Thursday, June 11, 2009

Is My Daughter Dating An Axe Murderer? How to Run a Background Check on Anyone PART ONE

Reasons for a Background Check:

One of the most common inquiries we receive at our firm is to look into someone's background. Some clients need to know with whom their children are spending time. Others want to check out a potential spouse. The more financial savvy individuals are looking to find whether a potential investment is sound or if the deal may be a scam. Persons of a more litigious nature want to dig up the dirt before getting into the courtroom to either get something on the other guy, or make sure their own witnesses can stand up to cross examination. The number of reasons for a background check vary broadly.

Application of the Law:

As licensed investigators, we have to be aware of many laws which keep popping up to protect the privacy of our fellow citizens.

There's the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLB)

Next is the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)

Another is the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA)

There are more, but these are some of the major ones by which we need to abide when checking into someone's background for a client.

If you attempt to check into someone else's background on your own, you STILL need to abide by these laws. They're not just for private detectives. They're for everyone.

To put it plainly, these laws are there to make sure NO ONE can have access to another individual's specific personal information without a valid reason. To see those reasons, check out the links above.

How Can I Do It Myself?

What Do You Already Know?
The first thing I ask a client is to write down all of the information they already know about the subject upon whom they'd like a background check. This saves them cost since I won't be running down the same avenues they've already traveled in their search. More importantly, however, this helps the client to organize their needs, information, and helps establish other ideas for where to search for more facts.

Database Searches:
Well, you're not going to have access to our proprietary databases such as,,, etcetera. So, what about those sites all over the internet which appear to offer a background check for around thirty bucks?

The difference between proprietary databases and the cheap online public access databases are that the proprietary ones typically update their information on a daily basis. However, if you're going to do this yourself, the public one might be worth a shot as a starting point. Be sure to note that some information may be outdated or incorrect. Always double and triple check your information for accuracy, especially when your subject has a common name.

Use the Power of the Internet:
The internet is a wonderful tool. Learn advanced search techniques. There's a very simple, but true, list of "do's" at:

For a deep web search, check out . One could not ask for a better search and relationship connecting program than Paterva's Maltego Community Edition. I've been amazed at the depth to which this tool delves in its search to find information. The user interface is a bit difficult, but if you play around with it, the results will be worth the time and effort. The PI buddy who steered me to this "open source forensics and intelligence application" told me its even used by the CIA. True? I have no idea, but the program is awesome for our cause. Every investigator should add this data mining tool to their arsenal immediately. Hell, its free, too!

Social Networking Sites:
Don't miss the social networking sites. Although Facebook and MySpace are enormously popular, there are so many more like LinkedIn, Naymz, etc. Even your boss might be checking on your online activity on these sites. Opposing counsel and prosecutors use social networking site searches to gather evidence and more. Here's a great list of popular social networking sites for your search:

Another social networking site recently pointed out to me by a friend, which is not on the above list, is Its new and growing fast as a virtual reality social networking site. Pretty cool, too. However, the first time I used it, I took the tour, then clicked randomly on the map and ended up in a virtual reality BDSM shopping center with no warning of the true nature of the content in advance. The moral of the story is to be careful where you click ;)

My family is urging me strongly to get off of the computer and join them for some family time. Therefore, this post is going to be a two-parter :)

Melinda Kidder
Licensed Private Detective
Columbia Investigations
Columbia Missouri

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Are You Gonna Be A Dick? Primer For The PI Wannabe

Private investigators are known by many nicknames: Dick, flatfoot, gumshoe, private detective, private eye.

If you're going to be one, get used to the nicknames. Your friends will have a field day and you'll be known among them as Magnum P.I. pretty soon.

I get at least one call or email per week from someone wanting to get into the business, asking me for advice. I'm happy to give it to them. The more educated someone can get before they break into the business, the better they're going to be and the better it will be for our industry.

Unfortunately, lately and historically, P.I.'s have gotten quite a bad rap. Thanks to idiots like Anthony Pellicano ( ) and the dim bulbs from the HP scandal ( ), as well as television shows displaying gumshoes playing free and easy with the law, we're looking like a bunch of criminals.

Fortunately, I believe the majority of the public can think for themselves and will understand that there are bad apples in any group or profession. Just because the media may focus on a few of those bad apples, doesn't mean the rest of us are rotten, too.

