How To Become a Private Investigator in Texas

So, you want to be a man (or woman) of mystery?

Have you ever wondered how to become a private investigator? The Texas Department of Public Safety, Private Security Bureau (PSB) is the single-best resource for information, as it is the agency responsible for regulating private investigations agencies, agency owners, and the PIs that work for them. Being able to legally conduct investigative services in the State of Texas requires an individual to be affiliated with a licensed agency or to open an agency of their own. For those individuals who do not yet possess the education or experience requirements to open their own agency, becoming affiliated with another licensed agency and working under their supervision is one way to get the experience you need to open your own firm.

If you are interested in becoming a private investigator but don’t have any active job prospects with established PI agencies, you may consider going into business for yourself.

In this post, we will go over the necessary steps to get your license or endorsement to legally work as a private investigator in the State of Texas. Consult the laws in your state for more specific requirements where you live.

Step 1. Make Sure You Meet the Minimum Basic Requirements

Whether you want to start out working for an established private investigations agency or you are ready to branch out and establish one of your own, there are a few fundamental requirements you must meet in order to become registered in Texas.

Consult this checklist to ensure you meet all the basic requirements:

  • You are at least 18 years old
  • You have never been convicted of a felony in any jurisdiction
  • You have not been convicted in the past five years of a Class B misdemeanor in any jurisdiction
  • You are not currently charged with or under indictment for a Class A misdemeanor or felony
  • You are not currently charged with a Class B misdemeanor
  • You have never been found incompetent due to mental defect or disease by a court
  • You are not required to register in Texas or any other jurisdiction as a sex offender
  • You have never been dishonorably discharged from U.S. military service

If you consult the Texas Occupational Code, it states that:

RULE §35.121 Investigations Company License (a) Pursuant to the Act, the department has determined that an applicant for licensure as a private investigations company or the prospective manager of the applicant company must meet one of the qualifications detailed in this section: 

  • Three (3) consecutive years of investigation related experience; 
  • A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or related course of study; 
  • A bachelor’s degree with twelve (12) months of investigation related experience; 
  • An associate degree in criminal justice or related course of study, with twenty-four (24) months of investigation related experience; 
  • A specialized course of study directly designed for and related to the private investigation profession, taught and presented through affiliation with a four (4) year college or university accredited and recognized by the State of Texas. This course of study must be endorsed by the four (4) year college or university’s department of criminal justice program and include a departmental faculty member(s) on its instructional faculty. This course of study must consist of a minimum of two hundred (200) instructional hours including coverage of ethics, the Act, and this chapter;
  • Other combinations of education and investigation-related experience may be substituted for the above at the discretion of the department or its designated representative. (b) The degrees referenced in subsection (a) of this section must be affiliated with a college or university recognized by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or other accreditation organization recognized by the State of Texas.

Step 2. Ensure You Meet the Education and Experience Requirements

If you plan to work for a private investigation company:

You must be sponsored by a private investigations agency licensed in Texas before you can apply for registration as a private investigator. This either means that you must be employed by or have a firm job offer from a private investigative agency licensed in Texas.

Employers will always look for the most qualified candidates, so in the absence of law enforcement, military or investigative experience, you may consider earning an undergraduate degree in criminal justice or a related field.

Degree options available at schools in Texas include:

  • Bachelor in Business Administration – Legal Studies
  • Bachelor of Science-Criminal Justice
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice- Homeland Security and Emergency Management
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice – Human Services

Private Investigations work is VERY competitive and the more education and/or experience you can bring to the table, the better off and more competitive you’ll be. Depending on the agency and what services they offer, some skills will be more in demand than others.

If you want to work for an agency that specializes in surveillance, for example, then photography and videography skills will be in very high demand, as well as the ability to speak and write clearly. An agency that specializes in skip traces and background checks will be looking for applicants with skills in computers and OSINT. So, make sure you research the agency you apply to and that your skills line up with the kinds of investigations they do.

