Why garbage can be a gold mine

When I dreamed of becoming a private investigator, I never imagined a scenario in which I would be sitting in 90 degree weather sifting through slimy piles of rotten garbage.   But in some cases, the garbage can be a gold mine. For example, I recently had a case where a client’s soon-to-be-ex husband was hiding assets in a divorce case. She needed help proving that he was capable of paying child support.

Often public record searches help me link bank accounts to a person, but in order to find out the balance, or get phone records, I need a court order – or a thick pair of rubber gloves.

But as an ethical private investigator, I know that I have to operate within the law to get my clients crucial information. The 1999 Gramm-Leach Bliley Act imposed strict penalties for individuals who obtain information about a third party account through pretext or deceit. In 2007, President Bush signed the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006, making it a federal felony to fraudulently acquire phone records.

Here’s my checklist for making one person’s trash my treasure.

1) Check local laws. 

Trash that has been put on the curb for collection is generally not considered private property. In the 1988 California vs. Greenwood case, the court ruled that police could conduct a warrantless search of trash that had been left for collection outside the curtilage of the home. This allowed police to use the evidence of drug use that they found in defendant Billy Greenwood’s garbage as they basis for their search warrant.  According to the court, Greenwood had no expectation of privacy when it came to his trash.

But courts have ruled against investigators in cases where they entered an area marked ‘Private Property’. When weighing whether or not the home owner has a reasonable expectation of privacy, courts may also consider whether or not the can has locks or is in an area that is not publicly accessible. If the subject lives in an apartment building where the communal dumpster is behind gates or has the can right next to the house rather than on the curb, I would most likely steer clear.

Business investigations have another caveat: In certain cases, objects discarded can be considered trade secrets.

2) Do your prep work. 

After figuring out which day is trash day, I scout out a subject’s garbage can so that I can find out where the can is located, and what type of bags he/she uses. I also figure out the schedule, including what time the subject leaves for work as well as the time that the trash is taken out and collected (the local trash company can also provide information on trash pickup schedules).

In addition to my usual Detective Bag, I gather a few extra items.

  • Latex gloves
  • Baggies with Sharpies to mark and collect evidence
  • A flashlight
  • Extra garbage bags that are the same color/type the subject uses
  • Enclosed plastic shoes like Wellies
  • An old cotton sweatsuit that I don’t care about ruining

3) Choose your method.  

Some investigators swear by getting new trash cans and swapping out the old ones. For this, you need a van, and a floor with plastic covering. Other times, I can garbage surf in the open. Los Angeles actually has a Dumpster Diving Meetup Group, and recycling and ‘Freeganism’ are all the rage.

4) Have patience. 

Digging through garbage is disgusting. But don’t be tempted to rush the drying process. Spread everything out and remember that the most helpful documents are often the ones that people bury the deepest under that rotting sushi. Speaking of which. . .

5)  Don’t go out for seafood immediately afterwards. 

I LOVE sushi. But after getting week-old spicy tuna rolls stuck in my cleavage, it takes me a couple of days to reset. Actually going out to dinner anywhere immediately afterwards is tricky, unless your date likes the smell of rotting PF Chang’s combined with a hospital morgue.

Ask Me Anything

I would love to hear from you!