5 Things You Learn About People As A Private Investigator
"Private investigator" is right up there with "astronaut" or "professional cyborg" as the job we all wanted to do as kids. Then we discovered it often involves filming middle-aged people having sex, and most (but not all) of us lost interest in it.
As always, we decided that the best way to find out what being a PI is all about was to talk to some of them, so we reached out to "Jerome", Jordan Hamlett, Victor Bock, and Bill Smith, and learned that ...
They Get Hired To Look For Ghost Burglars
As it turns out, private investigators deal less with blackmailed bombshells who are as dangerous as they are sexy, and more with people in need of someone to watch a nefarious fire hydrant in front of their house. Which is to say that lots of customers are simply paranoid and/or mentally ill.
"Please, we have drones and the ability to monitor communications anywhere in the world. We don't need to hide in your trashcan."
Jerome, an investigative trainee from California, explains, "Nine times out of 10, the case involved watching out for elves, or aliens, or the CIA. One of the investigators I worked with was tasked to watch a woman's house while she was away. She thought men were breaking in and moving her furniture around. She paid for two eight-hour days of surveillance at $65 an hour." Which is to say that she was really paying to have a professional reassure her that she was imagining things, and hadn't been targeted by the League of Stealth Redecorators.
"The last case I worked was a woman who thought her neighbors were spraying acidic chemicals into her house at night," Jerome adds. "Paid us to watch her house for six hours." A lot of these cases came up after the NSA scandal injected the entire country with a triple dose of paranoia. Jordan, who runs a PI business in Louisiana, says clients want them to "check their home and ... cavities for wiretaps from the government, etc, or find the ghost haunting their home."
"I think you're fine, Mrs. Flenderson. This PKE meter isn't picking up anything."
If you feel like these guys are swindling the mentally ill out of their money, well, that's definitely not the goal. "Just because someone is crazy," says Jordan, "doesn't mean they need answers any less. I rarely turn away people, such as an elderly woman who wanted me to constantly check her home for government bugs spying on her. Paranoia doesn't make their concern any less real. But I also don't charge them. I typically just try to give them whatever it is they're looking for to give them some peace of mind. No one else listens to them. So I do."
PIs Come Across Some Very Dangerous (And Stupid) People
Over the years, our sources learned that private investigators are a godsend to modern stalkers who don't have the time to be creepily obsessed with their victims in person. "Someone will come in," says Jerome, "looking to track down an 'old high school friend,' usually of the opposite gender. My boss thankfully had a pretty good strategy for weeding stalkers out."
Was it asking them if they've ever heard of Facebook?
"We would gather the info on their 'friend,' and instead of giving it directly to the client, we offered to notify their friend that they were trying to reconnect with them." Once the client wiped up their panic sweat, they usually left as quickly as they could, never to return.
But not everyone is so timid. Victor, a PI from Baltimore, was once investigating an insurance claimant (that is, trying to capture evidence the man's injury claims were bullshit), when the guy spotted him while out hunting. Fortunately, as the guy and his buddies closed down on Victor with rifles in their hands, "a park ranger happened to be driving by. Not sure, but he might have saved my life without knowing."
"See, your hunting permit just says deer. For what you are doing, you need the 'most dangerous game' one."
It's common for people to get violent when money is involved, as Bill, a private investigator from Australia, discovered one day. "I was carrying out surveillance on a male who had a large insurance claim because of a back injury. One morning, I thought I saw a glimpse of him with binoculars looking in my direction from behind a curtain in his home. About an hour later, he left his house. As he got near my vehicle, without any warning, he smashed my window with a rock and unlocked my door. I was pulled out of the car, and he expressed his disdain with two good punches to my face."
As luck would have it, Bill managed to catch the target's vigorous assault on camera, which wound up working as fairly compelling evidence that he was not in fact disabled. So that's one way to do it, we suppose?
"As you can see from this tape of the defendant having vigorous sex with with our undercover hook- uh, agent, his neck is fine."
PIs Have Run-Ins With The Police Constantly ... Especially If They're Black
At first glance, the only difference between a PI and a stalker is some paperwork that supposedly makes it all official. That's why it's common for PIs to be stopped and questioned by the cops. There of course isn't anything wrong with that, except for the fact that it happens way more often to black PIs.
This is our surprised face.
Jerome, who is black, says, "I got the cops called on me on every. Single. Case. When we show up to the job, we usually call the police and let them know we are a PI working in their city, so if someone calls in on us, they know it is not an actual threat. [But] a lot of areas we worked were fairly affluent, so the cops would often show up anyway. I never had to step out of the car, though. I would show them the card with my boss' license number, and they would leave me be."
