Can Private Investigators Use Information on Social Media? Here’s How it Works

This post was originally published by El Dorado Insurance. It is reprinted here with permission.

Social Media Investigation?

With social media being a wealth of personal information stretching years into the past, it’s no surprise that these platforms have become treasure troves for all kinds of investigations. But at the same time, it is important for private investigators to know the boundaries when diving into social media – and to keep in mind how social media data fits into a larger investigation. Here’s what private investigators can do with social data, and when they are allowed to access it.

Social Media and the Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

What happens to private data that is posted on social media? Can it simply be collected as evidence? Do the wishes of the social media account holder make a difference? Fortunately, a lot of court time has already been spent on this issue, and it’s more or less resolved at this point: Social media platforms are considered public places. If someone posts their data to a public platform like this, that data cannot be held to the “reasonable expectation of privacy” that prevents other types of data from being gathered.

In other words, if a private investigator can find information on social media, they can use it for a case or hand it over as evidence to an attorney without worrying about legality. If data is limited to a circle of particular friends or a group, then private investigators probably won’t be able to access it unless they are invited into that particular group (which may be an option if the PI doesn’t lie or misrepresent themselves – a bit more on this below).

The Information PIs Collect on Social Media

Social media information is fair game if a PI can access it. But what sort of information can investigators collect? There isn’t really a limit for visual vs. text-based information. So, any photos, reposted images, hashtags, captions, text posts, or comments on other posts can be used by the private investigator. This also includes any visual information posted on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. PIs have also found it very useful to look for certain types of geographical data (where photos are geotagged) and career information (available on sites like LinkedIn). This data and related metadata must be carefully cataloged and described – a simple print screen page is not high-quality evidence and could be challenged.

However, it’s important to remember that any social media data gathered must be 1) accurate, no apparent lies or exaggerations, and 2) relevant to the case at hand. This is a good sign that the data can be submitted as evidence without problems. On a practical level, there may also be so much social information that it would take too long to look at it all, which poses a different kind of challenge: This is one reason that some PIs are becoming specialists in social media investigation and searches.

Granting Access to Social Media Accounts

Suppose someone has locked down their social media account and most information is restricted. This is a foggier area, but one approach that has worked in the past is to simply ask a judge for a warrant. Demonstrate a sufficient likelihood that a social account holds pertinent information, and a judge should be able to grant access for a closer look.

The catch, of course, is that this applies to official investigations where a PI would most likely be working for an attorney, not independent investigations for a direct client. It’s important to explain these limitations to clients when starting a search for online data. Information that is to be used in court needs to be gathered by a professional third party, so a client can’t simply bring you social media data they’ve found and expect it to be successful evidence.

PIs Still Can’t Access Data Illegally

Trespassing and theft laws still apply to PIs when gathering social media info. In other words, keep it online and don’t do anything illegal. Key points include:

  • No breaking into homes: You can’t break into a home (or business) to access social media accounts on a computer where they may all be unlocked. That’s a clear example of breaking the law.
  • No hacking electronic devices: Likewise, you can’t electronically break into someone’s phone to access information. That includes any hacking methods, stealing the phone, etc.
  • No phishing attempts: PIs can’t gain access to social media information by pretending to be someone else, or by knowingly connecting with a social media account of someone represented by a lawyer in the case you are on. The law is still making up its mind at this point, but essentially you need to avoid any fraud or appearance of fraud.

The Stored Communications Act

While it’s not necessarily relevant to a private investigation, it’s important to keep in mind that in the past social media platforms have used the Stored Communications Act to refuse to provide social media data right from their own servers to law enforcement organizations. This refusal has been challenged in several ways and the ultimate result is still a bit unclear, but generally social media companies themselves will only provide information for a clear criminal case, only upon request from law enforcement.

Final Notes: Validation and Confirmation are Still Important

For a final reminder, we want to point out that it’s still important to validate any information that you may collect off social media. Make sure it’s not fake and have other sources of data that corroborate any important details! Social media is important these days, but it’s only part of the picture for a successful investigation.

Shaun Culwell

Shaun is the owner of Red Door Investigations. He has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington and is a licensed pilot and certified scuba instructor.

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Our Top 10 Favorite Pieces of Gear (And Some From Our Wishlist)

The Private Investigation Gear We Use


We are excited to announce that this article has been published by Pursuit Magazine! Check out the published version.


