Private detectives (detectives or investigators) specialize in uncovering criminal activity, identity theft, financial frauds and similar matters. They can investigate, identify and provide information about people. In most countries, private detectives are appointed by the court to serve as an interrogative body in investigations. They can also serve as private investigators or secret agents.
A private detective, a private investigator, or investigation agent, is someone who can be employed by people, firms or NGOs to undertake investigative activities. Private detectives often work on their own for lawyers in criminal and civil matters. They perform surveillance and other secretarial duties for their employers or their clients. They may also be engaged by media organizations and private firms to conduct secret surveillance or investigations on their own. Some private detectives may work on joint assignments with other detectives or with the police.
Private detectives employ various methods of investigation. They may use surveillance or informers. Informers provide information gathered from informants about subjects that might be difficult to locate or identify. Surveillance involves efforts to follow an individual, whether or not he knows he is being followed, such as a missing persons case.
Surveillance is the process of searching for information or evidence without the person’s knowledge or consent. This differs from “surveillance” which is the systematic tracking of an individual through various channels. Both involve gathering information, but the process of surveillance requires physical attendance and may take longer. The methods private investigators must use to gather evidence vary. Some methods are common and use passive methods such as secretly watching the victim’s actions, changing appearance or behavior to trick him into revealing information or making embarrassing statements.
Active surveillance involves physical attendance, tracking and recording, and sometimes, persuasion. Active investigations usually take longer to investigate than passive methods because active methods involve more time and effort. For instance, private detectives might have to follow a missing person to his workplace to collect further evidence or to interview potential witnesses. Legal investigators typically work on active cases; they gather physical evidence, interview witnesses, gather testimony and search for witnesses who have been advised not to talk to law enforcement officials about the case.
Financial investigators perform background checks and gather financial information. Some private detectives also serve as financial investigators, checking bank records and applying for tax identification numbers (Social Security numbers) for people. There are many different types of private detectives. Each specializes in different types of cases, conducting their own independent investigation and gathering different types of information. Detectives who specialize in financial cases, for example, follow leads from financial institutions, credit card companies, insurance companies and banks to investigate individuals who owe them money.
When investigating individuals, detectives will use many tools. A private detective may use surveillance equipment, video cameras, GPS tracking and secret cameras to observe a suspect and his activities. The most common tools used by detectives include cell phones, digital cameras, spy cameras, hidden cameras, video recorders and the “dumbest” device of all: the pen camera. Cell phones and digital cameras allow a detective to document the activity around him and track anyone he wants. GPS tracking and a “dumbest” pen camera allow a private investigator to document the activity around him and track anyone he wants.
In a case involving drug trafficking or illegal distribution of a controlled substance, detectives often use sophisticated surveillance tools, such as GPS tracking and video cameras. Cell phones and digital cameras are often used to document and identify suspicious activity and suspects. A pen camera is “dumb” enough to record a variety of activities, but covert enough to film at an inconspicuous location and transmit the data to a remote service. Private detectives also sometimes use detectives to perform background checks, because some employers only hire applicants who pass a personal background check. Private detectives can provide information not readily available to the general public.