I'll tell you what I tell anyone who contacts me wanting to break into private investigation: learn as much as you can before, during and after getting set up.

First, you need to understand the licensure in your state for the profession. Find out if your state requires licensure for private detectives and by what other requirements you may need to abide.

Here's a basic link from Jimmy and Roe Mesis' PI Magazine, however, it needs to be updated. For example, they don't show that state licensure in Missouri is under way. Obviously, you'll need to double check with your state board of professional licensing to be certain:

You'll most likely need a state license, possibly a municipal license, a bond and insurance. Check around for pricing on the bond and the insurance to make sure you get the best deal. There are several insurance companies which offer discounts to organization members. Therefore, it might be beneficial to join your state PI organization and a national organization or two.

The national organization I recommend is NCISS. They are the only national body which lobbies for private investigators rights:

You'll also need to decide if you want to start your own agency or if you want to work for someone else first. Some states require a period of time working under another's license, so make sure you check it out. If you open your own agency, make sure you're licensed properly for that, too. Your state board will most likely be very helpful in getting you set up.

So, now you're legal to operate. What next?

You still need to get educated.

First, check into your local municipal, state and federal laws. Know them well. You'll find that most municipalities and states have their laws listed online, which makes life easier. Research them, especially the privacy laws.

Make the courthouse a frequent stop. Get to know the layout, the judges, the clerks and sit in on hearings and trials that are open to you. You'll learn how the judges and attorneys work in your local environment. You'll learn more about local procedure than you will from any book. You'll learn there's often a big difference between what should happen and what really happens in a courtroom. You'll also learn what kind of witnesses, and witness behavior and appearance draws the most respect from a judge, most fear from opposing counsel, and believability from a jury. On a side note, you might also get a few jobs from schmoozing. Just don't get overzealous and start a marketing frenzy inside the courthouse.

Network as much as possible. It really is "who you know" that can get you the good gigs. Get an internet presence by joining as many substantive PI email groups (yahoo has a boatload), build a good website, get on the social networking sites, and create your own blog. Just remember that anything you put out there on the net can be used against you in court. Be very aware of what you write. For example, the title of this blog might completely put some people off. You need to decide what can come back to bite you on the witness stand.

Find your niche. There are so many specialties and sub-specialties of private detective work that you could spend a lifetime finding your forte. As a friend of mine used to say, "Do something you love about something you hate." For me, that is the embodiment of PI work. I enjoy helping people. I hate problems and especially abuse of children and of integrity. So: I use my PI skills to nail liars, cheaters, and abusers. Figure out what you love and use it to fight something you hate. Don't let someone else lead you down the wrong path. If it feels crappy...try a different road to your destination.

Be well read. Whether or not you find your niche, there's a ton of literature out there on PI work. I know it sounds silly, but I wholeheartedly recommend Steven Kerry Brown's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigation:

First, Steven knows his stuff. He's been around the block a few dozen times both in the public and private sectors. He's written and re-written this book and is available by email and phone to discuss PI work. The guy's a gentleman and often freely gives advice to those who ask. Its a great resource book from someone who runs a successful firm. Get it.

Practice, practice, practice. If you don't have to be licensed under someone else and you don't have a mentor, you'd better practice this stuff before you get out there by yourself and screw it up.

Try it out: follow some dope around on foot at the mall, in your car in various environments, etc. What's nice is that the majority of individuals are oblivious to the world around them. That certainly makes our job easier. However, you will find the paranoid ones who think everyone's eyeballing them. Whatever you do to practice, be safe.

Take a friend to the store and sit in the parking lot. Ask them to pick out an invidivual (alone or in a group of others) who's walking into the store. Have your friend give you a description (but exclude clothing description) of the individual after the subject has entered the store. Sit, wait, and see if you can figure out who it was they picked as the subject exits the store. Picking up a target based on physical description alone can be a very difficult thing and requires practice. I hate doing these at airports. Difficult stuff.

Practice focusing on details of descriptions. Pick someone in public, take a picture with your cell phone. Sit and describe them to yourself in every detail down to shoe color. Go back, look at your pic and see what you missed. You can do this with friends in restaurants as well (what's the lady at the table behind you wearing? Who's she with? Did she enter alone or with someone else? Can you hear their conversation? In what type of vehicle does she depart? Did she order drinks? What and how many? etc).

