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Private Investigator Phone App Promises vs. Practicalities

Private Investigator Phone App Promises vs. Practicalities

In March 2015, a new iPhone app launched with the promise to revolutionize the Private Investigation world.  The app is promoted as “Uber for PIs”.  The founder, who is not a private investigator, claims to want to make private investigators “less skeezy”.  His app connects anonymous clients with PIs for the bargain price of $59 per hour, or $67 per hour of surveillance.  A client can hire a PI through the app to investigate matters from infidelity to locates to pre-employment background reports.  The entire concept screams “red flag”.

The founder of this app called it “trustworthy and fully transparent”, yet one of its main functions is anonymity – the opposite of transparency.  When asked how the company will deal with the issue of a stalker, the founder claimed they have full transparency on any job.  Also, “we have internal staff on our side, who are already trained to look for stalking behavior.”  How are those staff members able to identify such behavior if all they do is connect a client to a PI?  It sounds as if the company is indeed acting as a private investigator themselves – something for which they do not appear to have a license.  From their website: “The customer simply taps a button on their phone or computer, provides a few key details and is then linked up with a private investigator, who gets to work instantly, verifying anything or anyone.”  There does not seem to be much accountability there, much less any opportunities for the company staff to identify stalkers or other dangers.

The ability of the client to remain anonymous has legal implications and possible ramifications.  Private Investigation is a heavily regulated industry for a reason – for legitimate purposes, investigators have access to private, personal information.  Investigators have legal and ethical obligations regarding disseminating that information.  For every database we use, we must affirm there is a valid, legally permissible reason to obtain the sought-after information and must identify that purpose to the database provider.  An investigator who does not know the identity of his client cannot begin to guess at the motives and intentions of that client.  What is to prevent an abusive spouse from using this app to anonymously locate his victim?  What if a stalker with a restraining order hires a PI to follow the victim?  Without knowing the identity of the client, the PI cannot perform their due diligence to search for restraining or other protective orders.  Additionally, keeping the client’s identity anonymous prevents the investigator from being able to check for any potential conflict of interest.

The application’s “screening” of clients consists merely of a disclaimer attached to a submit button.  After a potential client provides their name and email address in the app, they are asked to provide their credit card information and click submit.  Right above that is the disclaimer:  “By submitting this request, you agree to our terms of use, and consent that you are not using the service for the purpose of surveilling a person that you are not legally allowed to interact with or be near due to a protective other, temporary restraining order, or any other legal reason.”  Most every person with nefarious intent would simply click submit.  Since the client is allowed to remain anonymous, the PI has no way to verify that there is no protective order or restraining order.  To use one of the company’s own case studies as an example: a man was looking for his long-lost friends.  All he knew was their names and their possible state of residence.  He claimed to have searched social media without success.  The PI hired through the app was able to find the “friends” and provide their home addresses to the searcher.  This sounds like a stalker’s dream, or perhaps witness tampering.  Anyone can say they are looking for a “long lost friend” to gain access to carefully guarded information – anonymously!  Reputable PIs would not provide the client with the contact information of the “friends” without first contacting the “friends” for their permission.  Another reasonable, legal option would be to provide the client’s contact information to the “friends” so the “friends” may contact the client if they so desire.  Neither of these options is open to a PI working through the app if the client elects to remain anonymous.

The “Uber for PIs” model discounts the PI/client relationship in favor of a “turn and burn” mentality.  Private investigators agreeing to work through this app are paid $30 per hour on cases, less than half of what the app charges the client.  That discount hourly rate precludes much of what goes into a good investigation and healthy client relationship.  Prior to beginning an investigation, a good investigator will invest their time in contacting the client to obtain necessary information to proceed with the investigation and develop an investigation plan.  Under the app’s model, the PI (who is already working at a discounted rate) does not get paid for this time, thus creating a disincentive for the PI to actually work with the client to tailor the investigation plan to the particular client’s needs.  While the app touts being able to hire a PI for small increments of time such as one hour of surveillance, in reality, one hour of on-site surveillance is closer to 3 to 4 hours of work invested by the PI – meeting with the client, reviewing file information, and preparing a report concerning her activities.  Since that is not covered by this app, it puts the true hourly rate closer to $10 or even less.  To make a living wage, an investigator may need to sacrifice on the quality of the work and potentially take on hundreds of cases, lowering the value of each.

