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How private investigators work in the 21st century: Facebook and deep web searches, and GPS trackers on cars

What does a private investigator do in the year 2015?

You’ve seen ’em on TV, in classic noir films like the Maltese Falcon or Chinatown, or maybe the caught-on-camera infidelities on the TV show Cheaters. But with only about 30,000 private investigators in the county, less than .1 percent of the country’s workforce in 2012, that’s really all most of us have to go on.

But what do those few investigators do these days? Billy Penn sat down with Jeff Stein, the president of ELPS Private Detective Agency and the Pennsylvania Association of Licensed Investigators. Stein is a licensed private detective in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey and frequently works in the city and surrounding areas.

Billy Penn: What misconceptions do you think the public has about your profession?

Stein: The general public thinks of cheating spouses and other TV exploited reality shows, which show gossip types of stories. However, government agencies at all levels outsource to private investigators. It’s common for local police departments and federal law enforcement agencies to use private investigators to conduct background checks on their [job] candidates.

They also use private investigators to conduct investigations, security of court houses and other public locations… Libraries, social security offices, (as well as investigating) workman’s compensation, theft, criminal defense, residency requirements and theft of time, as well as audits on government agencies, prisons and similar institutions.

What sorts of investigations do you spend most of your time doing? What about other private investigators?

We do a lot of domestic and child custody cases, theft cases, workman’s comp and civil litigation. I personally specialize and do primarily criminal defense work. Domestic cases are always in demand. Due diligence and background checks are and will be busy for many years to come. This includes employment, tenant and rental screenings, etc. There are lots of theft and fraud cases within our region and of course criminal defense work will always be in demand in Philadelphia. There are so many niche areas that have the potential for a lot of work in this region.

How has being a private detective changed through the years? 

[We’ve seen greater use of] technology, use of private investigators, expert witnesses, computer research and the need for independent and dedicated investigations. For example, law enforcement does an excellent job, however when their resources or budgets are limited, they do not have the time, manpower or resources to work their entire case load as needed.

In cases of theft, missing persons and other thefts and frauds, private investigators can be hired … to work on a particular case and be completely dedicated to that assignment with no interruptions.

How does digital technology impact your work? What sorts of technology do you use?

We spend a lot of time using the Internet for database searches, social media, news articles, criminal and civil searches and deep web searches. Technology in the use of forensics is also in demand and continues to grow. We use investigators who specialize in computer forensics, cellular forensics as well as bug sweeps. Without the right training, personnel and equipment you will not succeed. Each investigation usually consumes a minimum of one hour regarding digital technology and that number can increase depending on the case to 10 to 20 hours or much more.

Can you give us some specific examples?

Technology played roles in two major cases I was involved in as a defense investigator. In the case of Commonwealth v. Brown, where Pennsylvania exonerated its 10th prisoner based on DNA evidence, there was a hit in CODIS, that identified the actual perpetrator of the crime, not Brown, who was wrongfully convicted. [Ed note: Patrick Brown spent seven years in prison for a home invasion he did not commit. DNA evidence at his trial had excluded him as a contributor, but he was only released after that DNA matched another man.] (CODIS is the acronym for the “Combined DNA Index System” and is the generic term used to describe the FBI’s program of support for criminal justice DNA databases as well as the software used to run these databases.)

I was also the court-appointed defense investigator in the Kaboni Savage case. [Ed note: Kaboni Savage was a Philadelphia drug kingpin convicted in federal court and sentenced to death for in the killing of 12 people. Half of the deaths occurred when Savage ordered the firebombing of the home of a witness against Savage, which killed four children and two women.] There was a tremendous amount of technology used in this case. However, most of it was deployed by the FBI, with wire taps, bugs, video surveillance, GPS and cellular forensics. We did a lot of computer research in regards to the defense as well as subpoenaed and analyzed cellular triangulation along with reviewing and analyzing the prosecutions theories and conclusions.

Another newer piece of technology is the use of GPS tracking.

What kind of people are private investigators in Philly?

The past has definitely been dominated by males who have retired from law enforcement… That would put the average age over 50 years. [But] more folks are entering the private investigative field with different backgrounds and a younger age, including females. I’ve seen this trend in polls taken from PI Magazine as well.

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