If you plan to start your own private investigation company:

If you wish to open your own licensed private investigative agency in Texas, you must meet the qualifications to become a private investigation company owner/manager. This means you must meet ONE of the following combined education and experience requirements:

  • Three years of private investigation experience
  • Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field
  • Bachelor’s degree in any field, plus six months of investigative experience
  • Associate degree in criminal justice or a related field plus one year of investigative experience
  • Specialized private investigator training (200 hours minimum)

Step 3. Register your New PI Agency or Become Registered with an Existing Agency

If you plan to work for a private investigation company …

If you are applying for initial private investigator registration in Texas, your employer will gather your personal information, have you complete the Original Registration Application Supplement and use the online application system to submit an application for your registration with the Texas Department of Public Safety, Private Security Bureau (PSB) as an employee of the agency. Becoming registered involves submitting fingerprints that will be used for an FBI background check.

After completing the online registration process and paying the application fee, your employer will be issued a receipt with instructions on how to go about getting your fingerprints taken along with a list of third-party locations approved for electronic fingerprinting in Texas.

When your FBI background check clears and you have been approved by the Texas Department of Public Safety, Private Security Bureau, your private investigator license will be mailed to your employer’s place of business.

If you plan to start a private investigation company …

If you are registering a new PI company, you will need to submit a PSB-01 Company License Application Form. This will involve having your company name approved to ensure it isn’t being used by another business in Texas. You are allowed to simply use your own name, and may choose to do so whether working independently or hiring employees.

The company license application also involves identifying all owners/partners/shareholders and the ownership structure of the company (sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, LLC or LLP). The application fee for a new business registration is $350.

If submitting online, you must wait 24 hours after completing your company application before submitting your individual owner/manager application. As the owner of the PI company, you must submit the Original Owner/Manager Application or apply online and submit the Online Owner/Manager Application Supplement.

You will then need to submit:

  • $33 owner/manager application fee
  • $25 FBI classification fee and two completed fingerprint cards or a receipt from electronic fingerprinting (Use these instructions for fingerprinting and consult this list to find electronic fingerprinting sites in Texas)

If sent by mail, payment must be made by check or money order payable to the Texas Department of Public Safety. All applications and fees submitted by mail must include a PSB-50 form. If applying online, fees are payable by credit card.

If you are applying by mail, send all of the above to the Texas Department of Public Safety, Private Security MSC 0242, P.O. Bo 15999, Austin, TX 78761-5999

You must also pass the Qualified Manager Exam within 90 days of submitting your application. This exam is administered at various DPS facilities around the state about three to five times each month. It is a two-hour, multiple-choice and true-false exam made up of 100 questions. You must get at least 70 questions correct to pass the exam. Your results will be sent to you about 30 days after you take the exam. Do not take this exam lightly. Many people fail it the first time because they underestimate how thorough the exam is.

As company owner, you will also be required to show proof of adequate liability insurance using the Certificate of Liability Insurance Form. Liability insurance will run you about $550/year and is mandatory to renew and maintain your business license.

Step 4. That’s it. You are now a Registered Private Investigator or PI Agency Owner in Texas

Well done! You have met all the requirements and completed the process to become a registered private investigator with an established agency, or a private investigative agency owner/manager!

Your agency registration must be renewed online each year and a fee of $350 must be paid.

As an employee of an established PI agency, your employer will handle the registration renewal for you using the Request for Renewal of Employee form PSB-17.

If you are the owner/manager of the PI agency, you will use the Request for Renewal of Owner/Manager form PSB-18.

As a PI employed with an established agency or agency manager/owner, you will be required to complete continuing education (CE) requirements in order to renew your registration and continue working legally in Texas.

As a registered private investigator employed with a licensed agency, or a participating owner/manager that has been registered for LESS than 15 consecutive years, you are required to complete 18 total hours of continuing education:

  • 14 hours must be related to investigations
  • 2 hours must be specific to ethics
  • 2 hours must be in review of the Texas Private Security Act

As a registered private investigator employed with a licensed agency, or a participating owner/manager that has been registered for MORE than 15 consecutive years, you are required to complete 12 total hours of continuing education:

  • 8 hours must be related to investigations
  • 2 hours must be specific to ethics
  • 2 hours must be in review of the Texas Private Security Act

You must receive your CE from a PSB-approved provider.

