A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  That first step in the PI business was taken by me in 1980 when I left the prairies of South Dakota and moved to California with a few thousand dollars and all my personal effects which fit in my car.  A college degree in criminal justice and a few years experience as a Child Support Enforcement Investigator for the State of South Dakota was what I hoped would get me in the right door(s).

In 1981, I landed my first job as a Private Investigator with the “granddaddy” of all PI firms, Pinkerton.  I recall pondering the life of a private investigator which was based solely upon what I had seen on TV.  I speculated that it would be something akin to James Bond in terms of high tech sophistication and intrigue.  Boy, was I ever surprised when I first visited the LA office of Pinkerton and saw absolutely nothing that even resembled a spy gadget or the semblance of mystery and intrigue.  In fact, it was quite the opposite. It was more along the lines of the old “gumshoe” days of Humphrey Bogart, with a very odd mix of characters ranging from former housewives to CIA “wannabes.”

After “paying my dues” as an undercover operative working in warehouses unloading trucks by hand and operating a forklift, while “sniffing” out theft, drugs, and other employee malfeasance, I graduated to the next level, consisting of sifting through public records, conducting employee background checks, and armed courier service.  It was still very far from the fictional idealization of a private investigator.  But, it was hopefully a means to and end, and just maybe the real image of a modern day private investigator would reveal itself one day.

In 1983, I began working for my current company, Specialized Investigations.  It seemed like a definite step forward; as I immediately began working insurance fraud cases for some high profile clients under the supervision of a “real life” PI.  It was now becoming more interesting with even some intrigue mixed in.  I “cut my teeth” on working insurance fraud cases, with a fairly interesting mix of other cases that would come across my desk (industrial sabotage in a fiber optics plant; murder mystery case featured on “America’s Most Wanted, etc.).  It was starting to fulfill the portrayal of what I imagined a “real” PI job to be.

In 1991, I took over as the Manager of Specialized Investigations (SI) after the sudden departure of the then Manager.  With absolutely no management experience, and the PI business in rapid decline due to the insurance industry forming their own Special Investigation Units (SIU’s), it became a new challenge to virtually re-invent the company.  At that time, the insurance business was the “bread and butter” of most PI firms.  In fact, there were several PI firms that had as many as 100 investigators on staff before literally closing their doors several years later, due to the formation of in-house SIUs by insurance companies.

That’s when the PI industry became more creative, as did Specialized Investigations (SI).  At that time, we began a marketing campaign that no longer relied upon “word of mouth” referrals as the PI industry had been so accustomed to doing since “Hector was a pup.”  We marketed various attorneys, expanded into labor/employment law investigations, asset searches, and other types of services that were not solely dependent upon the insurance industry.  Eventually, we established a surveillance unit, as insurance companies, particularly workers’ comp firms, seemed to prefer outsourcing that type of work.  That move turned out to be a good one and helped SI “turn the corner”, putting us on the map and enabling SI to expand to provide statewide coverage in California, and subsequently Arizona and Washington.   Since 1991, SI has grown from one remaining investigator (me) to over 60 full and part-time employees today, with expansion on the horizon.  So what else has changed?  Lots!

COMPUTERS AND TECHNOLOGY

As mentioned above, technology was virtually non-existent to many PI’s when I first started in 1981.  That has definitely changed.  Undoubtedly, computers have been a predominant factor in the evolution of the PI business.  Before computers (B.C.), I can recall driving to downtown LA and waiting in line to research public record indexes in large books.  It took hours to search a name or two in the criminal and civil index

books.

Then along came microfiche, which may have cut the time down but still required the drive (unless you purchased the “fiche” and a machine).  Today, the public record indexes can be conducted “real time” for ALL available counties in ALL available states and includes ALL available public records within minutes on a computer, for a fraction of the cost that it took to conduct ONE search in the past.  Computers have virtually revolutionized the PI industry, as they have in most over industries.

 However, there was also a “downside” to the availability of the public records to anyone having access to a computer.  It became too easy for someone with the wrong motives to retrieve this information.  In addition, attorneys and other PI clients discovered that they did not need to hire a PI to obtain this information any longer as they could do it by simply subscribing to the same public record computer database services.

