The secret(ly boring) life of private investigators
Issue date: 11/18/08
Everyone recognizes the decades-old private investigator stereotype: a mustached figure in a trench coat and black fedora, hiding under the windowsill with a pair of binoculars. Today's P.I. is fighting to overcome the old typecast, but the profession is still as relevant as ever; the ability to uncover information in any form is a hot commodity for customers, who range from international insurance firms to lawyers to suspicious spouses.
There have been legions of pop culture private investigators-Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, Sam Spade, Monk, the Hardy Boys, Dick Tracy, Ace Ventura, and Hercule Pairot, to name a few. But you won't find the modern P.I. in tabloids or hiding in a flower bed. The industry is far more serene and far more lucrative than detective novel fans would believe.
Up for anything
One of the predominant aspects of the private investigation industry is its variety and fluidity. Investigators work on a number of cases and can receive any type of request.
"Whatever you can imagine, we've heard," says John Farinaccio, founder of the Canadian Private Investigators' Resource Centre, which provides investigators with resources and links them to clients.
Some of the more common reasons a client might hire a P.I. include insurance fraud, worker's compensation, internal theft, and marital cases. However, private investigators are also used for threat assessment, personal protection, heir retrieval, arson investigation, computer security, elder abuse, employee theft, workplace violence, trademark infringement, and handwriting analysis.
One growing field is industrial espionage. Corporations looking for an edge might try to steal information from competition through wiretaps, hidden cameras, or bribery. A company that suspects its competition is engaging in industrial espionage might hire an investigator to search for hidden electronic equipment, improve access control, and educate employees so that they're less likely to be targets of bribery.
The corporate sector might also use investigators to help with mergers or acquisitions, since P.I.s can discover whether a company's stated assets or financial records are accurate. Pre-employment background screening, which includes looking for criminal records, credit history, and validating professional certifications, is also common.
"The corporate world can involve under cover investigations," says Patrick Ogilvie, a senior consultant with King-Reed & Associates, Inc., an international investigations firm based in Ontario. "You might have a scenario where you need to place an operative or an investigator under cover into a warehouse or something of that nature-it might be employee theft, it might be drug rings, it might be organized crime."
But by far the largest client of the private investigation industry is the insurance industry. Many investigations involve insurance companies that want to look into claims, such as motor vehicle accidents, fire, property, or disability.
"The insurance community is the biggest hirer of private investigators-they spend millions if not billions of dollars having investigators investigate suspicious claims," says Kevin Bosquet, owner of Corpa Investigation, Inc., a small investigation firm based in Ontario.
And with good reason. "One third of insurance claims have a fraudulent element to them, whether the person exaggerated what they lost or how badly they may have been injured," says Ogilvie.
Frequently, measures include verifying employment records or wage loss records, but surveillance is also involved.
"If it goes to the stage of surveillance, it might involve watching how a person is spending their business day [and] watching their movements to see if their movements are consistent with the injuries they're making the claim for," says Bosquet.
Go, Gadget, go
"It's not about nailing people, it's about learning the truth," says Ogilvie.
The truth is obviously dependent on information. Many investigators use open source information, such as property and financial records, business registries, phone directories, cemetery and death records, vehicle identification number databases, lists of unclaimed Canadian and Swiss bank accounts, and government databases, in addition to information that they gather through more clandestine means.
"One of the main sources [of information] is surveillance: gathering information by documenting facts by following an individual," says Farinaccio. Investigators also frequently interview witnesses and examine personal property or financial records over the course of their work.
Investigations begin with a client's request, which can go directly to an agency or through a referral service, such as the Canadian Private Investigators' Resource Centre. In the case of possible insurance fraud, the company provides the agency with a letter of suspicious claim, the client's information, and their suggestions on what angle they'd like the claim to be investigated. The actual investigation can be conducted through interviews, employment, and wage loss confirmation.
Investigators have no more power than regular citizens, and if they break laws during the information gathering stage, their findings cannot be used as evidence in court.
"An investigator cannot trespass to gather information," says Farinaccio. "If an investigator had to trespass to get [it], it's not admissible in court, and there could be legal action brought against him."
Entrapment is another risk. For example, if someone has made a claim for worker's compensation which says she hurt her back and the insurance company is paying for it, the investigator cannot test her claim by letting the air out of her tires to see if she is physically able to change them. The investigator is not allowed to create a scenario, and any information gathered through such a method would be inadmissible in court.
Training is one of the most prevalent issues in the private investigation industry. Standards vary from province to province, and for the most part the industry lacks a unified set of standards or requirements. As a result, many agencies have their own standards and training programs to improve employees' skill sets.
"Every agency probably has their own standard as to what they're asking for in the way of training," says Bosquet. "I run a small company, but everyone that's working for me [has] a B.A., they're all graduates from a two-year law enforcement program, and then when they get here, the training continues. We have them work on courses with the Canadian Insurance Institute and get their [Certified Protection Personnel] designation … That's just what I do. Other people may do different things."
What training is involved largely depends on what individual investigators want to learn. Learning the legal limits of private investigation, theory and practice of surveillance, report writing, and tailing cars inconspicuously, among hundreds of other skills, are all part of the skill set of a private investigator.
In Quebec, investigators must obtain a permit given by the Department of Public Safety, which signifies that they have passed a background check and can now operate as investigators.
"Right now there's no law that says you have to take training to become an investigator. All you need is for an investigation agency to hire you, they send you to the ministry of public security where they do a background check on you, if you're clean, they issue you a permit that allows you to work. Now, the catch-22 is that there aren't many agencies out there that will hire without training," says Farinaccio.
But all that education is worth it.
"It's a lot of fun. It's a really unique industry," says Ogilvie. "A lot of times the private investigation and the security industries are compared, and while they do have similar areas, they're uniquely different as well. Career-wise, there's always a lot of hours for people to work, it's very financially rewarding, and there's very low turnover, since in private investigations you're more of a specialist. It's more of a skilled job with a lot of opportunity."
Foot note from Kevin Bousquet www.corpa.com.
Misquoted by the reporter of this article. The course Kevin Bousquet is referring is the The Chartered Insurance Professional (CIP) course with the Canadian Insurance Institute.