What It's Like to Be a Private Eye

Marianne LentiniVeteran private investigator Marianne Lentini runs Evidence Investigations in Boynton Beach, FL.

It's easy to romanticize being a private eye. We've all got that image of Dick Tracy in our minds (or Jim Rockford, or Philip Marlowe), suffusing the career with a bit of Old Hollywood intrigue: the haze of cigarette smoke, the tall, brooding man with the fedora and tormented voiceover.

Marianne Lentini is not a brooding man in a fedora. She's a friendly, outgoing woman from Boynton Beach, Florida, who listens to Tom Petty and teaches continuing education courses for insurance adjusters. She also happens to be a private investigator with over 20 years of experience.Lentini runs Evidence Investigations, a private investigation agency that offers surveillance, background checks, and dozens of other services that involve following people and figuring out if they're lying about something. Like a lot of agencies, Lentini said, Evidence Investigations' bread and butter is insurance fraud, but the company will investigate everything from child custody claims to "alive and well verification," which is pretty much what it sounds like.

"Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, they say, 'Oh, that must be fascinating.' But I don't even know anything else," said Lentini.

Lentini, who's originally from Connecticut, got her start in the investigation industry after graduating from Quinnipiac University with a degree in legal studies. While serving as an intern at a law firm she found a mentor in a retired cop, and was soon working for an investigation company in Bridgeport, CT. Nowadays, she does less skip tracing and more client retention, but she still speaks with the grit and authority of a seasoned investigator.

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Contrary to what you've seen on TV, being a PI isn't about running around with guns blazing and jumping onto moving trains. It's a patient, often muted line of work (until it isn't), frequently requiring investigators to sit in their cars for nine hours or more. When you're tailing a subject over the course of an entire day, you need to stay sharp and observant even if you're spending two hours waiting for someone to come out of Burger King.

Which is to say that it's not for everybody. "Everybody thinks they want to be a private investigator," said Lentini. "But then we take them out and train them. It's not for the lighthearted."

Following (and waiting for) a subject is only part of the story, though. For all of the solitude the job demands, private investigators must be as comfortable jumping into a situation as they are quietly observing it. Lentini's investigators (she and a partner oversee a team of five, as well as a number of out-of-state subcontractors) have occasionally crashed weddings in their efforts to uncover information--which, if there's not a movie about this yet, there should be.

As for the business itself, it's an industry that's seen sweeping changes with the rise of social media. "If someone had told me 20 years ago, before anybody started their surveillance on a case, that the subject would be telling us where they're going to be, what they look like, who they're going to be with, and what they're wearing, I wouldn't have believed them," said Lentini.

While discoveries made on Facebook and Instagram are still mainly used to complement an investigation, rather than serve as its focal point, the internet has significantly affected the way investigations are conducted. It's even given rise to an entirely new career path: Social Media Investigator (Lentini just hired one).

Of course, you'll have to be good at more than just Googling people to succeed as a private investigator. For starters, you'll need to take a certification exam in order to receive a PI license (requirements vary by state), and most likely work your way up from an internship position (which typically starts at $12/hr). Once you're established, though, the sky is pretty much the limit; Lentini and Evidence Investigation charge anywhere from $95 to $135 per hour.

"As long as people keep lying, cheating, and stealing, I'm good," said Lentini. If she wore a fedora, she might've tilted it rakishly.

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