Contrary to popular belief (and noir fiction), private investigators aren’t above the law. In fact, they have the same rights, responsibilities, and rules as every other private citizen. Unfortunately, there are some private investigators who have bought into the popular hype and consistently break the law in order to get the information their client needs. And, while this might seem like “going above and beyond the call of duty,” it’s actually a good way to get the client in trouble or the PI landed in jail.
While there are lots of things a Private Investigator can do to get your case solved, there are some things that are just not within a PI’s scope of expertise. Here are the top 7 things that no investigator should be promising that they can do.
7 Things Your Investigator CAN’T Do
1. Check Someone’s Bank or Financial Accounts
No one is allowed to look at another person’s banking or financial statements without written consent – either from the person or from a court order. Smart private investigators can track down business alliances, public records of sales, and other open-source information to make inferences about financial activity. But, anyone who claims to be able to “get into” another person’s financial files is either lying or on their way to jail. The Gramm-Leach Bliley Act, passed in 1999, says that using deceit in order to gain access to third party accounts is grounds for imprisonment.
2. Look at Someone’s Phone Records
Like banking information, phone information is heavily guarded by both state and federal law. The Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006 says that anyone using fraud to obtain telephone records can get up to 10 years in federal prison and/or face fines up to $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations. That’s a big chunk of change to pony up, especially when online media gives many investigators free access to just as much information as these telephone records do.
3. See Someone’s Criminal Record
While it is possible to glean criminal activities from open publications, press releases, and personal testimony, private investigators are not allowed to use the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC). This database houses all the criminal records at the state, federal, and international levels. And, while police departments, the FBI, and other federal and state workers have access to these records, private investigators don’t. And, recently, a private investigator was arrested by the FBI for bribing an FBI officer in order to gain access to this database. Not very smart.
4. Run Someone’s Credit History
According to the Fair Credit Report Act (FCRA), no one can request a copy of a credit score unless it is verified by the individual personally. In addition, there are strict regulations of how that information can be used. For example, even if a person gives a private investigator consent to run their credit, it can’t be used in a legal proceeding unless the person is fully aware during the credit investigation that the information could be used against them.
5. Impersonate a Police Officer or Other Law Enforcer
There is some confusion in the minds of the public about exactly who is a representative of the government and who isn’t. Often, private investigators will take advantage of this misinformation by giving suspects or witnesses the impression that they are police or other federal agents. And, while this might work in the movies, it’s a sure-fire way to get arrested and jailed in real life. Recently a Florida investigator flashed a fake police badge to a neighbor who caught her trying to gain unlawful access to a home. She is now facing up to 5 years in prison and a suspension of her license if proven guilty.
6. Unlawfully Track By GPS
Here’s another one that works so well in movies, but is no bueno in real life. Unfortunately, this is not a cut-and-dried situation. Although there have been several laws making it illegal for federal and state employees to use GPS tracking in investigations, there are no specific rules about using it in private investigation. And yet, in December 2014, two California PI’s were arrested for using unlawful GPS tracking on members of the Costa Mesa City Council. So, while an investigator can defend his or her legal right to secretly track people using GPS, it may still land them in jail.
7. Use Custom Surveillance Technology to Videotape or Record Activities Without Consent
Legally, a private investigator can videotape or record people in any location that they have been given permission, or that is free space. That means, it is completely legal for a PI to ask permission to take pictures of a house from a neighboring yard – as long as he or she has gotten permission from the landowner.
What’s not legal is using specialized, military-grade surveillance or custom recording gear that can’t be easily obtained by any citizen. A good example is the new Range-R from L-3 subsidiary, Cyterra. This surveillance tool allows police to survey citizens in their homes based on movement and heat. While it might be okay for the FBI to use something like this (for now), it will land a PI in a lot of hot water.
The Thing to Remember Is…
No matter how important your case seems, it’s not important enough to go to jail or pay $500,000 in fines over. Make sure you are getting the best evidence and chance at legal success by hiring a private investigator that knows the rules and follows them. To find out more about what a private investigator can legally do to help you, contact us for a free consultation.