Learn how to write a stellar report. This is the one thing that will keep clients coming back. Brown's book has a nice section on this. Check it out.

Research rules of evidence: gathering, maintaining, presenting and record-keeping/reporting. Learn the "best-evidence" rules and how it applies here.

Learn as much about how to search on the web as possible. Using search engines are great and there's little tricks and tips to tweak any search that the average user doesn't even know. There's also a ton of free tools on the internet to help your search which can save your client money before going to our proprietary databases or be used in conjunction with the propietary data.

As you get your own gear, practice, practice, practice with it. Never take an unused/untried tool on a job and expect it to work. Always have extra batteries and get a power converter for your vehicle so you can plug in any charger while on the go.

Find a local attorney you can respect and count on to whom you can refer your own clients. In this way, there will be no worries about conflicts of interests with other PI's and their attorneys.

Cover your ass, cover your ass, cover your ass. Learn how to keep spectacular records of communications whether email, audio, telephonic, etc. Hone your organization skills.

Get PrePaid Legal to cover your ass in a highly litigious society. (recommended contact: siedow @ (spaces added to cut short the email data miners)

Create a "go bag" that you can grab and take with you when you're in a hurry to get out the door for that "Oh, my God, I need someone on a surveillance downtown in fifteen minutes!" job.

Our go bags include a digital voice recorder, at least one digital video camera, at least one covert digital video camera, tape, pen, paper, spare batteries, a walkie talkie, scissors or a utility knife, and a small amount of cash and change, a baseball hat, a magazine, etc.

Our vehicles are pretty much a go bag on wheels. They contain a power inverter, cell phone charger, magnetic signs with various names and busy back numbers or trap line numbers, a camping toilet, sleeping bag, change of clothes, cooler, etc.

Be sure to research the latest equipment for your niche. Check with other PI's on those email lists and see what they recommend based on their experiences with the gear. For most detectives, the video camera is their best friend. I recommend getting the best one you can afford.

In future bloggings, I'll discuss privacy laws when it comes to pretexting, audiotaping, GPSing, videotaping, background checks and more. In the mean time, study up on your local privacy laws. The downfall of many an investigator is thinking that they can pick a lock, plant a bug, or pay some shmoe at the phone company for private information. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it. If in doubt about what you can and cannot do, check with your attorney to be safe. You're a help to the law. You don't want to end up on the wrong side of it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Surveillance or Stalking?

I've been contacted by a variety of clients who had decided, prior to contacting us, that they'd like to try doing surveillance on their own. Some clients, especially in divorce and custody cases, have a great support system to rely upon. It is often these clients who try to do surveillance on their own or use their support system to keep tabs on their alleged cheating spouse or bad parent.

Although this can certainly save the client some money, it could also get one into trouble. I'll put out some tips and cautions in the paragraphs to follow.

First, if you're in a state which requires licensure for private investigators, having a friend or family member perform surveillance might get you into legal trouble.

Second, if there is a restraining order, order of protection, or ex parte on any of the parties involved, you need to steer clear of surveillance. Even your PI needs to limit their activities to act within the scope of the restraining order, order of protection, or ex parte. If one were to conduct surveillance on an individual who either had a restraining order on them, or whom a restraining order had been filed against, they may be found guilty of stalking or harassment. If they had someone else doing their surveillance for them, their surveillance person could be found guilty of stalking, and the person who assigned them to the surveillance of stalking by proxy.

Although the following link talks of more aggressive types of stalking by proxy, it gives a great definition of the idea:

So, my point: If there are any restraining orders, don't do surveillance and don't ask someone else to do it for you. Check with your attorney and with your investigator to see what other alternatives exist.

If you're clear on that legal issue, then some of the following tips may help in your surveillance:

Mobile Surveillance:
Its helpful if you have alternate vehicles at your disposal. Your subject is most likely familiar with your own vehicle, and likely those of your mutual friends. If you have any other vehicles, which you are legally allowed to drive, I recommend using them.

Although using disguises can seem a little silly, it can be helpful if you end up sitting behind your subject at a stop light. Baseball hats and sunglasses are great. Easy to remove and replace. If doing mobile surveillance, making sure items are off the dashboard and not hanging from the rear view mirror is a good idea. Another idea would be to change the items on the dashboard from time to time. Using a vehicle that seems common and doesn't stand out in a crowd is key as well.

