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The truth about your sleuth.

PRIVATE INVESTIGATORS often provide companies with valuable services, but a poorly conducted investigation can be costly both in terms of the legal ramifications and the company's reputation. Not every investigator who hangs out a shingle possesses the implied expertise or the requisite sense of ethics. To select the right outside talent, the security manager must know how to

evaluate each candidate's claims, credentials, and skills.

Finding a list of potential investigators is deceptively simple. Many detectives and investigators advertise in the phone book. How useful a starting point is this? The author conducted an informal survey of those listings and found that in any given city only about 20 percent of the advertised investigative agencies were available to begin an assignment immediately.

Reality checks. As in all businesses, self-promotion is rampant in the investigation field, and a mystique clings to its practitioners. A venerable sleuth like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot may be what prospective clients believe they are looking for, and this perception may cloud their judgment during the selection process. A company in need of outside investigative help should look for concrete evidence of accomplishment, not glamorous representations of past adventures.

A security director should also remember that if an investigator's claims sound too good to be true, they probably are. No investigator should guarantee results. He or she can only promise to make a serious effort toward meeting the goals of the case using guaranteed procedures.

Ethical standards. Real life private eyes conduct surveillance and may use trickery to obtain otherwise unobtainable information. Some of them rely heavily on methods that, while not clearly illegal, are at least unconventional. A security director should ascertain each candidate's standard practices and decide whether those practices are acceptable. If doubts remain, the best advice is to put in writing that the investigator is not to break any known laws in pursuing the case.

Special skills. Every investigation is unique and requires special skills. No specific criteria indicate an investigator's preparedness. To further complicate the issue, a case may require an investigator with a specialty. Most of the approximately four thousand active private investigation agencies in the United States advertise as general investigators, but this does not mean that they lack the special abilities needed for the case at hand. A security manager must talk with these generalists to determine their special skills.

Before the first contact with an investigator, a security manager should form a clear idea of the requisite structure and goals of the investigation. For example, if an undercover operation must be set up and monitored, an investigator who has worked as a fire marshal for twenty years before becoming a P.I. might not be the right selection. A former vice squad manager could be the better choice. If sharp interviewing skills are critical to the case, then a trained polygraph operator might serve best in the investigation.

But all investigators, whether general or specialty-oriented, must possess certain basic skills, abilities, and characteristics. Effective investigators are resourceful, persistent, reasonable, and honest. They are above average in both verbal and written communication skills. In determining character and ability, the security manager should look for these traits and any signs that the investigator is exaggerating his or her special knowledge.

Most important of all is the assurance of integrity between client and investigator. Good investigators are masters of deception, skilled at fitting in and pretending to know things they really do not. These skills make investigators able to convince people to share information. But they may also make it easy for them to fool potential clients.

The security manager must be sure the investigator is not using artifice in the interview. He or she must also be able to trust the investigator to act within the guidelines laid out by the client and to report as fact only what he or she knows can be proven.

An investigator hired for the first time should ideally be sized up in a face to face meeting. If that is not possible, a telephone interview is crucial to discover any inconsistencies in claimed skills and expertise before the prospective client makes a commitment to hire. The security manager should have the investigator fax a resume and references. Former clients can provide valuable information about the investigator's performance methods, reliability, honesty, and skills.

As part of the interview, the security manager should ask the prospective investigator technical questions related to any relevant skills. For example, if the security manager anticipates that photography will play a key role in the assignment, he or she can ask the investigator how a long lens tightens a curve in the road for a photo. If the investigator lacks that level of knowledge, he or she cannot produce the required caliber of courtroom evidence.

If the investigator claims to have police investigation experience, the security manager should ask for the definition of probable cause. If interviewing witnesses will be part of the job, the candidate should be asked to discuss exceptions to the hearsay evidence rule. For a case involving fire cause and origin, the security manager can ask about burn patterns and the melting temperatures of various materials.

Apart from the search for special skills is the overall question of work methods. Should a company hire a legal investigator or a true private eye? Legal investigators work primarily for attorneys. They possess enough knowledge of civil and criminal law to make field decisions appropriate to legal strategy. They limit investigative activities to those that will produce usable evidence.

It should be noted, however, that even the most conservative legal investigators usually have contacts who pass them otherwise unavailable information. And even if legal investigators use no pretexts themselves, they may ask another investigator without such restrictions to lend a hand.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are private eyes whose working techniques may more closely resemble those used by the fictional Magnum, P.I. If a business needs information and does not care how it is obtained, a private eye with unlimited resourcefulness might be the best choice.

Licensing. More than twenty-five states have licensing requirements for private investigators, but obtaining the license may require little more than proof that the applicant has never been convicted of a felony. Some states require a minimum amount of practical experience. Most do little to verify this experience or the amount of knowledge acquired by it. In some states with no licensing requirements, local jurisdictions such as counties or municipalities license investigators.

Governing bodies can often be more interested in collecting fees than ensuring the professionalism of the licensee. Some jurisdictions require a bond before issuing a private investigator's license. A bond is a form of insurance, however, not an indication of professionalism. In short, investigators who are licensed and bonded should still be asked detailed questions concerning their skills.

Insurance. Private investigators are not typically required to carry insurance. Most do not. In all jurisdictions, even the ones with licensing requirements, many uninsured and unqualified amateurs advertise in the phone book as private investigators.

In some states, licensed private investigators are required to place their license number in advertisements. Otherwise, security directors should look for the more conservative ads. Wild advertisements generally indicate a newcomer. Professionalism on the phone can also lend a clue. If the caller is shunted around to many associates but never reaches the investigator, this is probably not an ideal candidate.

