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.

Is the Death Master File on life support?

The Social Security Death Master File may be maintained by the government, not the Grim Reaper – but it remains a valuable investigative tool. When a person dies, funeral homes, hospitals and /or families report the data to the Social Security Administration. In 1980, a court ruling ordered the government to make the DMF data publicly available – and until last week, anyone who paid the fee could access the 86 million names.

Now Congress has approved a provision that will limit access to ‘certified’ users for the three years following a person’s death. Supporters say that this ruling will help avoid cases of fraud – and identity thieves swiping social security numbers of recently deceased individuals.

The Social Security Administration site reads: ‘Subscribers must have a legitimate fraud prevention interest, or have a legitimate business purpose pursuant to a law, governmental rule, regulation, or fiduciary duty in order to be certified under the program.’

I’ve spent a huge part of my career detecting fraud, and I completely sympathize with families who have had sensitive data stolen. But as an investigator, I know how invaluable the Death Master File can be to cases.

In the past month alone, I have used it to confirm that a client’s long-lost relative was deceased, help with a probate case and help to determine the identity of a criminal who was using multiple social security numbers.

The site now says that in order to register, ‘certified users’ must pay a $200 certification fee and sign a user agreement. If they are approved, they can then pay per number of online searches. The amount ranges from $600 for up to 1,000 searches to over $7,000 for the entire file on CD Rom.

I personally feel that the ruling is short-sighted. The Death Master File helps researchers complete family trees, PIs solve criminal cases and journalists write accurate stories. Perhaps if the IRS wants to crack down on identity fraud, they should focus on protecting the living victims of identity fraud rather than limiting information about dead people.

The National Technical Information Service (NTIS) is creating a temporary certification program, so this is a developing story.


Botox and Body Language

Many detectives are trained to identify micro-expressions and body language, but being a ‘human lie detector’  can be complicated – especially in cities like LA, where Botox is everywhere. I recently wrote a piece for PI Magazine in which I posed the question: “How can investigators read expressions when everyone’s face is frozen?”


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New Year’s Resolutions, Sherlock Holmes style

Happy New Year everyone! Going into 2014 I want to share one of my favorite quotes from Sherlock Holmes writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He said: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

Think about your brain attic: Is it cleaned and streamlined, and filled with only the things and people who are most important to you? Or does it look like an episode of ‘Hoarders’?

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, but as I start 2014 I plan to give more serious thought to the careful construction of my mental attic.

Happy New Year from The Love Detective!

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