Defying PI Stereotypes

Private investigators don’t have the most positive public perception. For one, the public doesn’t believe we abide by the law. TV and Hollywood doesn’t help us with these stereotypes either. And those who don’t respect the law are only adding fuel to the fire, serving to reinforce the very stereotype we seek to rid ourselves of. Ironically, it’s the public who ends up missing out on all the great stories about our investigative experiences since the two most important qualities to any good PI is confidentiality and discretion. This doesn’t leave much room for advertising.

 Real talk: there are all kinds of PI’s and for someone seeking intel that cannot be legally obtained, there is surely a PI out there who will be willing to risk their license and reputation to retrieve it – in fact, we’ve read about these incidents in the news here, here, and here. I learned that despite staying on the right side of the law and being completely forthright with my clients in terms of what a PI is permitted and not permitted to do and the information we have access to, it’s absolutely impossible to work with someone who is even asking for this kind of information. This was a harrowing and stressful lesson I learned and can offer up to anyone to avoid the same.

I met with a New York plaintiffs’ attorney who was looking for a PI to help with several of his high profile cases (according to his subjective opinion). He provided me with some background details on each matter and made it clear from the onset that he would be interested in running the full gamut of [illegal] activities; retrieving phone records, bank records, “or at the very least, a W2 form.” After reminding him of U.S. privacy laws, he replied with “I won’t ask how you got the information, I don’t care how you get this information.” To be perfectly clear, many (not all) PIs are highly ethical, diligent, and law abiding individuals. Sure, there are some bad apples, just as there are in any other industry. I will work my hardest to make sure I retrieve every bit of legally obtainable public piece of information I can so my client can make the most informed decision. So that we’re all on the same page, here in the United States, obtaining phone records, bank information, tax, and medical records are all out of bounds. So buyer beware of investigators who are willing to obtain this kind of information – information that in any case is difficult to use since it hasn’t been legally obtained, and there’s no paper trail that will confirm the accuracy of the information.

 My mistake was taking on a client that didn’t mind receiving illegal information, in fact one that encouraged it. Several dramatic weeks later, this saga was finally resolved. My takeaway was that despite being completely open and forthright with a client - defining what can and cannot be retrieved - when someone is hunting for information that cannot be legally obtained, run, don’t walk away. It’s just not worth working with them. They’ll never be satisfied with whatever results you end up providing them with and the headache that follows isn’t worth the Advil. Luckily this was a lesson I learned early on in my career and an error that will not be repeated. 


Talia Cohen