In an online world, are private investigators a dying breed?
The sign on the door was peeling and the blinds were crooked, I raised my hand to knock when the door flew open.
“I knew you were coming, I heard you need a source for a story,” said the stranger. His fedora tilted just over his left eye; the faint smell of scotch lingered on his breath. Thunder crashed and the sound of a saxophone drifted through the window from the alley below…
OK, OK, so, I might be exaggerating a little. Clearly, the world of private investigation has come a long way from the Dick Tracy, Eddie Valiant movie gumshoe depictions of the past; but how far has it come? In this information age, where we can find out anything about anyone—from my potential babysitter to the guy I saw on Tinder—online, who hires P.I.’s?
We sat down with local private investigators from different worlds within the same industry and did some sleuthing to find out where gumshoes have gone and figure out what exactly private investigation is today in the Triangle.
From an almost accidental start to investigative work, Derek Ellington has built Ellington Digital Forensics, one of the most respected digital forensics firms on the east coast. Ellington is a certified fraud examiner, certified forensic examiner, certified E-discovery specialist and a licensed private investigator, who has been working with digital forensics and in IT for over 20 years.
Ellington’s background is in IT. In that role he was often doing investigative work for companies before he actually saw himself as an investigator. For example, he could track claims of employee misconduct from their digital footprint. But as people moved from having just a computer to having a computer, a smartphone, a tablet and several online accounts, the demand for digital forensics grew quickly and Ellington seized an opportunity.
Ellington Digital Forensics has worked nationally investigating corporate fraud, theft of trade secrets and criminal and wrongful death cases. Locally, he is known primarily for work on domestic law disputes where he will investigate for different aspects of spousal misconduct.
“In Raleigh, we’re known as the infidelity and porn people, but luckily that’s just a part of what we do,” he says.
Hired primarily by lawyers, businesses or on a recommendation from a lawyer, Ellington often works in conjunction with ‘traditional’ private investigators who follow people and get first person photographic and video footage of wrong doing. “They will be our eye in the sky,” he says.
These detectives, classic P.I.s in a sense, rely so strongly on their anonymity for professional purposes that we are respecting this next detective’s request to not mention his, or his business’ name. For clarity, we’ll call him Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith has been a private investigator for 22 years and prides himself on the traditional methods of investigation based on intuition, knowledge, observation and experience. Mostly hired by insurance companies, Mr. Smith has a reputation for building solid cases for companies when there are red flags that claimants are greatly exaggerating or lying about injuries.
“We can get a bad reputation for following ‘hurt people’ but by the time they hire me, usually there are so many red flags that they are just looking for confirmation,” Mr. Smith says.
To do this work he often has to follow people, which is the hardest part of the job. There is an incredible amount of expertise needed to be able to be far enough away so people do not suspect they are being followed, but he has to be close enough to take photos or video, that can be used in court if needed, that shows, without doubt, evidence of wrongdoing.
Mr. Smith says that though movies may show mad car chases and exciting plot twists that come with following people, it is really determination and discipline that make the best investigators. Years of experience have taught him that subtle clues can be the most helpful: like for instance knowing when birds fly from a driveway is an indicator that someone is coming out of the house. He can also read the gravel indentations on a dirt driveway to know which direction someone is most likely to turn out of their driveway. There are several tricks, but just like his identity, he keeps quiet to do his job well.
Other instances don’t require special knowledge as much as a thick skin and putting him in awkward scenarios. In one case regarding worker’s compensation, Mr. Smith had to position himself on a hip adduction/abduction machine because it was right behind the treadmill where an insurance claimant, who was supposedly greatly injured, was running and training for over twenty minutes. Each time a trainer came by Mr. Smith told a story of a groin injury that needed lots of rehab. Mr. Smith says that one of the downsides of the job is knowing that when you are doing your job well, to others, you often look or drive like an ‘idiot.’
The Expert Advantage
In the name of evidence though, that kind of thoroughness is necessary which is precisely the reason that private investigators are hired.
You could go on Intelius or PeopleWise or any of the numbers of online background record checks for information from credit records to sex offender checks, and you can walk into any court and get a public criminal record. You can try to track your spouse’s car or put spyware on your home computer or attempt to follow them in person. Do you know, though, which of these things are legal? And whether you could use any of this information in court?
“A lot of what we can do, what we find is the same as what our client could find, the difference is we can stand behind it, we can explain it, we can testify about it in court,” Ellington says. “Often when we are hired, people will come to us with evidence they have already gathered. What they need us to do is replicate their results in a way that can go to court and be used as evidence.”
Ellington has testified over 150 times and knows firsthand the many ways that evidence, not handled properly, can quickly become meaningless. In this, again, the movies give us an inaccurate depiction. “People think that the technical challenge is the hardest part, when often, that’s the easiest part. The real expertise comes in understanding court orders, the rules of discovery and how to move evidence,” he says.
Who’s Right for Me?
In addition to there being different investigative specialties, there are also different styles, focuses and personalities.
Paula Hayes, a private investigator and member of the North Carolina Association of Private Investigators (NCAPI), advises that there are many important things to look for when hiring a P.I.
First, ensure the P.I. is licensed through the state. Private Investigators are licensed through the Private Protective Services Board, a department of the NC Department of Public Safety, and you can search for licenses on the PPSB website. You should also ensure they are insured.
Last, Hayes says to take into account the relationship aspect: “Make sure they are suitable for you. You need to be able to trust this person. Can they give references? Do they subcontract? You just want to make sure you know exactly who you are working with,” she says.
Private Investigators know that if you’re coming to them, it’s generally not under happy circumstances, so discretion and mutual respect is as important as expertise. In any case, it’s easy to see why the job is so dramatically depicted, from the shroud of secrecy to the dire circumstances that bring you to their door; sad saxophone music, dark alleys and scotch seem only natural.