Picking out a Private Eye

Josh Farley writes:

Ever contemplated hiring a private investigator?

Surprisingly, there are a lot of rules and regulations involved — and if you pick the wrong one, you could be in a lot of trouble, according to some of the state’s most experienced investigators.

I’m sure most of you have an image in your head of a private eye — a smoky office, trench coats, dark sunglasses, and long photo lenses — but in reality, PIs operate like most businesses.

And that includes becoming licensed.

PIs specialize in all kinds of investigations, according to Mike Hawkins, president of WALI (Washington Association of Legal Investigators). They serve lawsuit papers on behalf of law firms. They investigate insurance fraud. They work for defense attorneys in criminal cases. And much more, Hawkins says.

But there’s one big step Hawkins said a customer must make when ensuring they hire a sound investigator.

“Anybody who is considering hiring a private investigator needs to make sure they’re licensed,” Hawkins said.

How can you do that? Here’s the first step: check the state’s Department of Licensing Web site on private eyes.

If they’re licensed, they’ve at least got all their paperwork in order and passed an investigations test, he said.

More important may be the question of what happens if your hired investigator is not licensed.

If said investigator, say, does something illegal, you could be held liable. And if you’re going to use that investigator’s findings in open court, a judge may just throw that evidence out.

And, notes Hawkins, there is a big difference between a business license and a private investigator’s license. If you search business licenses at the DOL here you may find the name of a private investigator, but that doesn’t mean they have a PI license.

Such was the case in a recent story that we ran concerning a Belfair investigations firm that was “pretexting” — posing as someone else to obtain information — on behalf of clients and illegally gaining access to bank, tax and medical records (read our story here).

The Belfair firm was a licensed business — but not a licensed investigations firm, Hawkins said.

In Washington, practicing without a private investigator’s license is a gross misdemeanor. However, the federal government had far more on the Belfair firm — 21 felonies in all — and thus the licensing issue was small potatoes compared to the federal charges.

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