According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2010, there were over 34,7000 licensed private investigators operating throughout the United States. The Bureau projects by 2020, the figure will increase twenty percent—resulting in almost 42,000 PIs. Though they may be great in number, you may never spot one, because private investigators have a unique set of skills allowing them to blend in with all walks of society.
When the average person thinks of a private investigator, it often evokes a handful of stereotyped images. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous private investigators in the global lexicon—even if he is fictional. In the United States, the film noire genre gave average citizens a staple look for PIs; long, tan trench coats, matching fedora hats, toting cameras with obnoxiously long lenses. More contemporary private sleuths are often thought of as being clad in all black and wearing dark sunglasses. Because these images have permeated American culture, a private investigator fitting any of these descriptions can instantly have their covers blown. With a surge in surveillance culture and the ubiquity of technology and social media, private investigators in the 21st century must modify their investigative methods to adapt to a world where everyone is watching.
Close, But Not Too Close
Even in a world where individuals often have their eyes glued to a screen, it is easier than ever for a private investigator to have their cover blown while in the field. Rise in the saturation of crime coverage in both local and national media has citizens paying attention to their surroundings more than ever, especially when walking to and from their vehicles, and when developing a home security system. Despite concerns about the proverbial “Big Brother,” invading human privacy, the U.S. began to appreciate surveillance technology as a nation after a CCTV camera captured the perpetrators behind the Boston Marathon bombing in the summer of 2013. Law enforcement investigating the tragedy were able to identify Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in a crowd of thousands, tracking every move they made until the fateful moment when they planted the two homemade pressure-cooker bombs killing three people and injuring hundreds more.
In 2018, the nation saw a rise in law enforcement agencies utilizing drones in their investigations, leading to a new wave of outrage and concern over the violation of privacy and spying. As of December 6th, over 900 law enforcement agencies were reported to use drones in their casework. This heightened awareness in the American population has forced private investigators to redefine their standards for proximity to a subject. Of course, a PI must be close enough to properly observe the subject, and despite their benefits, long camera lenses outside of large events inundated with press can just as likely be the aspect that blows a private investigator’s cover. Being too close to a subject can provoke them to confront the investigator and compromise the entire investigation. This obliterates future opportunities for surveillance and collection of evidence, as the subject will be on high-alert.
Do Your Homework
Prior to a stake-out or any form of field surveillance, private investigators must conduct extensive research about the area in order to move fluidly and avoid detection. Study of local businesses and restaurants can inform a private investigator what the public will be doing in the area, and increase their chances of successfully blending in with a crowd. In order to keep a low profile, PIs must place themselves in the mindset of a local. Places like coffee shops, restaurants, or shopping malls can be ideal places for surveillance, as there are built-in explanations for a person sitting or milling about without purpose for extended periods of time. In situations where this is not the case, it’s important for the investigator to have a method for making themselves appear occupied to cover their presence in an area. Luckily, a person staring at their phone for large blocks of time will raise no alarms with the subject or anyone else. Books, laptops, or accompaniment by an associate for “lunch” are also tried-and-true covers. Many private investigation periodicals recommend conducting as much online research as possible prior to surveillance in order to limit exposure. This means searching public databases, combing news articles, and scraping social media to arm oneself with as much information as possible.
As mentioned above, everyday citizens are more hypervigilant than ever. Subjects with a history in the criminal justice system or with law enforcement will be even more so. As such, the concept of tailing a subject is becoming less effective, resulting in the private investigator “getting made” by their target. Subjects will recognize the same face after multiple sightings, even if it is in a crowd, and strange vehicles parked in the same location for hours at a time are sure to draw suspicion. This is where thorough research with a private investigator’s client can become invaluable. Reconnaissance at the hands of a client can provide the investigator with information allowing them to be more inconspicuous when following a subject from location to location. For example, a spouse suspicious of infidelity can provide the private investigator with their spouse’s daily schedule—what time they wake up, their morning routine, addresses for their employment, frequent lunch locations, extra-curricular activities, the addresses of friends’ homes, the list goes on and on.
Even the most catlike of private investigators will have their covers blown from time to time. That’s why it’s imperative to have a bulletproof cover story. If they’ve done their research, private investigators can be ready with a plausible reason for being in the area, such as house-hunting, shopping, or just being plain lost and in need of direction. These quick explanations will cause a subject to lower their guard and reconsider their suspicion. Just as is the case with any deception, too many details pierce the veil. Being caught with surveillance equipment like cameras or microphones will also require explanation, but in a culture saturated with technology, this can also be easily explained. Camera drawing too much attention? Not if you’re a professional photographer on assignment. Microphone too conspicuous? It’s no longer a stretch to believe the average citizen is a fledgling podcaster or filmmaker recording “foley” or “walla” noise for their project.
As is the case with many professions, media and culture have defined the role of private investigator as one for a man, which often leaves women out of the conversation. However, it could be argued female private investigators have a much better chance of remaining undetected in surveillance. While social code continues to grow and develop, women are often socialized to diminish themselves—to listen, not speak. Follow instead of lead. Men are socialized to be forward and confident in the interest of being some kind of alpha, while women are known to be better at reading a room, picking up on behavioral cues that might inform their investigation, and their perceived gentility improves their chances of a subject or witness trusting and opening up to them. These aspects of our society are the same ones preventing citizens from suspending disbelief when a woman is accused of a violent crime. A woman would never do that. This allows a female private investigator to conduct field surveillance with more freedom.
Technology has spiked over the last 25 years at astronomical proportions, and our population’s socialization has changed dramatically since the invention of social media. While this may have hampered private investigators in their work, the proper tools, flexible strategies, and an analytical mind can get the job done. Whatever a private investigator’s method for remaining inconspicuous in the field, there is no doubt that as society changes, so must their methodology.