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Inside the Life of a Private Detective in the Digital Age

Computers speed up records searches, but they don’t replace the value of face-to-face views of people and places, says Max Hansen. Photos by Brad McPherson

A Daphne, Alabama conference room houses a display like no other. The trophy case contains surveillance tools, data recovery systems and spy gadgetry of all descriptions. With tracking devices, bugging equipment and pinhole cameras, it is like stepping into James Bond’s attic, except 007 is fiction. Baldwin Legal Investigations is real.

How real? “Give me your name and birthdate,” says the firm’s owner and CEO, Max Hansen. I did. Fifteen minutes later, he presented a 52 page “Story of Emmett.”

The half-inch thick volume in single-spaced text includes every house I have lived in and current owners, automobiles I have owned, 20 neighbors and contact information. Listed also are 20 friends with phone numbers, my relatives, interests, hobbies, credit history, cell phone numbers, email address and previous arrests (none).

Thumbing through my report, Hansen speaks what you want to hear from a private investigator — “You’re a pretty boring guy.”

For others the verdict is different.

The “scatter” or “shotgun” report is an example of computers empowering detectives. Gathering the same information just 10 years ago required weeks of pounding the pavements. Today the process is digitally done in minutes.

State licensing was a catalyst. “It’s been a game changer,” says Barry Hodgens, of Hodgens Investigative Services in Cropwell, near Birmingham. He refers to the Alabama Private Investigation Regulatory Act, a relatively new law empowering state detectives with some pretty cool search engines and more. But Hodgens, an investigator primarily covering personal injury, wrongful death and industrial accidents, adds that, though the law is a good start, it’s not the end.

“We need to beef it up,” says Jonnie Munn, president of the Alabama Private Investigators Association and head of Corporate Special Services Inc. in Birmingham. Referring to the state regulations, he adds, “It is lacking.”

In addition to being APIA president, Munn’s private investigative work includes workers compensation, injuries, surveillance and background checks. He notes, “Under current requirements, one must take a test, pay the fee and prove U.S. citizenship to be a licensed private investigator in Alabama. But the legislation should include minimum standards, an apprenticeship license, at least two years’ experience in related fields and/or a combination of education in criminal justice, law enforcement or political science.”

He adds that the APIA hopes to submit a proposal covering all of the above to the Alabama Legislature by next year’s session. “We want to offer training and bring in new people, but we also want our people required to obtain the training to be professionals.”

“With the exception of Mississippi, Alabama is the only nearby state that does not have similar training and standard requirements,” Munn says. Hopefully, according to APIA, that will soon change.

But Alabama’s private investigators are benefiting from tools now available electronically, along with old fashion gumshoe work.

A tiny video camera just above the clasp on this pen can be a valuable tool for a private eye.

“Once I have your name and birthday, I’ll find you,” claims Hansen, whose agency work includes 17 to 23 capital murder cases annually. “We use a variety of search/database tools,” he adds, referring to services like Tracers, TLO and IRBsearch — many available only to licensed private detectives and law enforcement officers.

“We do the same work we have always done — track, gather information, report it to clients,” says Hansen, acknowledging electronic tools of the trade. “But with computers, we do it much faster.”

The private eye eyes a lot. Cases are an assortment: insurance fraud, domestic relations, industrial and automobile accidents, wrongful death, embezzlements, missing persons, child support, homicides and more. Some detectives cover a wide variety. Others specialize, such as in insurance fraud. Some are hired for expertise in specific skills like building and installing custom tracking devices not much bigger than a postage stamp that can track a car anywhere in North America.

With the computer came the digital detective. Many search engines are only available to licensed professionals. But others are free, and one is referred to by detectives as “the gift that keeps on giving” — social media.

“The beauty of Facebook is that we don’t have to look for the information,” Hansen notes. “You give it to us. It would amaze you the amount of information we glean from social media sites without having to dig for it.”

Barry Hodgens agrees. “To most people, services like Twitter and Facebook are social media outlets. To us it is a resource tool, continuously updated by the people using it.

“No matter how much warning they receive, people do not realize or care that social media posts never go away. They still will say anything online.”

And police and other investigators, with some training and skills, can find patterns in those social media posts, the PIs say. They look not just at the suspects but also whom they hang out with online. Detectives search what suspects are posting, where they go online and what they do while there.

However, all detectives interviewed adamantly stated that, regardless of the digital tools used, nothing replaces old fashioned boots on the ground. “At the end of the day, you still have to be a good interviewer and know how to read people,” says Hodgens, whose 30 years of job experience includes the FBI. “I need to physically see a car crash site and must see the witnesses to determine their truthfulness.”

And even though many tools in the detective’s arsenal are available to the public, knowing how to legally obtain information from bugging devices and tiny hidden microphones and cameras is something the public does not understand. Using such gadgets without a license can be illegal. New detectives learn that, but not overnight.

The training is demanding. Hansen notes, “I sometimes worry that younger, new detectives use computers as a crutch. It is a tool, not the end-all, in good private investigative work.

“We hire people in our firm with criminal justice degrees, law enforcement backgrounds or both,” adds the investigator with 28 years’ experience. “Our people spend a year in-house apprentice training.”

“The job is not for everybody. It’s a tough slot to fill,” he continues. “You must have self-confidence and you cannot be timid.”

Good interviewing, writing and data collecting skills are essential. “I cannot emphasize enough to my people — verify, verify, verify. The information you gather, decisions you make, reports you produce will change someone’s life — good or bad — forever,” Hansen warns.  “I never forget that.”

Munn adds, “In our business we talk to a wide variety of individuals — doctors, professionals, felons, drug addicts, you name it. A good investigator must know how to read people who don’t always want you reading them.”

Detectives interviewed agreed: Gone are the days of trenchcoat-wearing private eyes, except in movies. Hollywood reminisces the romance of days when Humphrey Bogart engaged in shootouts with people he was tailing.

“My insurance carrier would not go for that,” says Hansen. “But back in the day, this business was like the wild, wild West as far as qualifications were concerned. Basically all you had to do was say ‘I’m a private detective,’ and you were one.”

Even if the job is tamer now, there are still risks, Barry Hodgens notes. “You don’t always go in the best neighborhoods. I have experienced situations where I feared for my life. There are times I wear body cams.”

Detectives often work in the same environment police do. But as Hansen says, “When a private detective is in a bad situation, we can’t call for back up. There is no back up.”

But, at the end of the day, the rewards are great. To many, the world of detective work is in their blood, fascinating and a rewarding endeavor where no two days are the same. On Monday, the task is embezzlement charges. On Tuesday, a homicide. Who knows what the week may bring?

“But I love what I do,” Hansen says. “Every day is different, and every day you help people. We help see that justice is served.”

Emmett Burnett and Brad McPherson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and McPherson in Mobile.

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