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.

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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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