Thursday, January 28, 2010

The leper with the most fingers

Some thoughts on ethics in the world of professional investigating

What we do is often misunderstood. In our survey last month, no surprise, nearly 75% of you responded that you think we spend most of our time on surveillance. While surveillance is, arguably, the most entertaining aspect of the job, the real work is done in the analysis of observations, information, and behaviors; the unraveling of patterns; the organization of facts that build themselves into a strong case.

When on a case to document suspected infidelity, it’s often very difficult, if not impossible, to get good video of a couple snogging in the back seat of their SUV in a dark mall parking lot. More than likely, it’s a series of videos of people meeting in odd places (at dinner, at a hotel, at the gym). Pair the meeting times up with cell phone records, texts, emails and you suddenly begin to visualize patterns. Couple these data points with bank records and credit card purchases, and the case begins to coalesce into a clear picture.

Gaining access to the various sources of information is the tricky part. Cell phone records, if not on a joint account, can likely only be obtained through court order. If the credit card is not tied to a joint account, getting a copy of the records is near impossible. So the trick is to acquire these records in a way that is legal and ethical.

Examples (Trade secrets...don't tell anyone.):

Cell phones are often not listed, and getting the company to divulge the name of the owner is not, generally speaking, going to happen. What to do if your client has a cell phone number that his wife’s been calling, but he has no idea who that person is? I personally like the spoof call. Make up a fictitious company name, call the target cell phone using a fake phone number (you can buy spoof cards online), and simply ask the target to verify the spelling of their name, their address, and their place of business. I’ve had nearly 100% success with this. This falls into the realm of pretext, a little white lie to get information. Now, it’s not cool to call someone and tell them you work for NES, but make up a company name, and if they’re gullible enough to share their information with you, well….

The FCRA and the GLBA both address issues of privacy for personal credit related information. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m fairly sure you can not get someone’s credit card information using a spoof or a pretext. Doing so could likely land an investigator in jail. You can, however, grab the receipt out of the trash can in the men’s room or simply ask the waiter for a copy of the bill. You’d be surprised at how many people toss their credit card bills in the trash at months end, leaving it in the rubbish bin on a public right of way, ripe for the picking. In this profession, it’s a matter of piecing together enough points of data, enough observations, and enough evidence to make a case.

In the end we’ll take what we can get, but we will get it in a way that can withstand scrutiny. As Jake Gittes said in The Two Jakes, “What I do for a living may not be very reputable. But I am. In this town I'm the leper with the most fingers.”

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