And that’s it! If you follow these steps, you will be in full compliance and can legally work as a private investigator in the State of Texas. Now, go out and do what you do, you man (or woman) of mystery.

Much of the content in this article was from an article that appeared elsewhere. Credit where credit is due.

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The Investigation Guru – Episode 8

Jim Jones

This is Episode 8 of The Investigation Guru podcast. The Investigation Guru is the official podcast for Red Door Investigations. Please stay tuned for more exciting content on the world of true crime and private investigations. You can also subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts. We are available on all of the major platforms.

This episode examines the case of Jim Jones and the events that transpired in Jonestown, Guyana on November 19, 1978.

Jim Jones was an American cult leader, mass murderer, political activist, and self-professed faith healer who led the People’s Temple, a new religious organization which existed between 1955 and 1978.

Jones founded the organization that would become the People’s Temple in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1955.

In 1965, he moved the Temple to California, where the group established its headquarters in San Francisco and became heavily involved in left-wing politics through the 1970s. 

Jones then left the US to establish Jonestown, compelling many of his followers to live there with him.

By 1978, media reports had surfaced of human rights abuses at Jonestown. Deciding to investigate these reports, US Representative Leo Ryan led a delegation to the commune in November of that year.

While boarding a return flight with some former Temple members who had wished to leave, Ryan and four others were murdered by gunmen dispatched from Jonestown. Jones then ordered and likely coerced a mass murder-suicide that claimed the lives of 918 commune members, 304 of them children, almost all by cyanide-poisoned Flavor Aid.

San-Francisco-Chronicle-Article

This post is also on our YouTube channel! Come check us out!

Make sure you tune in to The Investigation Guru podcast regularly for more true-crime and private investigation content. Next time, we will be discussing the disturbing case of Jodi Arias, who was convicted of killing her boyfriend, Travis Alexander, after stalking him for months.

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.

If you have a podcast, you might want to keep up with your reviews. A great resource we have found is My Podcast Reviews. If you want to keep tabs on how your podcast is doing, I’d like to invite you to check them out!

We have merch! Check out our teepublic store and get some guru merch on your person! We have tee shirts, mugs, masks, hoodies, and tumblers, among other things. If you’d like to support the show, please consider becoming a Patron! You’d not only be helping the show, but you can also get some pretty sweet swag in the process.

The voice actor for our intro and outro is Jake Phillips. He has the voice of a Roman God and we were so happy to have him. He insisted on us not crediting him, but we’re going to do it anyway. He can be found at jakephillips.net.

Our intro and outro music was composed by Zach Striefel.

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

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The Investigation Guru – Episode 7

Maura Murray

This is Episode 7 of The Investigation Guru podcast. The Investigation Guru is the official podcast for Red Door Investigations. Please stay tuned for more exciting content on the world of true crime and private investigations. You can also subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts. We are available on all of the major platforms.

This episode examines the mysterious disappearance of Maura Murray. Maura disappeared on the evening of February 9, 2004, after a car crash on Route 112 near Woodsville, NH. There are many mysterious events surrounding her disappearance and her current whereabouts remain unknown to this day. This is an older case and there has been a lot of coverage on this case in many media outlets, including this podcast episode. I would urge you to check out the many YouTube videos and podcast episodes out there that examine this case, as they may have additional material that we didn’t cover.

112dirtbag’s video
Faith-Westman-911-Transcript

Butch-Atwood-911-Transcript

Faith-Westman-Police-Report

John-Monaghan-Narrative

Fred-Murrays-Lawsuit-Against-NH-to-Release-Documents

FMurray-Lawsuit-Transcript-1

FMurray-Lawsuit-Transcript-2

This post is also on our YouTube channel! Come check us out!

Make sure you tune in to The Investigation Guru podcast regularly for more true-crime and private investigation content. Next time, we will be discussing the intriguing and sad story of Jim Jones and Jonestown, where 918 people were coerced into committing mass suicide on the word of a single man.

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.

If you have a podcast, you might want to keep up with your reviews. A great resource we have found is My Podcast Reviews. If you want to keep tabs on how your podcast is doing, I’d like to invite you to check them out!