If you do end up sitting behind your subject at a stop light, don't stare at them. You know they're in the car in front of you. You don't need to stare them down. Pretend to talk on your cell phone, change your radio station, and seem naturally uninterested in them.

Don't use your turn signal. Your subject may change lanes quickly, change their mind, or be checking to see if they're being followed. If you change your signal or change lanes quickly behind them, this can tip them off.

Allow yourself some room between you and your subject. Although you don't want to lose them, you'd much rather do so than be discovered. You want to avoid confrontation and discovery. So, you may lose them this day, but being discovered may make it impossible to find them again or follow them another day.

Foot Surveillance:
Foot surveillance can be difficult. You've all seen the movies where the detective is moving along at a set pace, keeping up with the subject, when the subject suddenly stops and turns or stops to look into a store window. That stuff actually happens. If your subject is especially paranoid, they may stop and look into a store window to see in the reflection if anyone is watching them from behind.

Don't get careless when following on foot, zoning out and losing focus on your subject or his pace. You need to be able to stop suddenly if your subject stops. Be prepared for them to turn around suddenly. Be aware of your surroundings so that if your subject does turn around, you can duck into a store or doorway if necessary.

If your subject does turn around and walk the other direction, towards you, don't stop suddenly and turn around as well. Walk past and go into a store or doorway, trying to find a spot where you can determine if the subject simply forgot something at his previous location (at a store they just left or in their parked car) and will be coming back, or if they changed their mind on their destination. Have patience and trust your instincts. You know your subject better than an investigator.

Fixed Surveillance:
Fixed surveillance can be in a variety of locations. Once you've followed your subject in his vehicle and he parks and enters his destination, you may be in for a wait. If its obvious you won't need to follow the subject on foot, you may need to stay on watch from your vehicle.

You'll need to be prepared for several possible situations. First, people are nosy. Many folks are completely aware of who does and does not belong in their neighborhood. You might stick out like a sore thumb. Be prepared with a pre-text or BS story for anyone who may confront you as to your purpose in their neighborhood.

Don't get distracted by your surroundings. If kids are playing near you, totally ignore them and don't watch them. Watching them will simply creep out their parents and get the police called to your location in a jiffy. Other distractions such as animal life, neighbor activities, noise, etc, can all be distractions which pull your attention away from your subject location. Try not to get focused on alternate activities, even texting on your cell phone, as you could miss something important.

Wave at passersby. Nothing disarms people more than being friendly. If you look like you feel out of place, you're more likely to have the police called on you. If you're friendly and act like you belong there, others are more likely to believe that you belong there, too.

You may be there long enough to need sustenance. Bring healthy snacks with protein to keep you alert. Try not to take in too much sugar as you'll have the sugar high and then the sugar low. You don't want to fall asleep on the job. Water, energy or coffee drinks are great. All will help you to complete your task.

The drawback of partaking of sustenance is the need to ...well... get rid of it. Our primary surveillance van has a camping toilet: . Some detectives use depends (no, I'm not kidding). However, I wouldn't recommend depends for anything beyond urination. You'd be amazed how much one depends will hold!

Male detectives often use a large mouthed bottle. Female detectives have been known to use tupperware bowls with lids. Personally, I recommend the camping toilet and depends. You think you'll be able to hold it...but, you won't :).

In some fixed surveillances, you may be in a public location such as a restaurant or bar. Bars are easier due to low lighting. You are less likely to be detected.

In restaurants, you'll need to make sure you enter long enough after your subject that you won't be in a line with them, waiting to be seated.

Often, the greeter will try to seat you with their own discretion. Don't be shy. If you see a table near your subject which would be a prime location from which to listen or observe without detection, make it known to the seater that you need to sit there. They shouldn't argue with you since it is their job to be gracious to the customers.

Regardless of how you keep an eye on your spouse, be safe and stay objective. Allowing your emotions to overwhelm you can get you into trouble. Ask any police officer and they'll tell you that domestic situations can be some of the most dangerous for them due to the heightened emotions involved.

Always check with your attorney so they can advise you on the legality of any advice you receive or activities you wish to undertake.

Remember, I'm a PI, your friends are friends. Only your attorney can make sure you're plans are within the scope of the law and will actually help you in your goals.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Coming Soon on DIY PI SPY!

