There is a lot more to being a private investigator than just sitting in a car with a long camera lens. Many investigators work with companies to conduct thorough background and legal investigations, often before large business transactions. Searching for the Maltese Falcon they aren’t.
To learn a little about the field beyond our pop culture gumshoe perception, we spoke with licensed investigator Brian Willingham. Of course, there are private investigators that do specialize in the sort of infidelity-spotting you might see in the movies, but Brian’s firm focuses on in-depth investigations for individuals, businesses, and investors that go beyond a few grainy photos.
First of all, tell us a bit about your current work and how long you’ve been at it.
My name is Brian Willingham, and I am a licensed private investigator. I have been working in the business 15 years this month (happy anniversary to me!). I am the owner of Diligentia Group, which has been in business for more than six years.
We focus on a few areas of investigations, including in-depth background investigations for firms that are considering investing or purchasing a company (to make sure they are not investing with a fraud), and we assist attorneys with complex litigation matters. We also specialize in locating hard-to-find people. For example, we are working on a case right now, helping a family track down their heirs from France. They lost touch with those heirs 40 years ago and we just found a nephew living in Oregon; they had never known about him.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
I took a bit of a circuitous route to the profession. The vast majority of private investigators come from a law enforcement background, mostly through state or local police, or through some other government law enforcement agency such as the FBI, or from a military background. I, on the other hand, kind of fell into the profession.
Even though I had taken an aptitude test in the ninth grade that told me I should be a private investigator, for several years I spent time following my passion for breaking into the business of sports (only after I came to realize that I was never going to be a professional baseball player). I got my degree from the one of the pre-eminent sports management programs in the country—at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst—and worked for a sports photography firm, Major League Baseball, and interned with the New York Giants football team.
Although I cherished my time in the sports industry and did things that I will never be able to do again (like flying in a blimp for the 2000 World Series), I quickly learned there were hundreds of people willing to do my job for less pay than I was. I also learned that once you have secured a position in the industry, you never leave, which kind of deflated my ambitiousness. In 2001, I decided to join my father’s private investigation business, and the rest, as they say, is history.
There are no specific education requirements to be in the profession. It wouldn’t hurt to have a criminal justice degree, but by no means is it a requirement. Because there are so many niches in the industry and the industry changes so frequently, it’s critical to get on-the-job learning by being a practitioner in the business.
What drove you to choose your career path?
Like most kids, I was fascinated at an early age by Sherlock Holmes, Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew mysteries and Magnum P.I. My father was a private investigator, so it was certainly something that was always on my radar. The truth is that I started working in the business because I was sort of at a crossroads in my professional career, but I quickly became captivated by the business. What I learned is that you are constantly learning about new things and it’s hard to get bored because your workload is continually changing.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
Researching, reading, and writing are probably the three things that I do most. Based on conceptions that people have, I fairly certain that is not be what most people think private investigators do, but those are the most critical components of what I do.
For any type of investigator, whether you are in law enforcement or in the private sector, most people don’t realize how much time and effort goes into what is happening behind the scenes. What may be in the public view or the final report is only a fraction of what actually goes on. From the hours of training to spending days chasing down leads, there is a lot of work that goes into the end result.
What other misconceptions do people often have about your job?
Let me count the ways. Ninety-five percent of the people we polled a few years ago think that private investigators break the law and are “shady.” Movies and television have certainly not done us any favors, but investigators have not done themselves any favors either. A lot of investigators relish these misconceptions; I, for one, think that they hurt the profession.
In addition to being shady, some of the other misconceptions include that private investigators break the law regularly and they obtain their information through illegal means. We often get inquiries asking us if we will do some sort of illegal activity on their behalf, such as threaten someone or break into someone’s house and steal tax returns. I also get asked whether it is legal to hire a private investigator, which puts us in the same sentence as hackers who would be hired to illegally break into a computer.
So yes, with the general public there are huge misconceptions about our business that can be challenging to break through at times.
What are your average work hours? Typical 9-5 thing or not?
It really depends. This is not a business in which you are going to find that many 9-to-5 jobs, though. The workload can be really inconsistent and private investigators are often hit with time-sensitive work, so you have to be flexible with your hours and have an understanding family.
Personally, I am a morning person. Typically, I am at my desk by 7:30am, spend time with my family from 6pm through 9pm, and then usually do some more work from 9pm to 11pm once the kids have gone to bed. But if you ask my wife and kids what my typical day looks like, it’s probably a lot different from their vantage point.
I will tell you that since I started my own business, I have worked more nights, weekends, and vacations than I ever have before, but I wouldn’t trade being my own boss for anything.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
I am not sure who coined the term “Inbox Zero,” but I have been following this practice for years to help keep myself organized. If there is anything in my email inbox, I treat it as something that needs to be done, responded to or otherwise looked into. If I am done looking through it or have responded, I archive it. Despite the fact that I get hundreds of emails a day, there are typically only 10 to 20 things in my inbox. There are only a few times a year that my inbox is actually empty, but it basically serves as a secondary to-do list.