We have merch! Check out our teepublic store and get some guru merch on your person! We have tee shirts, mugs, masks, hoodies, and tumblers, among other things. If you’d like to support the show, please consider becoming a Patron! You’d not only be helping the show, but you can also get some pretty sweet swag in the process.

The voice actor for our intro and outro is Jake Phillips. He has the voice of a Roman God and we were so happy to have him. He insisted on us not crediting him, but we’re going to do it anyway. He can be found at jakephillips.net.

Our intro and outro music was composed by Zach Striefel.

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

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The Investigation Guru – Episode 6

Lori Vallow-Daybell

This is Episode 6 of The Investigation Guru podcast. The Investigation Guru is the official podcast for Red Door Investigations. Please stay tuned for more exciting content on the world of true crime and private investigations. You can also subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts. We are available on all of the major platforms.

This episode examines the horrifying case of Lori Vallow-Daybell, whose children, J.J. and Tylee, went missing in 2019 and were eventually found dead later that year. Their remains were found on the property of Lori’s fifth husband, Chad Daybell. Their bodies had been dismembered and buried in the pet cemetery on site. Lori then tried to cover up the crime and fled to Hawaii with her new husband. Fueled by her end-times beliefs, she thought that her children were “dark” and had been possessed by Satan. Very sad stuff. How heartless can someone be?

I am also including some pictures of the main players to help you keep them straight.

Lori Vallow
Lori Vallow
Lori and Chad Daybell
Lori and Chad Daybell
J.J. and Tylee
J.J. and Tylee
Alex Cox
Alex (Lori’s Brother)
Charles Vallow
Charles Vallow
Chad and Tammy Daybell
Chad and Tammy Daybell
Lori and Joseph Ryan (Husband #3)
Lori and Joseph Ryan (Husband #3) on their wedding day
Melani (Lori's neice) and her husband, Brandon
Melani (Lori’s neice) and her husband, Brandon
Kay and Larry Woodcock
Kay and Larry Woodcock (J.J.’s grandparents)

This post is also on our YouTube channel! Come check us out!

Make sure you tune in to The Investigation Guru podcast regularly for more true-crime and private investigation content. Next time, we will be discussing the disappearance of Maura Murray, who disappeared on the evening of February 9, 2004, after she crashed her car. If you haven’t heard of this case, get ready because it’s quite unnerving.

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.

If you have a podcast, you might want to keep up with your reviews. A great resource we have found is My Podcast Reviews. If you want to keep tabs on how your podcast is doing, I’d like to invite you to check them out!

We have merch! Check out our teepublic store and get some guru merch on your person! We have tee shirts, mugs, masks, hoodies, and tumblers, among other things. If you’d like to support the show, please consider becoming a Patron! You’d not only be helping the show, but you can also get some pretty sweet swag in the process.

The voice actor for our intro and outro is Jake Phillips. He has the voice of a Roman God and we were so happy to have him. He insisted on us not crediting him, but we’re going to do it anyway. He can be found at jakephillips.net.

Our intro and outro music was composed by Zach Striefel.

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

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The Investigation Guru – Episode 5

Chris Watts

This is Episode 5 of The Investigation Guru podcast. The Investigation Guru is the official podcast for Red Door Investigations. Please stay tuned for more exciting content on the world of true crime and private investigations. You can also subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts. We are available on all of the major platforms.

This episode examines the sad and shocking case of Chris Watts, who murdered his pregnant wife Shanann and their two young daughters, Bella and Celeste in 2018. The coldness and inhumanity with which Chris carried out these murders is truly disturbing and really began to bother me personally. His total and complete lack of remorse and the endless lies that he told during the investigation are haunting.

Here is the police report, as promised!

Chris-Watts-Police-Report

This post is also on our YouTube channel! Come check us out!

Make sure you tune in to The Investigation Guru podcast regularly for more true-crime and private investigation content. Next week, we will be discussing the case of Lori Vallow/Daybell, who participated in the murder and subsequent cover-up of the deaths of her two children, Tylee and J.J. If you haven’t heard of this case, get ready because it’s quite unnerving.