These low rates raise another concern – would you trust your sensitive investigation needs – be it background reports for potential household employees or checking on your mate – to investigators selling their services near or below minimum wage?  Remember the adage “you get what you pay for”.  In California, as in most states, private investigators are required to be licensed.  Being a licensed PI is not an entry-level job.  Skilled investigators, like the investigators at Gailey Associates, Inc., have spent years obtaining education and refining their skills.  Our investigators earned their licenses through three years of intensive on-the-job education.  Our investigators are also college-educated and, in some cases, hold advanced degrees.  Our investigators spend almost every day in the field conducting investigations.  Before field work begins, our investigators review police reports, witness statements, scene photographs, social media, and whatever else information may be available to shed light on the circumstances surrounding the investigation.  After the interviews or surveillance have been conducted, the investigator must prepare a report, potentially including surveillance video.  While these costs add up, the sum total is a thorough investigation which provides evidence the client can trust.  Additionally, good PIs, like Gailey Associates, Inc. carry both automobile as well as liability (commercial and errors & omissions) insurance, something of which this app makes no mention.  If the client is going to spend $59 or $67 per hour for an investigator they would likely get better results from an investigator they hire on their own as the investigator has more incentive than the $30 per hour investigator this app would direct them to.  Despite what the app marketing touts, this app is nothing more than a modern twist to the age old middle man who appears to provide no value to the client

Taking a closer look at the finer details, the app’s terms and conditions betray the hollowness of the advertising campaign.  The app is advertised as allowing the client to have confidence in hiring a “certified investigator” and to just sit back and wait for the results to roll in.  The terms and conditions states “[We do] not guarantee the suitability, work quality, or professional ability of third party private investigators. It is your sole responsibility to find out whether the private investigator you select will meet your needs and expectations. You acknowledge that you are using this service at your own risk and that the third party private investigator may expose you to situations that are unsafe, offensive, harmful to others, or offensive and objectionable. [We do] not assume responsibility and [have] no liability arising from or related to your use of the Service or your engagement of a third party private investigator.”

If the user is expected to research the PI themselves, and the app does not provide reviews, referrals, or testimonials about those investigators, the user is no better off than searching the internet themselves for a local investigator.  The app touts itself as providing “worry free results” but then in the fine print tries to disavow itself from any responsibility, claiming to be just a transaction facilitator?  The app takes no responsibility for errors or omissions made by the investigator, it is “just a platform” to facilitate the connection.  The owner has also said “we only work with licensed PIs currently”.  “Currently”?  If, in the future, they add unlicensed private investigators, will the clients be made aware?  Or will that be tucked away in the terms and conditions, another item the user must verify themselves?  The use of the term “certified investigator” is also troubling, as this is not a recognized designation by any licensing board.  It is a term coined by the app developers, possibly to obscure the fact their investigators may not be licensed, which is the correct terminology for Private Investigators.  The online application to be an investigator through this app consists solely of providing a name and contact information.  While the job description indicates experience is required, the application itself does not.  Who is doing the “certification”, the owner, who is not an investigator, or their Director of Investigations, who also does not appear to be a licensed investigator?  So what does the “certified” mean?  Nothing – go back and re-read their terms and conditions again.  Unlicensed activity is typically only caught because of complaints to the local licensing agency.  This app could operate for some time before the appropriate authorities are able to launch an investigation into whether any of this is even legal.  In the meantime, clients and PIs are venturing into uncharted, potentially dangerous territory.

We are living in an era of apps, everyone wants everything available at the touch of a button.  But this Uber-ification cannot be applied evenly across all industries.  Hiring a PI is closer to hiring an attorney than an Uber driver.  An Uber interaction generally only lasts for a few minutes: picked up at point A and delivered to point B.  When someone is seeking a private investigator, they have a personal, confidential issue.  Would you trust your sensitive investigation to whomever is available at that moment for a bargain basement price?  Part of the PI/client relationship is based on trust: trust that the PI is not going to break the law to conduct the investigation, trust the investigator is not going to “burn” the surveillance, trust on the PI’s part that the client is not going to send the PI into a surveillance that is prohibited by a protective order, and trust that the client is not misrepresenting their purposes in obtaining the information.  This app, in attempting to commoditize the PI profession, removes trust from the equation. Private investigation, like any profession, has its dark side and opportunists willing to work on the wrong side of what is legal.  In numerous media articles about this app, the founder stated  he wants to take the “skeezy” out of hiring a private investigators.  In reality, exactly the opposite will happen.  It will be the PIs who are willing to take assignments reputable PIs would not take who will be attracted to working through this app.

If you would like to speak with a licensed, insured, and experience investigator, please call us at 714) 622-1900 to discuss your case.  Gailey Associates, Inc. has been finding evidence our clients can trust for over twenty-five years.  We have worked on behalf of law enforcement agencies, municipalities large and small, insurance companies, giant multi-national corporations and small businesses, and we can help you prove it.