Education. Private investigators are not required to earn a specific degree or complete any training course. Educational background is important, but not paramount, in identifying a potential investigator's competency; critical qualities like verbal and written communication skills are taught in school but resourcefulness and chutzpa are not.

There seems only a loose correlation between the amount of formal education and training an investigator has and his or her competency. An investigator with a college degree and legal training is obviously better prepared to work closely with a client in strategy sessions and the preparation of interrogatories.

A private investigator with a high school education, ten years as a beat cop, and ten years' experience as a police detective might lack vocabulary skills but will be able to find short cuts to information. A high school dropout with experience as a telephone skip tracer could get information in minutes that would be absolutely impossible to obtain by any other method.

Technology. An investigator with the latest gadgets is not necessarily best for the job. The newest tools of the trade are important to comprehend but they cannot replace investigative good sense.

For example, in one case, a doctor who had raised a son from a first marriage was then asked by the son for help in locating his mother. The father had not contacted the woman for twenty years and no longer knew how to reach her. The doctor hired a P.I. who was on the leading edge of data retrieval and database use.

The high-tech private eye developed lists, leads, and dead ends for a year. Finally, with all the computer data leading nowhere, the investigator told the doctor he believed his ex-wife was no longer living. Rather than give up the doctor hired a second investigator who went to the neighborhood where the subject's deceased parents had loved and by knocking on a few doors located the woman within forty-eight hours.

The doctor did not feel cheated by the first investigator, but he realized he had been too easily impressed by the data the high-tech P.I. was using. Many otherwise competent private investigators are so busy playing with the technology that they ignore the basics Effective investigators must know how to find public records and other investigative information on-line, but often the answers are found by good old-fashioned pavement pounding.

Certification. Several investigative associations have established their own certification programs. Requirements vary widely. Some associations grant certification in exchange for payment of dues while others require passing an examination or meeting specified criteria.

Two designations, Certified Legal Investigator (CLI) and Certified Protection Professional (CPP), require passing a rigorous test. The CLI designation is awarded by the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI) for passing a half-day written and oral exam. The CPP designation, granted by the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS), requires successfully passing a day-long examination. Both NALI and ASIS set educational or experience minimums for test applicants but do not require them to be members of their associations.

One additional designation of merit is Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). It is earned in conjunction with membership in the National Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Applicants must pass a two-day test or have eight years applicable experience, plus meet other minimum criteria.

Membership in professional organizations is another way for an investigator to show he or she is established. As with licensing and bonding, however, professional affiliations do not guarantee competence or effectiveness. Because investigators are by nature independent, it is not unusual to find a competent and successful investigator who refuses to join anything.

Figureheads. Security directors should beware of the figurehead owner who does no field work. Sometimes a security director is impressed with the principal's twenty-year federal investigation background and six years in business only to discover later that all the work is being done by the company's $6.00 per hour employees. The security director discovers the problem only after a disappointing report leads to questions.

The security director should always ask whether the person interviewed will work the case or whether others in the firm will do so. If another employee will handle the case, the security director should ask about that employee's credentials, background, experience, and supervision.

Cost. The cost of hiring a private eye or a legal investigator depends on the nature of the assignment and the company's commitment to the case. Costs also vary widely by region and reputation.

In some rural areas, good P.I.s are still available for as little as $25 per hour. Bills as low as $37.50 have been charged for jobs that required opening a case file, doing field work, and writing a report. But investigative work is much more expensive in large cities. Even a small job done in New York or San Francisco will easily surpass $37.50. Some established investigators in major metropolitan areas charge as high as $100 per hour.

One Los Angeles investigator known to the author will not take a case without a $5,000 nonrefundable prepayment. However, when this investigator takes on a case, he lives it. If singleness of purpose is what a client requires, he or she must be prepared to pay for it.

Across the country, the average fee for established investigators is $50 per hour. Some investigators require payment for a minimum of three or four hours. In a typical workers' compensation fraud investigation, if the investigator is performing only an activity check, then the cost should fall in the range of $200 to $300. For surveillance, the investigator will probably charge about $1,000.

One way to help an investigator make the best use of his or her time and the company's money is to provide all available information up front. In the hypothetical workers' compensation fraud investigation, this could include a questionnaire filled in by the claimant stating which physical activities have been curtailed or eliminated because of the on-the-job injury. Providing the P.I. with this questionnaire and with a medical expert's opinion on what the claimant should be physically incapable of will help the investigator document only activities that the claimant says he or she cannot do but is regularly doing nonetheless.

Another way to save money is to require regular communication from the investigator and to work with a threshold budget. Never tell the investigator the definitive budget and say, "Call me when your bill reaches this amount." By communicating throughout the investigation process, a client can form an opinion of whether the case is going to proceed favorably or not, and if it is worth continuing the expenditure.

Every security department or corporate legal office with problems to solve can benefit from hiring effective investigators to gather evidence. Investigation is a cheaper alternative to litigation and can make unavoidable litigation shorter and less expensive. A little practice is all it takes to reduce the risk of making a poor selection.

Leroy E. Cook, CPP, is President of Ion Incorporated, Tempe, Arizona, He is a member of ASIS. Ion Incorporated runs The Investigators Anywhere Resource Line [R], a database of over 22,000 investigative agencies nationwide. The database incorporates feedback from previous customers and charges no fee to callers. For more information: 800/338-3463.
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Investigations; private investigators
Author:Cook, Leroy E.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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