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.

If you have a podcast, you might want to keep up with your reviews. A great resource we have found is My Podcast Reviews. If you want to keep tabs on how your podcast is doing, I’d like to invite you to check them out!

We have merch! Check out our teepublic store and get some guru merch on your person! We have tee shirts, mugs, masks, hoodies, and tumblers, among other things. If you’d like to support the show, please consider becoming a Patron! You’d not only be helping the show, but you can also get some pretty sweet swag in the process.

The voice actor for our intro and outro is Jake Phillips. He has the voice of a Roman God and we were so happy to have him. He insisted on us not crediting him, but we’re going to do it anyway. He can be found at jakephillips.net.

Our intro and outro music was composed by Zach Striefel.

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

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The Investigation Guru – Episode 4

Five Things that a Private Investigator Can NEVER Do

This is Episode 4 of The Investigation Guru podcast. The Investigation Guru is the official podcast for Red Door Investigations. Please stay tuned for more exciting content on the world of true crime and private investigations. You can also subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts. We are available on all of the major platforms.

This episode closely follows a recent blog post series we did on the legalities of being a private investigator and the bounds and constraints that are placed on us by our governing agencies. In this episode, we discuss five things that a private investigator can NEVER do. For more information, please head over to our blog and read the post titled Five Things a Private Investigator CAN NOT Do Under Any Circumstances.

This post is also on our YouTube channel! Come check us out!

Make sure you tune in to The Investigation Guru podcast regularly for more true-crime and private investigation content. Season Two starts very soon. First up will be the shocking and disturbing case of Chris Watts, who murdered his pregnant wife and their two young daughters. If you haven’t heard of this case, get ready because it’s quite unnerving.

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.

Please be patient with us…this is the final episode in Season One. We will be completely re-branding the show in Season Two and will be focusing more on true crime content and less on the PI stuff (although we may put in a PI episode here and there if it fits in with the more true-crime vibe we are going for). We are completely re-doing our intro and outro and getting some custom music for the channel that is more appropriate. This season, we have really been trying to get everything set up and get our feet wet. We have made our share of mistakes (and have learned from them). We have bought some new equipment and will be dedicating a lot more of our time to this area of our business. So, thank you so much for your extreme patience. Better things are coming out very soon, we promise.

If you have a podcast, you might want to keep up with your reviews. A great resource we have found is My Podcast Reviews. If you want to keep tabs on how your podcast is doing, I’d like to invite you to check them out!

We have merch! Check out our teepublic store and get some guru merch on your person! We have tee shirts, mugs, masks, hoodies, and tumblers, among other things. If you’d like to support the show, please consider becoming a Patron! You’d not only be helping the show, but you can also get some pretty sweet swag in the process.

The temporary intro music for this episode was composed by Kevin MacLeod. It is available on the incompetech website:

Anguish by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3373-anguish
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

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

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The Investigation Guru – Episode 3

Five Things a Private Investigator Can Do That Might Surprise You

This is Episode 3 of The Investigation Guru podcast. The Investigation Guru is the official podcast for Red Door Investigations. It has been a while since we uploaded any new content (our apologies), but things have been quite busy. We are going to do better, we promise. Please stay tuned for more exciting content on the world of true crime and private investigations. We should be uploading much more regularly going from here on out. We appreciate your patience.

This episode closely follows a recent blog post series we did on the legalities of being a private investigator and the bounds and constraints that are placed on us by our governing agencies. In this episode, we discuss five things that a private investigator can legally do. For more information, please head over to our blog and read the post titled Five Things a Private Investigator CAN DO that May Surprise You.

This post is also on our YouTube channel! Come check us out!

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

If you have a podcast, you might want to keep up with your reviews. A great resource we have found is My Podcast Reviews. If you want to keep tabs on how your podcast is doing, I’d like to invite you to check them out!

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 week when we discuss five things that a private investigator can NEVER do.

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

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Five Things a Private Investigator CAN NOT Do Under Any Circumstances

What Can a Private Investigator NEVER Do?