But not everyone is so lucky. For example, in 2014, private investigator Ken Sheppard had a gun pulled on him by a Los Angeles sheriff's deputy for doing surveillance while black.
Jordan, who is white, still had at least one encounter ... thanks to his partner: "About three years ago, I was working surveillance on a two-man case and the other investigator was black. Cops were called about halfway through the day, and when they showed up, I gave them some song and dance about looking for property for sale in the area. They went on their way without so much as checking my ID. The other guy though was arrested on suspicion of criminal mischief."
Fraudsters Are Dumb As Dirt
Faking a personal injury is one of the easiest forms of insurance fraud out there because we have ZERO ways of determining if someone is in fact in pain. Maintaining that lie, though, is harder than it looks.
"If your back is really hurt, then explain how you walk around with those boobs all day? Riddle me that!"
"There was this insurance claimant who had already won his case a few years earlier," Victor recalls. "He was going to be paid basically for the rest of his life. I had FB-friended him about two years earlier when he was one of my active cases." Yeah, we should mention that -- you can learn lots about people merely by making a random Facebook profile and sending them a friend request. You'd be shocked at how even the most paranoid among us will blindly accept them. Your job is like 85 percent done! "One day, he posts that he and his buddies were going to run the "Warrior Dash" -- one of those extreme [and three-mile-long] obstacle courses." Which sort of disproved his claims that he was too injured to work.
"I was able to get about 10 minutes of video of him running down a huge hill, jumping over fire, crawling through mud, and lots of other physical stuff. Went to court and watched the Commissioner's jaw drop ..." In the end, the claimant not only lost free money for life, but also had to pay back thousands of dollars. Though maybe that was the whole point of the Dash -- maybe he felt guilty and wanted to injure himself for real to bring truth to his lie. Or maybe he was a dumbass.
"And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for my breathtaking incompetence!"
Bill has a similar, if somewhat sexier, story. "I was watching a woman with a large claim for whiplash. She had told doctors that she could barely function day-to-day without a neck brace, and neck movement was almost nil ... I followed her to a beach, where I got 10 minutes of her performing oral sex on a man who was definitely not her husband. No signs of neck injury at all."
We think it's somewhat possible that Bill is remembering this from a PI-themed porno (Vaginatown?), but we didn't press him on the issue.
You would be surprised how much overlap there is between private investigation and porn.
"This settled out of court, as they wanted to present the evidence in private and not alert her husband of her affair," because there are apparently kinds of cheating he wasn't OK with.
It's Not All About Busting Petty Fraud And Cheating Spouses
"There was a case where a guy's ex-GF was dating a pedophile and he was molesting his daughter," Jerome says. "He wanted us to get footage of him around his kid so he could get full custody and get her away from him." You have to admire this guy's restraint, seeing as how Jerome worked in a PI office / gun store, which sold thousands of faster, full-metal jacket solutions to his problem.
Note: Always go with the option that doesn't get you 20-to-life.
"The depressing part is that the mother went to great lengths to ditch us when we tried to tail her, to protect the guy that was diddling her kid. But eventually he was caught and the dad got full custody."
Another time, Jerome's office worked with a client claiming her husband was poisoning her food. Sounds like the crazy lady earlier, right? The one who was sure the neighbors were spraying chemicals into her home? "She would get really sick for a couple of weeks and then get better. She talked to the cops and other PI's, and nobody believed her. We took the case on and installed hidden cameras in the kitchen ... It turned out that her husband was poisoning her food little by little, so it would look like a slow death from a chronic illness instead of a sudden murder." He was eventually arrested.
And a good thing, too, since Haley Joel Osment doesn't go around picking up video tapes anymore.
And sometimes, well, it's all about choosing when not to do the job. Jordan discovered this while investigating a client who was on benefits and under suspicion of having income she wasn't reporting. "So I show up to the claimant's residence to conduct a little interview, and I'm greeted at the door by a young kid in tattered clothes, playing with some boxes in a tiny single-bedroom apartment ... I discovered the claimant was a single mother recovering from surgery after a serious illness and made extra money from tutoring, enough to cut off her benefits and leaver her with no income ... had I told anyone about it, but I didn't. I didn't consider that truly working, so no need to bother the client with that information, right?"
Note: Victor Bock unfortunately passed away before this article was published:
"Vic's cancer came back in August 2016 and he battled for three months before he died peacefully in his wife's arms the morning of Sunday, Nov 20th. He was truly one of the best around and will be missed by so many."
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter. Bill is currently living in South East Asia and can be contacted on twitter at https://twitter.com/biffskin.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Surprising Things You Learn As A Real Life Private Eye and I Was A Cop In A Country With No Guns: 6 Startling Truths.
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