Gear is a very important part of any private investigator’s toolbox. The tools of our trade are usually pretty high-tech and oftentimes quite expensive. Private investigators are usually very opinionated on gear and we can talk about it nonstop if you let us (and sometimes even if you don’t). We are very vocal in our support of one brand or another and whether this will help us get evidence better or that will allow us to be just a wee bit sneakier. However, ultimately the investigation equipment we choose needs to accomplish three things: it needs to be useful, it needs to be durable, and it needs to be high-quality. If it makes us feel more covert and look super-cool in the process, all the better.

What Investigation Gear Do We Use on the Regular?

This is a list of our favorite indispensable pieces of private investigation gear we use while on surveillance:

  1. Camcorder – Our camcorder of choice is the Panasonic HC-V770 (~$499). It is a full-HD camcorder with a wide range of available accessories. It has a 20x optical zoom and 50x digital zoom. We want the most optical zoom we can get and this camera doesn’t disappoint. Between optical and digital, always go with the most optical zoom you can afford. Optical zoom is a measure of the physical movement of the lens, whereas digital zoom is some kind of internal software wizardry that usually ends up pixellating the image if you take it too far. The more optical zoom, the better. Don’t go for the 4K version (the HC-VX981K). It’s overkill and will needlessly chew through your memory card.
  2. Tripod – The Sirui 3T-35K Plus is a very good all-in-one. This baby can act as a monopod or a self-standing tripod. It comes with a ball head for adjusting the angle as well as an extension bar to give you a little more height. The three extending “feet” lock in place and give you a firm and flat support for your camera or camcorder. The legs can also fold in, turning the device into a very functional monopod. We do wish it were a bit taller, as we find that we have to either hold it or rest it on our thigh to give it the reach it needs to hold the camera high enough to see out the window. But, that’s really the only complaint. It’s built like a tank and feels very well-made.
  3. Dropcam – A dropcam is a small, battery-powered camera that can be hidden in a particular location and keeps an eye out while (hopefully) remaining undetected. They are motion-activated and, like a trail cam, will start recording when they sense something moving within their field of view. We usually use them in hotel hallways or lobbies to catch people going into or leaving hotel rooms with people they aren’t supposed to be with, etc. There are two types: rotating and fixed. The rotating type (~$125) is a small camera (much smaller than your cell phone) that has a small rotating head on it where the lens is located. This allows us to place it somewhere and rotate the head on an angle to specify where we want the camera to look. The fixed type (~$130) is slightly larger but doesn’t rotate. It does, however, have night vision, and we LOVE night vision!
  4. Keychain Camera – If we need to leave the safety and comfort of our cars and follow someone into a particular location, we need a video camera that is virtually undetectable. This one does the job. This is a camera that is disguised as a key fob. We put it on our keyrings and it looks exactly like that thing you use to unlock your car. Trust me, you can’t tell the difference. We can put it on a table or hold it in our hands while we follow a subject into the mall or the grocery store and get every move they make in public. It takes both video and still photographs. It’s actually kinda unnerving that these things exist, but we use them all the time. We like the Lawmate PV-RC200HD2 (~$300).
  5. Dashcam – This one is really more for our safety. Much like police dashcams that keep them honest and record any altercations that may take place, we use a dashcam for much the same reason. If we are following a subject in our vehicle and there is an altercation with a subject (they do happen), then we want everything on record. Not only does it help us should we need to go to trial, but it can also help law enforcement investigate should the unthinkable happen. Vantrue makes excellent dashcams and is the brand we chose. For our surveillance vehicles, we went with the Vantrue X4 UHD (~$179). This one IS 4K and for good reason. It records on a loop and gets very fine detail within a wide field of view. This can also help us document the location where we lost a subject, should that happen (*hangs head*). Oh, and this one has night vision, also!