I also use a combination of technology and pen and paper to keep me organized with my tasks. I have been using Google’s Inbox to help set reminders, Todoist to help me with more intermediate and long-term to-do items, and good old-fashioned pen and paper for my daily “to-do list.”
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession?
Private investigators as a group hold things pretty tight to the vest by keeping their “secrets” to themselves. I don’t really believe in secrets. The truth is that most secrets are not really secrets at all. I blog about most of my secrets and techniques. When I started blogging five years ago, I was one of the few investigators who openly wrote about this stuff.
I am also extraordinarily honest with my clients—and sometimes brutally honest, which probably costs me some cases. If I don’t think we have any shot at answering whatever question the client is interested in answering, I will tell them. As a general rule of thumb, I don’t think most people are willing to talk themselves out of work, but if I don’t realistically feel like I can help my clients with whatever budget or resources they have, I will tell them. It doesn’t help them and it doesn’t help me to be in a position where I am not going to succeed.
I also think I have a unique skill set. I was a bit lucky with regard to the timing of when I joined the profession. Over the past 15 years, the business has gone through a transformation regarding the amount of information that you can find out about a person just by sitting behind your computer. Information that may have taken weeks to develop can now be uncovered in just a few hours. So I have been involved in the business through a period that bridged two “generations” so to speak, and have been able to pick up things from both sides. You typically find investigators who are great at either digging up information while sitting behind the computer or good with more classic investigation methods, like face-to-face or “boots on the ground” tactics. I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved extensively in both kinds.
What’s the worst part of the job, and how do you deal with it?
One of the biggest frustrations about this business is that the work can be inconsistent and extremely time sensitive. I go through periods of time where I work 80 hours a week and those that aren’t so busy. And those busy versus slow moments can happen from week to week or even day to day. Again, most of the work that we do is pretty time sensitive, so the dips and valleys can come and go quickly.
Personally, I don’t have a lot of cases that go on for months and months, so I literally don’t have any work scheduled for two weeks from now. When I first started my own business, I would get worried about the weeks ahead, but I worry less now. I have been in business long enough to know that the work will come.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
Two things come to mind. First, from a professional perspective, I am enormously satisfied when I uncover information about a fraud. I have worked on a number of cases over the years in which I was assisting individuals or investors who were doing a background check on a potential investment only to find information that showed the person being investigated had a pretty shady past. I was able to provide information that convinced my client to avoid making an investment or to pull out of their investment. In a few cases, these investments turned out to be massive frauds, and my clients avoided millions of dollars of losses and a lot more headaches.
The most personally satisfying cases are the ones where I am able to put families together, including children who have never met their father; parents who have never met their children; or, as in the case I mentioned earlier, finding family members whose existence was not even known. Professionally, these cases are really challenging, as my clients have often spent years searching before turning to me. They are not always easy, and I pass on more cases than I actually take on, but when the cases that we do take have a great ending, that is when I am most personally satisfied. When I am able to fill a hole in someone’s life that has been around for years, that makes me the happiest.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
Salaries for investigators vary widely, depending on a number of factors, including where you live and your specialties. On the lower end, you may have surveillance investigators in very rural areas who get paid $15 to $20 per hour; then there are the “white shoe” corporate firms, where directors can be paid several hundred thousand dollars a year. And there is everything in between.
Is there a way to “move up” in your field?
Hard work and hustle, which you can pretty much say about moving up in any business. My best advice would be to take on the stuff that nobody wants to do, do it enthusiastically and do it well; that will certainly get you noticed.
What do people undervalue or overvalue about what you do?
Interestingly, I think what people undervalue and overvalue about what private investigators do is the exact same thing: our ability to obtain information.
On one end of the spectrum, there is a subset of people who think that private investigators have access to information at their fingertips, including the results of your latest colonoscopy and the details of your tax returns going back 20 years; they also think we can use brute force to get people to tell us information.
On the other end of the spectrum, I think we are also undervalued. I was once told that private investigators were just an expensive Google search. Maybe that attorney just used the wrong private investigator, but nothing could be further from the truth.
I am a practitioner in my craft and spend thousands of hours a year perfecting it. It’s my job to know tricks about mining social media, like a backdoor way to determine someone’s friends on Facebook even though they are blocked. It’s my job to know that criminal record checks have gaping holes and how to fill those holes. I also know the best ways to approach a witness for an interview and when I am legally able to record that interview.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
The investigative community is a small, tight-knit community, and getting into the business is notoriously challenging. You really have to know the right people in your community. I would follow them on social media and try to establish a relationship with several of them. I would also join message boards in the investigative community and actively participate in the conversations. Most states have an association that you can also join and participate in as well.
As with most professions, you have to show that you can provide something of value or, more specifically, have a skill set that nobody else has. Along those lines, utilizing technology to advance investigations would be an interesting thread that you might be able to use to garner attention. For example, mining social media or utilizing drone technology or offering a cloud-computing platform to deliver surveillance videos to clients are ways that you could get some attention.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about—from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between. If you’d like to share your career, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Photographee.eu (Shutterstock).