In the last post, we discussed five things that a private investigator is legally allowed to do. In this post, we will flip the script and discuss some things that a private investigator can NEVER do, under any circumstances. There are many legal grey areas surrounding private investigators (many of whom take full advantage of this fact), but there are state and federal laws that are in place to protect the public.

If you are a member of the general public and you see any of the behaviors on this list, call the police and the state regulatory board for your state. The behaviors on this list are inexcusable, unethical, and highly illegal. If you are in the business and you use these tactics, give yourself a gut check, because you are in this business for the wrong reasons. Here are five things that a private investigator can NEVER do under any circumstances.

1. A private investigator can not enter your private property under any circumstances.

No Trespassing
No Trespassing

This is rule #1 for a reason. This one will get a private investigator in a world of trouble faster than almost anything else. We are bound by the same trespassing laws as anyone else. That means that we cannot break into someone’s home, office, or vehicle to “get dirt” on him or her. We can’t even step foot on your property without your permission. We can’t place secret, covert, hidden cameras on your porch or peek into your windows and videotape you watching tv (or doing anything else). Your property, your privacy, your secrets. We can’t get any of it.

The only exception to this rule is to serve process. Process servers can knock on your door (just like anyone else) and attempt to get you to answer. But they can never enter your home without your permission. Process servers cannot, however, enter a property that has a NO TRESPASSING sign posted. If you don’t want anyone on your property and make that wish known by placing a sign, it’s off-limits.

2. A private investigator cannot access your medical, financial, or educational records.

A private investigator has access to a wide array of information. However, there are certain things that are protected by the federal government and are, therefore, out of reach. Medical (HIPAA), financial, and educational (FERPA) records fall into that category. It is a felony for anyone other than that individual to access these records. Any private investigator who tells you that they can get these records is either a liar or a criminal and you should run.

3. We cannot misrepresent ourselves as a member of law enforcement (unless, of course, we are).

This one is also a big no-no. Thanks to the movies and television shows (Magnum, P.I. anyone?), the general public has come to associate private investigators with law enforcement and many attribute the same authority and power to private investigators as members of law enforcement. This is simply not true.

With very few exceptions, private investigators are bound by the same laws and restrictions as everyone else. This means that we cannot say we are police officers; it means we cannot wear clothing identifying us as law enforcement; it means we cannot carry badges stating that we are a member of the local police force in an attempt to manipulate someone into complying with our “orders.”

4. We can’t “hack” into someone’s electronic devices (cell phones, tablets, etc.).

Phone Hack
Phone Hack

Even the FBI can’t brute force your cell phone and get access without your authorization (or help). Remember that big case a while back where Apple refused to unlock the iPhone of the shooter at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida? Well, there is a reason why. Law enforcement did not possess the means to bypass software security measures and force open someone’s phone or tablet or computer.

This is not only illegal, but it is also very difficult to do, and most private investigators simply do not have the resources or the expertise (or the legal authority) to do it. Without a court order or the user’s express permission, there are no legal means of gaining access to another person’s private electronic devices. It just can’t be done, and no investigator who values his or her license will touch it with a ten-foot pole, so stop asking us to do it.

5. We cannot wiretap someone’s phone.

wiretapping
wiretapping

This, again, violates federal law. In some states, it is necessary to notify one party of the recording; in other states, both parties must be made aware. Wiretapping violates both of these mandates and, without a court order, is illegal in all fifty states.

In line with this, we also can’t install hidden cameras in someone’s house or hotel room without their knowledge and consent (which would, of course, invalidate the entire point of a “hidden” camera). So please don’t ask us to do it.

So, that was five things that a private investigator can not do under any circumstances. Laws vary by state, but the things we discuss here are illegal in all fifty states. If any private investigator ever offers you the services described in this article, run the other direction. That is not someone you want to do business with. It will invariably backfire and could wind up putting you both behind bars.

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Five Things a Private Investigator Can Do That Might Surprise You

What Can a Private Investigator Do?

Ever wonder what a private investigator can legally do during the course of an investigation? Here is a list of five things that a private investigator can do, along with some common misconceptions and best practices. For each item in this list, we will discuss some of the things we are allowed to do legally, a common misconception about this allowance, and why this misconception is incorrect. For a list of what we are NOT legally allowed to do, check out the upcoming companion piece to this one, Five Things a Private Investigator CAN NOT Do Under Any Circumstance.