  6. Binoculars – This one should be obvious. The closer we get to the person we are watching, the more likely we are to get spotted (“burned”), which would ruin the investigation. Therefore, we try to do everything we can to sit as far away from our subject as possible. Therefore, we need a pair of binoculars handy to zoom in and watch a location from afar. Many investigators simply use the zoom feature on their camcorders, but we feel that it is better to maintain our camera on a fixed position of interest and do the majority of our surveillance through the lens of a good pair of binoculars. We chose the Nikon Monarch 5 (~$325) and have no complaints whatsoever. It has a 12x zoom and is waterproof, fog-proof, and has a rubberized body in case you fumble and it gets away from you.
  7. Portable Power – We have to keep all of this gear powered up and running. Therefore, for longer surveillance jobs, we have to carry our power with us. We can’t always start our car and use the vehicle’s power adaptor. So, we need battery-powered capabilities. For strict battery power, we chose the Anker PowerCore 20100mAh (~$45 each) with 4.8V output and we carry at least two of them with us at all times. There is nothing worse than having the goods in your sights and having your battery go kaput on you. We have backups of our backups and everything is always fully-charged when we walk out of the office. Clients don’t want to hear that you missed out on the evidence they need because you were too careless to make sure you had juice when you needed it. These are invaluable and, in actuality, we will probably end up getting a couple more. If we are able to keep our vehicle running, then a power inverter can be a lifesaver. This can keep your phone, iPad, computer, etc. all charged and ready to go. The Bestek 300W 4.2V power inverter (~$35) is what we chose and it’s very nice. It comes with two 110V plugs and two USB charging ports.
  8. Air Compressor/Battery Jumpstarter – You know the saying, “S**t happens”? Murphy rules the road when you are 300 miles from home and all alone at 3 am in the middle of nowhere and you can’t get a signal on your phone to call AAA when your battery dies from charging all this cool crap. Well, Pilgrim, if you have the Clore Jump-n-Carry JNCAIR 1700 (~$230) with you, then you can consider your bacon saved. This thing has an integrated air compressor and battery charger in it that can get you back on the road like it never happened. No need for a second vehicle to jump you. It is completely self-contained. If you have a flat and your tire is beyond saving (i.e., blowout, etc.) make sure to always have a spare tire, jack, flashlight, and flares on hand to repair any flats along the way.
  9. Tablet – This one seems to be on everyone’s list lately and is self-explanatory. We go paperless when we can and, these days, a tablet is simply a must. You could use your cell phone, but if you have your GPS up and a call comes through while you’re trying to check an address change the client just gave you, etc, etc, etc, it helps to have something else to go to with this stuff. Plus, note-taking apps, such as Notability, can help you keep all your pertinent information right there in front of your face so you don’t have to go looking for it. This allows us to keep our phone free and not get tangled up in multi-tasking on a single device. We also have our CROSStrax case management app up so that we can keep any case-related information handy, as well as edit the master case file as we go.
  10. Digital Camera – Honestly, we will probably get roasted by our colleagues for this, but we really don’t use the digital camera all that much. The cameras on cell phones these days are more than adequate for time/date stamp photos and to snap a pic of an address or a vehicle or someone coming in or out of somewhere. In all honesty, we use the camera on our cell phone way more than we do the digital camera. However, every once in awhile, when we need a lot of zoom on a still image and don’t think the evidence would be better suited in video format, we will whip out our Nikon CoolPix 950 and use that sweet, sweet 83x optical zoom to snap a quick pic or two of what we see. But, 90% of the time, we either get it on video (camcorder) or we just use our iPhones.

