(Getting Started) By Dave Amis
I’ve always been impressed with the variety of people who make it as PI’s. From single moms to veterans to introverted computer geeks to that person who has been watching PI shows and thinking they could become a private investigator if they only had the chance.
I want you to have that chance, and this article will give you an action plan to become a Private Investigator—if that’s your goal.
THE FOUR LEVELS OF PI SKILLS
There are four levels of investigative skills, and each supports the next. There are life skills such as using the computer, basic investigator skills such as investigative photography, foundational skills such as surveillance, and specialized skills such as homicide investigations. People with specific life skills such as driving or street smarts have an early advantage. But there are so many niches in the PI world, hundreds of them, that it’s possible to become a PI and develop highly valuable skills in a unique area no matter where you start.
For example, I know private investigators who have few skills but successfully do only one thing. Examples include online research, oil device tampering, surveillance, and evidentiary photography. I personally think the best investigators are non-stop learners who have a large “bag of tricks” they can draw from. If they don’t have a large bag of tricks, the next best thing is a large network of investigators with complementary skills.
THE PI’s TRAPEZOID
The PI’s Trapezoid helps us plan our skill development to become private investigators. First, let’s look at the two most important foundational skills for rookies: SURVEILLANCE and OSINT. Without these, any PI is limited in the cases they can work. (Yes, Criminal Investigations is a foundational skill for specific PI work such as criminal defense, but we’ll come to that later.)
SURVEILLANCE is the act of physically watching or following someone. It’s sometimes called “gumshoe” work and is pretty much what PI’s have been doing since the beginning of time, going back to Rome.
OSINT stands for “open-source intelligence,” which means using the computer to find out about a subject. Surveillance is the physical “live-action” element, while OSINT is the “stay-at-home and use the computer” part. Together they are a powerful combination. I recommend learning both.
What’s needed to become good at either SURVEILLANCE or OSINT? Check the Trapezoid. Basic investigative skills include photography, vehicle management, and report writing for SURVEILLANCE. Research, Locates, and Deep Research are the important skills needed to begin working in OSINT. This means PI training, PI courses, or PI mentoring. Somehow you need to get these skills.
After learning these basic investigative skills, hundreds of hours of study and experience are required to get good at it. If you want to be an expert, thousands of hours are needed. But don’t stress. It’s as Sun Tzu once said, “The journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step.” Was he talking about investigators? He could have been, except he made it sound tough. Private Investigation is fun!“FIDELITY” INVESTIGATIONS
People often ask, “How do I become a private investigator as fast as possible?” The answer is to develop the skills needed for one of the oldest PI jobs—finding out if a spouse is cheating! In the PI world, it’s called an “infidelity” or a “cheating spouse” investigation, but at STRIDER, we use the term “fidelity” because we’re optimists. Either way, it’s important to maintain the neutral objectivity of a professional investigator. “Just the facts,” as Sgt. Friday used to say (probably before your time).
One way to get started in the PI profession is to learn surveillance and “practice” by taking fidelity cases. Fidelity/Infidelity cases are relatively safe. Would you rather start your career following a cartel hitman or the average husband or wife who is relatively unaware? Trust me, start with the latter. The basic skills needed to do surveillance are manageable and can be learned in under 25 hours—at least enough to get started.
A FIDELITY INVESTIGATION: THE EXECUTIVE
A female client in another state was worried that her husband (subject #1), living part-time in Texas, was having an affair with someone at work. She asked us to investigate.
We knew the most likely “subject #2” worked in a Mexico office and traveled to San Antonio every two weeks with the “Mexico Team.” Each time, they stayed from Thursday to Saturday.
One of our Strider PIs followed subject #1 from work to home each night during this period, and, sure enough, he met his lady friend at a restaurant. They sat next to each other and looked very friendly. The problem was that the entire Mexico team was also there. On three different occasions, we took pictures of the two of them together. It felt like they were together, but a group photo at dinner doesn’t prove an intimate relationship.