1. As long as we aren’t on private property, a private investigator can sit outside of your house or workplace and watch everything you do.

Vehicle parked outside residence
https://diligentiagroup.com/legal-investigation/private-investigator-hired-to-follow-private-investigator/

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be vigilant about strange or suspicious vehicles parked on your street. If you see a vehicle that you feel doesn’t belong there, please call the police. The police will question the individual and make sure they have a legitimate reason for being there. And if not, they will force the person to leave.

MISCONCEPTION: I have to authorize any picture or video taken of me.

2. We can follow you wherever you go and record everything you do there (yes, even that).

Image of person being followed
Five Things a Private Investigator Can Do That Might Surprise You 31

This is kind of a corollary to #1 above, but I wanted to re-iterate it again. If we can “see” you from where we are on public property, you are fair game. Be VERY careful about what you do in public. We are very sneaky and have all kinds of high-tech sorcery that allow us to blend in and appear bland and nondescript. Forget the fedora, trenchcoat, and magnifying glass. We make our livings out of blending in and not drawing attention to ourselves. Again, if you notice we are there, we have failed.

MISCONCEPTION: If I am in my car, then what I do is private.

Negative. We can’t ENTER your vehicle (obviously), but your car has windows and we can see through those windows just like you can. If we can SEE it from public property, then we can RECORD it from public property. I’ll say it again for the people in the back: BE VERY CAREFUL WHAT YOU DO IN PUBLIC! If you don’t want to see yourself on video in a court of law one day or you are doing something you wouldn’t want your spouse to know about, think twice before doing it anywhere in public. Think twice before doing it at all, but you get my point.

3. We can go through your garbage.

Garbage bins
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This one surprises a lot of folks. Destroy/shred/whatever anything you don’t want to be recorded, gone through, and shown to a judge/jury, your insurance company, or your spouse. Don’t throw away your bank statements, telephone records, or the receipts you used to take your mistress out on the town. Destroy them. Even shredding has its limitations and a highly skilled and resourceful private investigator can piece them back together again.

There is one caveat, though: we can’t touch it, look at it, open it, etc. until you set it out to be collected by the city. Trespassing laws are pretty strict and until you set it out on the street to be collected, it’s still on your property and we can’t touch it. We can, however, watch your property and scoop it up as soon as you set it out for the garbage man.

MISCONCEPTION: Because my trash is mine, it’s private and it’s safe from prying eyes.

Wrong. Once you set it out to be collected, it becomes public property and we are well within the law to drive right up to your curb, throw it in our vehicle, and speed off without you even knowing it’s been done. We just saved the garbage man a stop and your trash is now a treasure trove of useful information. Fans of the television show Columbo should know this was a favorite tactic of the famous detective. He always went through the trash. It can be a gold mine.

This is mainly because people aren’t careful about what they throw away. The trash is actually one of the worst places you can dispose of sensitive documents or information. Think before you throw anything away. There are many people who realize the potential in your garbage. Not only can private investigators use it for evidence, but it can also be a treasure trove for identity thieves.

Also, don’t set your trash out “the night before.” Wait until the morning of pickup to set out your trash and do it as close to pick up time as you can. This will minimize the window of time that thieves and others (we) have to scoop it up. If it’s out there all night while the whole world is asleep, then you’re just asking for it to end up on a table somewhere and poked through.

4. We can lie…to you, your family, and your acquaintances (NOT our clients, though)

This is given the fancy-sounding name “pretexting.” Whatever you call it, it’s basically lying and this right here is one of the many reasons private investigators have kind of a “shady” reputation with the general public. A pretext is a gambit designed to do one thing, trick you (or those who know you) into giving us information. And in this game, information is everything. Private investigators are in the information-gathering business. It’s what we do.