And Now for the Stuff We WISH We Had (or could afford):

  1. A DRONE! – Man-oh-man, do I wish I had a drone.
  2. SiOnyx Aura Night Vision Camcorder – Again, NIGHT VISION! And this puppy does it in FULL COLOR!!
  3. Rode RODECaster PRO Podcast Production Studio – The creme de la creme of outboard podcasting sound engineering and I want one!
  4. Zoom H6 6-track Portable RecorderPodcast from anywhere? Yes, Please!
  5. DefCon Countermeasure Sweep Equipment – DefCon makes excellent countermeasure sweep equipment, but they are PRICEY! One day, if the demand is there, we will upgrade. DD1206, PRO-10G, DD802, and the crown jewel DD1207!

And that’s it! This pretty much sums up the private investigation gear and equipment we use every day and shows a few of the things on our wishlist. If you are in the biz, do you agree or disagree with our suggestions? Leave a comment down below if you use some of the same things we do or if you think what you use is better.

Shaun Culwell

Shaun is the owner of Red Door Investigations. He has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington and is a licensed pilot and certified scuba instructor.

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The Investigation Guru – Episode 2

This is the second full-length episode of The Investigation Guru podcast. The Investigation Guru is the official podcast for Red Door Investigations. Please also check out Episode One of the podcast where we discuss the psychology behind infidelity as well as some tips to help overcome the betrayal.

Caution: This episode might be disturbing for some listeners. This is a horrible case and is not one for the kiddos.

In this episode, we discuss the gruesome and disturbing case of Army PFC Vanessa Guillén. She went missing from Fort Hood in Kileen, TX in April of this year. Another soldier, US Army Specialist Aaron David Robinson, 20, is the main suspect in Vanessa Guillén’s death. After bludgeoning her with a hammer, he folded her body into a tough box, put her in his truck, and departed the base. He then called his girlfriend to help him set her body on fire before dismembering and disposing of her remains. Over a month went by with nothing breaking. A group of workers found her remains and called police. Police quickly set Rodriguez as the main suspect, as he was the last person to see her alive. As police approached to arrest him, he took his own life. Authorities later arrested Robinson’s girlfriend Cecily Aguilar for conspiracy to tamper with evidence in connection with the disposal of the body.

This episode is also on YouTube!

Here is the sworn affidavit in the Cecile Aguilar case.

Cecily Aguilar Criminal Complaint

Make sure you tune in to The Investigation Guru podcast regularly for more true-crime and private investigation content.

You can subscribe to this podcast by heading to our Subscribe to Podcast page. The Investigation Guru podcast is hosted on Blubrry and is available wherever you get your podcasts. You can visit the podcast’s page by going to our Blubrry site.

Tune in next time when we discuss the international travesty of human trafficking and the sex trade.

Thank you for listening to this episode of The Investigation Guru podcast and we will see you next time!

Shaun Culwell

Shaun is the owner of Red Door Investigations. He has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington and is a licensed pilot and certified scuba instructor.

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The Investigation Guru – Episode 1

This is the first full-length episode of The Investigation Guru podcast. The Investigation Guru is the official podcast for Red Door Investigations. In this episode, we discuss the psychology behind infidelity and some common signs to look out for in your relationship, as well as some tips on healing and overcoming the betrayal. Tune in every week for more true-crime and private investigation content.

This episode is also on YouTube!

You can subscribe to this podcast by heading to our Subscribe to Podcast page. The Investigation Guru podcast is hosted on Blubrry and is available wherever you get your podcasts. You can visit the podcast’s page by going to our Blubrry site.

Tune in next time when we discuss the gruesome and disturbing case of Army PFC Vanessa Guillén. She went missing from Fort Hood in Kileen, TX in April of this year. Another soldier, US Army Specialist Aaron David Robinson, 20, is the main suspect in Ms. Guillén’s death. After bludgeoning her with a hammer, he folded her body into a tough box, put her in his truck, and departed the base. He then called his girlfriend to help him set her body on fire before dismembering and disposing of her remains. Over a month went by with nothing breaking. A group of workers found her remains and called police. Police quickly set Rodriguez as the main suspect, as he was the last person to see her alive. As police approached to arrest him, he took his own life. Authorities later arrested Robinson’s girlfriend Cecily Aguilar for conspiracy to tamper with evidence in connection with the disposal of the body.

Thank you for listening to this episode of The Investigation Guru podcast and we will see you next time!

Shaun Culwell

Shaun is the owner of Red Door Investigations. He has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington and is a licensed pilot and certified scuba instructor.

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The Investigation Guru – Episode 0

This is the introductory episode of The Investigation Guru podcast. The Investigation Guru is the official podcast for Red Door Investigations. In this episode, we introduce ourselves and layout the purpose of the podcast. Tune in every week for more true-crime and private investigation content. We are still ironing out the technical difficulties but should post pretty regularly once we get everything worked out.

This episode is also on YouTube!

You can subscribe to this podcast by heading to our Subscribe to Podcast page. This podcast is hosted on Blubrry and will soon be available on many of your favorite stations. You can visit the podcast’s page by going to our Blubrry site. Please give it a few weeks and then subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Tune in next time when we will discuss some common signs of infidelity. Both Danna and Shaun will weigh in and offer you both the male and the female perspective on cheating in relationships. We will discuss how infidelity affects each gender differently and some tools that each can use to overcome infidelity. You’ll enjoy this personal look at what cheating and infidelity can do to relationships and some of the tools you can use to make yourself whole.

