Don’t do your own detective work

As a PI, I hear the phrase “I could totally be a detective,’ every day from my female friends. Even though I know that many of them could give FBI agents a run for their money, I always give them the same advice: ‘Don’t do your own detective work. Because no matter how much money you have lost, your time is priceless’.

Case in point: According to the Daily Mail, 52-year-old Katherine Underwood has spent the past 20 years trying to collect the $1.6 million her conman boyfriend stole from her. After winning her judgement back in 1994, her ex claimed that he was broke. So Katherine busted out her wigs like Jennifer Garner in Alias (pictured) and has been hot on his trail ever since.

While I totally understand her obsession, I still believe that investigating your own case is a bad idea for many reasons – the two biggest problems being:

1) It’s probably illegal.

Several states have strict anti-stalking laws, so driving by your ex-boyfriend’s house and parking outside his door could lead to criminal charges. A licensed private investigator is allowed to do surveillance, provided that he/she has an active case file.

2) You are too emotionally involved.

In the same way that a therapist provides a neutral third party when you are having relationship issues, a private investigator can follow the facts of the case without getting over-emotional and, for example, driving a car through an ex-boyfriend’s hedges.

If you are like Katherine and need an objective third party, call or email me today.

Love Scams: The CSI Effect

In his awesome book Practical Homicide Investigation, Vernon Geberth describes a phenomenon he labels ‘the CSI effect’. Basically, as more information about forensics becomes available to the general public via shows like CSI, criminals get smarter. They may wear gloves, or stage scenes to look like bizarre sex crimes they have seen in movies. I have found that the same thing is true of love scams.

You may be a Google armchair expert, know how to Facebook stalk and even master the art of putting on sunglasses after uttering the perfect one-liner, but love scammers are getting more sophisticated every day. This is why a licensed investigator who is up-to-date on the latest technology can help make sure that you don’t get fooled again (see what I did there?)

By now, many people are familiar with ‘catfish’, or people who pretend to be someone else online. They know to avoid Facebook pages that have few posts or friends, or have found websites that will tell them if Twitter users are real or fake. But at the same time, criminals are getting better at spreading digital disinformation. A number of services now allow people to buy ‘verified’ Twitter followers, and Facebook fakes have begun to craft much more elaborate pages with hundreds of friends. LinkedIn pages, which many people look at to verify employment – are actually self-reported, and totally open to fraud.

This month, I worked a case where the man I was attempting to serve papers to had crafted an elaborate – and completely fake – life on Facebook and Instagram. He ‘tagged’ himself at various locations hours or days after he left. Eventually we were able to geo-tag a photo and find him through old-fashioned surveillance, but by leaving a trail of false leads, he was able to confuse investigators for several days.

They also work to foil online background checks. For example, many criminals know that the starting point of identity is a social security number. Since they have bad credit or a criminal record, they may try to beat the system by stealing social security numbers from other people or the Death Master Index. Since it’s hard for a dead guy to get arrested for assault, the scammer uses the ‘clean’ social security number to build credit, get jobs and avoid judgements and child support payments.

It pays to remember that – even in a technological age – over-sharing is NOT the same thing as intimacy. A licensed private investigator with experience in love fraud can help you figure out who the person on the other end of the computer really is, and what they really want.

The Case of the Fake General: How to Verify Military Personnel

The case of Michael McDowell, the fake military man in Fort Worth, Texas charged with bigamy and impersonating a public servant after wearing bogus uniforms and a Purple Heart, brought up a good question from a potential client: How does a person verify military records? Fifty-seven year-old McDowell claimed for years that he was a General who had earned a Purple Heart for bravery – but he lied to his second wife and married her before divorcing his first one. McDowell was sentenced to 10 years probation, which many consider a slap on the wrist considering his decade of deception.

Verifying a soldier’s story can be especially important considering that a huge number of catfishing cases and other love scams use photos of hunky military men as bait. A career in the armed services can provide a perfect cover story for a scammer: The man can claim to be unavailable to meet because he is stationed overseas, or stuck in a hospital awaiting a life-saving liver transplant that only your $25,000 wired via a courier in Nigeria can provide.

Defense Manpower Data Center’s (DMDC) has a military verification service  that can tell members of the public if a person is currently serving in the military. The site is available 24 hours a day. When you perform a check, based on the Social Security Number and other personal information furnished, the system will indicate that the Department either does not possess information regarding the individual or that the individual is in the military.

But what if someone is already retired? The public has access to certain military service information via the Freedom of Information Act without the veteran’s authorization or that of the next-of-kin (the un-remarried widow or widower, son, daughter, father, mother, brother or sister) of deceased veterans.

According to the National Archives website, examples of information which may be available from Federal (non-archival) Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) without an unwarranted invasion of privacy include:

  • Name
  • Service Number
  • Dates of Service
  • Branch of Service
  • Final Duty Status
  • Final Rank
  • Military Education Level
  • Awards and decorations (eligibility only, not actual medals)
  • Photograph

Former military personnel records can be requested by mail using a Standard Form 180. All requests must be in writing, signed and mailed to the following address:

National Personnel Records Center
1 Archives Drive
St. Louis, Missouri 63138

Websites like The Fake Warriors Project also publish a list of scams and work to expose military fraudsters.


Catfish-proofing your profile

Another day; another excuse to break out the popcorn and watch yet another Dr Phil show about a mother who tried online dating and is clearly being scammed by a catfish. I’ve written before that these cases only represent the tip of the iceberg – and while, as family members, our instinct may be to grab the person, shake them and scream ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, I’m going to focus on how we can help them – and ourselves – catfish-proof online dating profiles. I think that online dating can be great. . . as long as you use caution and limit the pool of eligible singles to people who actually exist.  Read more

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