS Tracking.  In a nutshell, in Texas as a private investigator, you can put a GPS Tracker on a vehicle with the owner's permission.  Police need a court order or owner's permission. As far as State law goes and case law goes - what I know of as of today, there have been no clear-cut cases determining what the term owner means.  Texas is a community property state -  so even in cases where both the husband and wife are not on the title - they are still both owners of the vehicle.  This is obviously a factor in infidelity or divorce cases.  This is important because in Texas the "right to privacy" is a pretty big deal.

Things like "the right of privacy constitutes a legal injury for which a remedy will be granted." and anything that goes beyond the "expectation of privacy" can have dire consequences.

Chances are, as long as you have consent form an owner - you are likely to be OK from a criminal or Penal Code (16.06) violation standpoint.

However, now the Supreme Court of the United States is getting into this.  We do not want to be violating Federal Law.  They decided to look into a criminal investigation by the Police, but we may need to look into it more carefully for private investigations concerns.  The US Court of appeals in DC put it this way: "A reasonable person does not expect anyone to monitor and retain a record of every time he drives his car, including his origin, route, destination, and each place he stops and how long he stays there; rather, he expects each of those movements to remain 'disconnected and anonymous,"  according to circuit judge Douglas Ginsburg.

The case has not been heard yet, and it is about the warrant-less use of GPS trackers by police - but keep an eye on the case as it can have implications for the private eye.

Cnet has the story here.

Whatever you do - Stay Safe!

Tips for Choosing a PI

You should choose a Private Investigator who is local.  Why?  Because you need to be able to contact the investigator and talk to him or her about your case.  Most PI's will give free consultation.  It is a good idea to meet him or her face to face.

Does it matter if they have an Office or PO Box?  Remember, just because a Private Investigator advertises an office address doesn’t mean the Private Investigator is competent or professional.  There may be other reasons that they have office space leased or owned.  Many Professional Investigators who work from home are highly qualified and prefer to use a PO Box for their correspondence.

How important is their investigation experience?  Most investigators are quick to point out what experience and qualifications they have.Many former Police, Federal Agents, Military Investigators, and others go into the private investigations business.  Some have a easier time adjusting to the PI business than others, as private eyes are simply citizens who are licensed and have some expertise in investigations.  In Texas, at least, PI's are not given any special priviledges that a normal citzen doesn't have.  In Texas, for an investigator to have their own company, they must be licensed, insured, and have a minimum of 3 years investigations experience.

Does the Private Investigations Agency have business liability insurance?  In Texas to have a license, you must first be insured before you can get a license.

What if they sub-contract some work?  Often a private investigator will sub-contract out some of the work.  In Texas this is not a particul;alery big deal, as all investigators are required to inform the clients of subcaontractors and give them information like name and contact information and state investigations license number. Where vere you are as a client you should always be aware of what is happening concerning subcaontractors.  You should always inform the PI if you agree or disagree with it.  If there is an agency that does not do this - I would avoid them.  Most of this will be spelled out in the contract.

Can I just do the investigation myself?  Yes you can.  However, if you do not have the time and/or expertise, you may not be able to get the information you want.  If you try to investigate yourself and mess things up, it may be much more difficult, if not impossible fot the investigator to do the job.

Remember, you are the client - it means you need to stay on top of the situation.  Let the investigator do his or her job, but stay in touch and make sure they are working for you.   Like dealing with most "contractors" using common sense is the first thing.  Make sure you use a real licensed insured investigator.

Whatever you do - Stay safe!

July 2 a Famous Holiday?

To quote John Adams as he stated July 3, 1776, "The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not. " [sic]

The vote for Independence was on July 2, 1776 - a unanimous vote by all convened.  They were not able to sign the declaration until July 4, 1776.  

Wonderful and Great Support

I would like to make it a point that I struggled with the decision to go into business as a private investigator.  In reality, the "easy money" is in being a police advisor.  It really is not easy as it usually involves going to God-forsaken, or at least somewhat God-ignored parts of the world in war zones or recent post war zones and the physical risk is pretty high.  Yet, it has great pay.  Once you go to work, you basically have a great paying job for a year or more.

When I let some old friends know that I decided to start my own business as a PI , I got a lot of really good support.  Does this emotional support = $?  No, it doesn't.  This is the first time that I have gone into business where I both liked what I was doing and I already know a lot about what I need to do.  My police background and investigations background gives me a real edge.

Stay tuned here for some real stories, and some tips on investigations.  Whatever you do - Stay Safe!