Thank you for listening and we will see you next time!

Shaun Culwell

Shaun is the owner of Red Door Investigations. He has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington and is a licensed pilot and certified scuba instructor.

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Twenty Signs of a Cheating Spouse (That May Not Be Obvious)

Does Your Spouse Show Any of These Signs of Cheating?

Has your significant other been acting differently than usual and you are wondering whether he or she might be cheating?

There are many behavior “signs” of cheating and infidelity. If you ask 100 experts, you will probably get 100 different answers. I did a pretty quick Google search and found countless lists similar in content to this one. The sources ranged from Psychology Today to Oprah. Many of the behaviors listed in these articles were pretty off-the-wall. However, when I began to look a bit deeper, I started noticing some trends and commonalities. The 20 behavior signs outlined in this article pretty accurately reflect a solid mixture of the behavior cues you should watch out for.

  1. The first thing to look for is changes in your spouse’s behavior and/or schedule. Staying out late, “working” more than usual, taking “business” trips that seem to come out of the blue with little notice or warning, and so on. These small deviations from your spouse’s normal schedule are usually the first clue that something is amiss. 
  2. Another common sign of a cheating spouse is an unusual preoccupation with protecting their cell phone. This one is huge because it is often an indicator they are hiding something.
  3. Is your spouse or loved one more concerned about their looks or appearance than usual? They could be trying to impress someone new.
  4. There are more arguments in your relationship and the arguments are more frequent.
  5. They are spending more time away from home. This not only applies to work but can also mean going out with friends or co-workers more often.
  6. Your spouse or loved one receives phone calls during all hours of the day and/or night. They may also seek a safe haven away from the house or, more importantly, away from you to answer these calls. Increased need/desire for “privacy” can mean they are doing things they don’t want you to know about.
  7. They tell little white lies about where they are going. For instance, they say they need to run to the store but you find they are actually somewhere else, like at the gym.
  8. This one may seem obvious, but a man taking Viagra for the first time or a woman starting birth control.
  9. You smell perfume or cologne on your significant other that is not yours.
  10. Being overly private and/or protective of any electronic device, such as a computer, tablet, etc.
  11. You find a spare change of clothes in the car.
  12. Credit card receipts from purchases you don’t recognize. This is oftentimes a sign they are going out without you or buying gifts for someone else.
  13. A sudden and drastic change, up or down, in sexual behavior, desires, or intimacy in your relationship.
  14. Frequent and sudden anger outbursts toward you that have nothing to do with you. This is often a subconscious attempt to “distance” themselves from you emotionally or the relationship as it is now.
  15. There is a reluctance of intimacy or poor excuses for their behavior to be reluctant.

Common Things a Cheating Spouse May Say

  1. “He/she is just a friend.”
  2. “I am just not in the mood lately.”
  3. “I just need space.”
  4. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
  5. “Please respect my privacy.”

Conclusion

In closing, it is important to remember that seeing some of these signs in your mate is not proof that your partner is seeing someone else. More importantly, do not lose sight of the fact that you have invested a great deal of emotional energy into your relationship and, if the worst does end up being the case, please maintain hope that not all is lost. If you do happen to find irrefutable evidence of infidelity or cheating and you want to overcome this breach of trust, it is not hopeless. Couples overcome infidelity all the time. If you have any desire to work it out with your spouse, then I strongly encourage you to try. Just because you see some of these signs in your relationship does NOT mean that your partner is being unfaithful.

Furthermore, this list is by no means complete. There are many signs of a cheating spouse that do not make this list and there are instances where your spouse can show many of these behaviors and nothing is going on. The only way to know for sure is to get some proof. If you are unsure how to proceed, I would recommend hiring a local private investigator to gather some evidence for you before you accuse your significant other of any wrongdoing. Usually, most of our clients already know the truth and are just seeking reassurance and verification that what they suspect is actually what is happening. Follow your gut, but don’t make waves where there are none.

Shaun Culwell

Shaun is the owner of Red Door Investigations. He has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington and is a licensed pilot and certified scuba instructor.

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