Cell phone with Unknown number on caller id
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We can call, text, DM, etc. your family, your job, your neighbors, etc. and social engineer them in a way that sets them off guard and pushes them to inadvertently help us get information on you. Social engineering is essentially tricking someone into giving out information they wouldn’t normally divulge. It takes many forms and can be used for all kinds of nefarious practices by people with less-than-legal (or moral/ethical) intentions, but private investigators use it legally all the time. And your social media accounts make this almost effortless. It’s one of the first places we look. Pay very close attention to what you post online and what you allow others to “tag” you in, especially pictures. We have closed many cases of infidelity without even leaving the office simply by scouring social media and downloading pictures of the subject all smoochy-smoochy with someone who is not the spouse or significant other.

There are a couple things we can NOT do within this arena. We can’t misrepresent ourselves as law enforcement or a representative of a real-life company. That’s a big no-no. We also can’t misrepresent ourselves as a real person to get private information on that person. A private investigator can’t call your bank and pretend to be you in order to get information about your account, for example. It’s also a legally grey area to use pretext when a subject is represented by counsel in pending litigation. This can potentially land the private investigator in trouble with the court and that investigator could find him or herself at the business end of a TRO and/or harassment suit.

But, we can certainly be your “long-lost classmate” who is looking for you so we can get your address for our upcoming class reunion, we can be an “old college buddy” from back in the day who is inviting people to the wedding of someone we know you have in common, or we can pretend to have something of value that you “dropped on the subway” and we would very much like to return it, if only we knew where you work so we could drop it off, etc. It sounds hokey and like something that would never work, but you’d be surprised at the information you can get if you ask for it the right way.

MISCONCEPTION: Any evidence gained via pretext or misdirection is inadmissible in court.

Wrong again. This is a common misconception spread by television and movies. Much like a police officer doesn’t have to tell you they are a police officer if you point-blank ask them (this is also a myth), a private investigator does not (and never would) disclose who they are during a pretext scenario. This would invalidate the entire reasoning behind the endeavor. We want the information, and as long as we don’t misrepresent ourselves as law enforcement or the representative of a real-life company (see above), then we can misdirect and set off-guard anyone we think can point us in the right direction.

5. We can use any public record available in order to deliver the most complete package of information to our clients.

Private investigators have access to all kinds of juicy information about you. You’d be awestruck at the sheer volume of information about you that is floating around in the world. Edward Snowden didn’t even scratch the surface of the surface. Everything you do online is cataloged and databased and essentially sold to the highest bidder under the context of “advertising.”

Everything.

There are a few things we (or anyone else) aren’t privy to. For example, medical (HIPAA) and financial records are off-limits and protected by the federal government. Interestingly, so are educational credentials (FERPA). We can’t get your college transcripts, your bank records, or the results from your most recent doctor’s appointment. But pretty much everything else is available for the taking for someone who is crafty and knowledgeable enough to know where to find it. This skill oftentimes goes by the moniker OSINT (Open-Source INTelligence) and is a service we offer to our clients, both outbound (gathering outside information on another person) and inbound (shedding light on their own vulnerabilities).

OSINT
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MISCONCEPTION: My information is private and protected and companies have my best interests in mind when they collect it.

Ha! That’s funny. I hope you’re starting to notice a pattern here. There is no more privacy in the digital world. For someone who is motivated enough, any information about you can be gotten with enough determination and skill. You’ve read the horror stories about identity theft and corporate hacking centered on the release of the personal data of thousands (or even millions) of unsuspecting and trusting individuals. These are real. Your information is NOT safe. Just do the best you can, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. There are a few things you can do to protect yourself and minimize your risk, but that is far outside the scope of this article.

Just know that your data is out there and it’s never coming back. Be very careful who you allow to have access to your information and check your passwords and privacy settings often. It’s the wild west out there.

Conclusion

So, that was five things that private investigators are legally allowed to do. There are many more, of course, and we will discuss those in a future post. Many of the laws governing private investigators are state-specific and what is allowed in one state may be banned in another (recording phone conversations, for example). But this list is pretty inclusive. Most of the private investigators licensed and working in the US today are able to (at a minimum) do the things outlined in this list. And it’s all perfectly legal.

Check out our next post where we will discuss some of the many things private investigators CAN NOT do, under any circumstances.

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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.

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