Keep in mind that with infidelity cases, the first point for most clients is to know for themselves that it’s happening, so court-ready evidence isn’t typically needed. If there is a major estate in play or prenuptial agreement and/or the state they live in has divorce laws that are affected by infidelity, that’s a different level of investigation.
Usually, clients “just want to know the truth.” In one such case, a client asked me to watch his house. Sure enough, his wife returned home with a much younger man in tennis shorts. When I told the client I had the photos, and he may not want to come home right away, he said, “Oh, I’m not allowed there anyway.” It turned out that he and his wife had been separated for a year.
Clients are mostly looking for us to confirm what they already know in cases like that. We call this “helping the right brain and the left brain to get together” or “witnessing their emotional journey of break up so they can move on.” It sounds like therapy, and I guess it is. Fidelity cases are a bit weird like that, but they are a great place to learn surveillance.
Back to the story—we could never catch the subject alone with his lady friend. If we watched his house, he would never bring her there. They never left work together and they never left dinner together. This went on for weeks, so we decided to try something new.
The next time subject #2 arrived, we followed her. At the end of the workday, she and five of her work associates boarded a bus that took them to a local hotel. Nothing happened that entire evening. Subject #1 didn’t show up. She didn’t go out. I suggested to the PI on the case that he drive by the hotel in the morning and check all the cars. Sure enough, subject #1’s car was there! Now we were on to something.
The next night, we had three PIs at three separate entrances starting at about 6 p.m. When the bus arrived with the Mexico Team, subject #2 got off. Subject #1 was nowhere to be seen. The PI called me out of frustration. I told him to follow her and capture the room number, which he did.
The next day, he went to the hotel at 5 a.m. with his travel bag, a cup of coffee, and a camera hidden in his pocket. He hung out near the room as if waiting for a ride. At about 7 a.m., subject #2 came out of her room alone. The PI continued to wait. At 7:25 a.m., guess who? Subject #1 (the husband) came out of the same room. They had been staggering their arrivals and departures in case anyone was watching. Slick! But also busted!
The pictures and report documenting that the client’s husband was observed leaving the hotel room of the lady friend early in the morning were enough for our client to begin planning the divorce (best done covertly, but that’s another story).
THE PRINCIPLE OF ‘NO REAL-TIME UPDATES’
While I said that fidelity cases are relatively safe, some principles must be followed. For example, one night, we had an operation where we told the client we were watching his wife in real-time. We told him we saw her get into a car with another man in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant in Austin. Then he went dark. “Dark” means non-communicative. I told my PI on the scene (aka the “primary”) that the client was likely en route. Sure enough, he showed up and confronted his wife. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and we re-learned a lesson we already knew; do not provide real-time updates to clients, especially in cases with strong emotion!
As long as the principle of “do not provide real-time updates” is followed, fidelity cases are pretty safe. The subject is generally unaware and not dangerous, and once you get the pics, you (the PI) are out of there! Never to return.
In this article, we have presented one fast start option for becoming a Private Investigator—fidelity investigations. More importantly, the PI’s TRAPEZOID will help you see how to become a Private Investigator. There are four levels of skills, no more. Take an inventory of yourself, consider what you want to do, and make a plan to become the kind of investigator you want to be. It’s doable, and I wish you great success.
See HOW TO REALLY BECOME A PI – Part 2 for more information.
Dave Amis is the author of this article. As a Texas Private Investigator, he specializes in financial crimes and asset recovery. In his former life, he worked missing persons, attempted murder, theft, sexual assault, and many other cases.
Dave has been an international executive, served as a Sheriff’s Deputy and Police Academy Instructor, worked at several financial institutions including Deutsche Bank, and co-authored 27 CLOSE CALLS, a book on how to be safe from serial sexual predators. He lives in Cedar Park, Texas, where he rescues German Shepherds.
If you are interested in training with STRIDER, please go to StriderPI.com and fill out a contact form or contact the operations desk at (512) 410-9136.
Please note: This article is not legal advice. Consult an attorney before taking any important legal actions. Any case examples used will be based on actual events but with key facts changed to retain case confidentiality.