Calling Sam Spade! PIs are in hot demand

It's 7:30 on a Thursday night at the Nick Harris Detective Training Academy, and private investigator Dale Upton is about to reveal a trade secret.

Report-writing, he says to the three adult students sitting in front of him. It's important. Get it right. Use the right words, like "subject" for the person who's being "tailed" or put under "surveillance." Note the exact times a subject does something. Learn to estimate a subject's height and weight.

"Make it as detailed as you can," says Mr. Upton, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and moccasins with no socks.

OK, so it's not "The Maltese Falcon." But real life for private detectives has never been as glamorous as it's made out to be in the murder-prone worlds of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.

These students, who paid some $3,000 each for the 21-week course, are learning the grinding basics of what it takes to be a gumshoe - from the details of report-writing and document-researching to learning how to legally get information by posing as somebody they're not.

It's all part of a profession that is booming in a culture where information is more readily available than ever before, and where people seem to have more reasons than ever to want to get their hands on it.

"The changing nature of business today is creating new opportunities for investigators," says Bob Mackowiak, editor of P.I. Magazine. "There's room for growth in areas that no one has even envisioned yet."

Whether it's an insurance company that wants to investigate possible fraud, a criminal attorney who needs to dig up information, a corporation that wants to know who is stealing its secrets, or a woman who wants to know if her fiance is really who he says he is, the demand for private investigators has never been greater.

Private eyes are watching you

In fact, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities for private eyes are expected to grow faster than average for all occupations through 2008 - a growth rate of 21 to 35 percent in a profession that numbered some 61,000 workers nationwide in 1998.

"There's certainly an increased need for prudent vigilance regarding who we come into contact with, whether it's the people we marry or the people we go into business with," says Francie Koehler, a private investigator and president of the California Association of Licensed Investigators. "Because of the movement of our society, because of the fact that we are no longer living in the towns and cities we grew up in, we don't have a lot of knowledge about other people."

Good old-fashioned, first-hand knowledge, that is. Because, thanks to the explosion of the Internet, there's plenty of available information on just about anyone.

"For a skilled private detective, it's an embarrassment of riches," says Charles Sykes, author of "The End of Privacy." "If you have access to certain electronic databases, you can get more information about a subject than an army of private detectives conducting private surveillance could have done 10 years ago. I'm not exaggerating."

Private investigators are reaping the benefits. Although computers can't do the crucial work of on-site surveillances, they can make a lot of the detail work much easier.

Gone, for example, are the days of searching for hours through dusty records in public offices. Things like property records can be conjured up in minutes now via the Web.

But that embarrassment of riches can also pose problems. Many licensed PIs say the proliferation of websites offering personal information such as Social Security numbers to anyone willing to pay the price - sometimes as little as $25 - makes it easy for information to be abused by people not engaged in legitimate investigative work.

And, they say, the legislative backlash that has led to more laws protecting privacy has in some ways made their work harder.

Thanks to laws like the Financial Modernization Act of 1999, it's almost impossible to track down bank-account information, say, for a client who has won a legitimate court case and needs to collect a judgment by attaching it to the bank account of the person who owes the money. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, notes Ms. Koehler, an employer can't investigate a sexual-harassment charge without asking the permission of the accused offender - thereby rendering any investigation ineffective before it even begins.

Many licensed private investigators - who repeatedly stress they work within the bounds of the law - are responding by trying to increase standards within their own professions, pushing for reforms like uniform licensing requirements, which currently vary widely from state to state.

(California's requirements, for example, include a mandatory 6,000 hours of supervised work in the field, while some states, such as Colorado, have no requirements at all).

They have also tried to build partnerships with an unlikely ally - privacy experts - in finding common ground on state and federal privacy legislation.

"We're kind of mirror images of each other," admits Robert Ellis Smith, editor of Privacy Journal, who met last month with the National Association of Legal Investigators at their annual conference. "The thing is, a lot of their clients value privacy - [those] who do things like call in private investigators to find out whether they're being stalked."

Mr. Smith says there are a variety of situations where hiring a certified and experienced detective can be helpful, such as investigating sexual harassment in the workplace. "Or for people who are trying to locate lost individuals, or who can't get local law enforcement to investigate a situation adequately - not to mention hiring a private investigator to see if your phone is being monitored," he adds.

Gumshoe wannabes

The debate over privacy laws and the perils of the Internet, as well as the move to strengthen professional standards, is not expected to dampen enthusiasm among gumshoe wannabes. The majority of people who enter the profession are individuals with backgrounds in law enforcement, but private eyes like Upton say that many people are attracted to the field because they like the idea of solving things and being their own boss.

Jeff Myers, a contractor who drives 45 minutes each way two nights a week to attend Upton's class, says he's tired of his job and wants a change. "I've always been good at reading people," he says. "I like the idea that [as a private investigator] every job's different, and I like the fact that you can make your own hours."

Upton discovered his own talents almost by accident. While working at a warehouse job in the 1980s, he was approached by a member of the family that owned the business. The owner suspected another family member was stealing goods from the warehouse and selling them. He asked Upton to investigate, and the then-amateur detective caught the man red-handed.

"It was so much fun busting him," says Upton, who quit the warehouse job and went on to attend the academy where he now teaches. "That did it for me."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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