Thanks to books and movies we all have an idea in our mind of what a private investigator looks like… He’s busy working in his dimly-lit and often messy office located somewhere downtown. At first glance he looks like a government clerk or a garbage man or maybe just a mail delivery guy. He makes sure he’s not wearing anything that will make him stand out in a crowd. Reality is a different story.

Movies make private investigators (aka PI’s or private eyes) look impossibly heroic and certainly too good to be true. The decisions they make in a movie would otherwise land them in jail in real life. My friend Sam, an Atlanta private investigator working at e-Investigations International sets the right tone on this matter.

The gray area: pretexting

When a PI wants to find proof of any wrongdoing, he tries to extract info from witnesses or bystanders. Most of the time he uses false pretenses to acquire this information. This technique is known as pretexting. Pretexting isn’t always illegal, but is sometimes considered unethical.


Many others see it this way; if a lawful arrest is the result, who cares about the means?

The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act pertains to acquiring info from financial bodies such as banks. It states that pretexting is against the law and is punishable. A PI may assume that pretexting in any other scenario that doesn’t involve financial information is allowed.

The scenario he/she may imagine is forcing an entry onto any premises or trespassing so as to get some clues. In many countries, including the US, entering private property without consent of the owner or without a warrant is illegal. To escape jail, most investigators carry out their surveillance from public property. Using pretexting to acquire information about insurance transactions is also illegal. Phone surveilling through wiretapping or recording devices is also against the law.

Most times a private eye will pretext over the phone. Fabricating lies to obtain information isn’t usually typical style for most PI’s. Most of the info that a PI needs is found in public records and database searches.

Fictional investigators may arrest, detain, and then proceed to interrogate criminals which looks exciting to us, but is illegal in the real world. This is considered kidnapping in some places while in others it may be regarded as a necessity. Citizen arrest is legal, but varies in different jurisdictions.

Privacy concerns

Private investigators’ work is sometimes considered an invasion of privacy. One example of this would be the point on forceful entry discussed above. A number of laws aimed at protecting people’s privacy have been put in place in different countries. However, these laws don’t affect whether a PI can take pictures or use pretexts to acquire information.

Private detectives are notorious when it comes to not minding their own business. It is this quality that has made them popular for both the right and wrong reasons. In movies and books, they get the information required of them, but usually spy on the most intimate moments to extract this information.

An example of when investigators were depicted as unlawful was during the HP trial in 2006 and 2007 when the company sought to find out which members of the board were leaking private information to the media. Private investigators used rogue tactics to acquire information and couldn’t justify them as legal at the time.

More and more countries are beginning to regulate these detectives and we can only hope that their perception will begin to change. Do you want to become a PI? Do you know the licensing procedures, legal issues and technicalities? Check out our next blog post to find out more on this topic.