Consequently, this information was sold by anyone with a profit motive to anyone with a wide variety of motives.  This led to the proliferation of “rogue” database information brokers who were indiscriminately selling someone’s personal information like they would sell any other goods.  Eventually, the PI business suffered both financially and professionally by the rapid increase in unlicensed information providers AND the political interest in privacy issues whose cause became adverse to the interests of the PI industry, whose business depended upon the availability of this information, generally for a moral and ethical purpose.  Currently, the PI business is doing everything they can to address the privacy issues by self regulation and through proactive lobbying with state and federal legislators.

Of course, the computer also created a whole new way of doing business in other areas.  I can recall when a typist would have to come by and pick up our dictation every day and everyone kept plenty of “white out” at their desk.  Today, the computer can edit, correct, and email reports to clients (with digital photos and other documents attached) in a matter of seconds, compared with the long process of typing, correcting with white out, addressing envelopes, mounting/pasting photos onto photo sheets, and the client eventually receiving everything via “snail mail.”

 Within the past ten (10) years, SI began using “digital dictation” machines whereby the investigator can email an “audio” report file to a word processor/typist anywhere in the world and get their typed reports returned via email, and then email their reports without having to come into the office.  Assignments are regularly sent electronically by clients and assigned to an investigator electronically within minutes.  There are currently “voice recognition” software programs on the market that are rapidly improving to the point that investigators have begun using them to prepare their reports rather than using a typist.

The internet certainly has added dramatically to the modern day PI’s ability to obtain information on ANY subject and to develop contacts/resources within minutes, compared to hours/days (if ever) in the past.  This is a subject that I could literally spend several newsletter volumes talking about, but maybe that will come in the future.  For example, SI participates in several state and national E-groups for private investigators, whereby we can find resources, experts, information, and firsthand experience on almost any topic known to mankind (private investigators are an extremely resourceful bunch).

I could also talk about voicemails, computer networks, software databases, fax machines, scanners, printers, cell phones, digital cameras, PDA’s, IPhones, and other technological advances but that would probably overwhelm everyone, including me, to think about all the changes that have occurred in the past 20 years.

SURVEILLANCE EQUIPMENT

I recall conducting my first surveillance in 1981 and was equipped with nothing more than a 35 mm camera to take “still” photos of the subject.  Then the company purchased an 8 mm movie camera (the type your grandparents and/or parents used for home movies) which did not have telephoto/zoom features.  You literally had to be across the street from the subject in order to get usable film.

Then along came the “video” cameras, which were the size of a “news” camera, with the VHS tape “self contained” inside the camera.  After ten minutes of filming, I would have to take a break or my shoulder would go numb.  Eventually, the video cameras became smaller and infinitely more sophisticated, where we then began using a mini Digital Video (DV) recorder that can fit in the front pocket without detection; with long distance digital zoom range and night vision capabilities that even I could not imagine when I started my first PI job. Now, the cameras are even smaller, with Hard Drive (HD) components, so that video tapes are no longer needed.

Better yet, every surveillance investigator on staff is now equipped with “pinhole” cameras that are hidden in key chains, blue tooth devices, pens, and anything else that one can devise.  In addition, we also have several wireless units whereby an investigator has to carry only a hidden video cam and a small transmitter, while the recording devise is sitting in a vehicle or other remote location nearby.  Our investigators are also able to download video and photos from the surveillance video onto their computer and email it to anyone, so they can identify the subject, or have for court the next day.  With the rapid rise in “wireless” technology, it’s now even possible for the investigators to stream the video “real-time” or send an identification photo from the field while on surveillance.

I could also go into other technological advances such as wrist watch cameras, GPS tracking systems (not legal in most cases in CA.), long running time lapse digital video recorders, computer key stroke tracking systems, and other high tech spy gadgetry, but that may also be a bit overwhelming.

CONCLUSION

Needless to say, the modern day private investigator no longer resembles the “Sam Spade” of yesteryear, but has evolved more into the James Bond “007” of movie fiction fame.  I guess by sticking around long enough, my first image of a private investigator as that of James Bond “007” has eventually become reality.  Where it may go in 20 more years is beyond my current imaginative ability.

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