  • How to become a Private Detective
  • Tracking someone with GPS
  • Using the internet for information gathering and checking backgrounds
  • Legal Matters
  • Identity Theft
  • Bugging
  • Surveillance
  • Much, much more!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Signs Your Spouse Is Cheating

No one wants to be the victim of a cheating spouse. It hurts the ego and leaves one wondering if the entire relationship has been a sham. The hurt can cut extremely deep and have a severe effect on future relationships. It can become hard to trust another partner again and cause brutal damage to one's self-esteem. It can leave the victimized partner questioning everything about him or herself as well. Collateral damage can include the effect on children of the relationship as well as financial security.

We're often taught from childhood to ignore our instincts. Instincts, however, don't go away. If you feel that something is wrong, it makes sense to "check it out". Ask your partner what's going on and try to open a dialogue. If your concerns are dismissed, but you still feel that something's wrong, take a look at the list below and see if you notice a pattern.

Remember, anyone can fit into a couple of these points below. However, if you're noting a large swing in behavior, it could be indicative of a cheating spouse.

The following include some signs that your spouse might be cheating on you:

Privacy change:
1. E-mail or full computer access passwords are changed.
2. Avoids allowing you access to his/her cell phone.
3. Needs privacy when making phone calls.
4. Hides bills (cell phone, credit card, bank statements).
5. Wants time alone with friends when in the past you had accompanied one another.
6. Claims new personal interests which do not include you (new sporting league, book club, etc).
7. Changing clothing out of eyesight when modesty had not been a prior issue.

Inconsistent Schedule:
1. Work schedule suddenly changes.
2. Work requires travel when there had been none in the past.
3. Frequently misses or cancels family or spouse engagements (family night, prior commitments with you). "Something just came up".
4. Claims new personal activity, but times of activity are inconsistent.
5. Phone calls at odd hours.

Habits change:
1. More time at work than usual.
2. More time spent on computer than normal.
3. Suddenly becomes asexual or wants more sexual activity.
4. Takes more pride in personal appearance.
5. Begins or drops habit (smoking, drinking, reading, etc).
6. Begins doing own laundry, more frequent/smaller loads and at odd times.
7. Showers immediately upon arriving home.

Its not you, its me:
1. Claims need for space to "figure things out."
2. Separates emotionally; becomes emotionally unavailable.
3. Refuses to discuss issues or partake in couples counseling.
4. Becomes physically unavailable for family/partner events or discussions.

Its not me, its you:
1. Belittles inquiries, turning them around on you.
2. Dismisses concerns as paranoia.
3. Accuses you of being overbearing, suffocating, needy or prying.
4. Protests profusely.
5. Refuses to discuss your concerns.

Separates from friends:
1. Avoids gatherings with those who may be considered "your" friends.
2. Limits contact with friends who would normally confront unusual behavior.
3. Avoids your family.

1. Suddenly hard to contact at work.
2. Often has cell phone turned off or leaves unanswered.
3. Friends with whom s/he was supposedly with make excuses why s/he cannot come to the phone and will have him/her call you back.
4. Not where s/he says s/he will be.

From the outside in:
1. Frequent hang up calls when there were minimal or none in the past.
2. New social groups or interests which exclude you.
3. Receives gifts without reason or new objects are evident at home or in vehicle.
4. Friends recall seeing your spouse at time/location when spouse reported being elsewhere.
5. Co-worker attempts to reach spouse when spouse is reportedly at work.
6. Friends/family begin to inquire more about your relationship than normal.

Remember, anyone can be found to fit into a couple of these molds. This is simply an effort to help you further explore the reasons you're already reading this post.

Introduction to DIY PI Spy

Welcome to DIY PI Spy!

This blog is to become an oasis of information to help you gain the knowledge and tools you need for Do-it-yourself investigations.

Although auto-didaction, or educating oneself, should be completely legal, be sure to check the laws in your locality before you go completely James Bond or Philip Marlowe.

I am not an attorney, nor do I play one on this blog. We'll discuss legal issues, certainly, but again, be sure to check with your attorney before engaging in any activities discussed on this blog.

If you have questions, toss them out. I'll try to get an answer to you as soon as possible or refer you to the best source I can find.

Next up: Who runs this blog and why should you listen to me?