In 1993, Private Investigator Joe Seanor had wrapped up employment stints in the CIA and the Department of Justice, and was looking for something new in his professional life. He launched PI Mall, an online private investigation database, with the intent that it would serve as a central place for those in the PI industry to go for information, and to list their services for those who might be seeking to hire. It was a need that was lacking as public exposure for PIs was almost unheard of at the time.
Today, advances in technology, and the stresses of life, have made PI Mall not only the longest running site of its kind, but also a popular destination for many people who want to find out how to become a "Citizen PI," so to speak. Members of the public with no formal investigative training are coming to Seanor in droves to buy tools and get tips in order to do their own sleuthing in instances such as a spouse's suspected infidelity.
See our slideshow that features the spy tools that PIs use for sleuthing
Seanor, who also runs PI Classroom, a website for investigative training resources, spoke with CSO about the changes in the PI industry, why so many now feel the need to spy on loved ones, and what they are using to do it. (Read Brandon Gregg's tips for effective covert surveillance)
CSO: Your site has been around since 1993. What's changed from those early days? Joe Seanor: When we first started out, our primary interest was in the private investigator community. People in the PI business didn't know about the web, or advertising. We were the resource at that time. But we've become not just a PI resource, but a public resource,too. We get calls from people, private citizens, day after day who have seen the website and they say they want to do some kind of investigation on their own. They'll usually ask "You have this equipment, will this help me out?" I can definitely say in the last year or so, I'm getting far more inquiries from the public on how to do this stuff on their own.
Why do you think that has happened? The impression I get from all the private investigators I talk to is that it's the economy. When the economy started tanking, their businesses tanked, too. But after about six or eight months of that, business started picking up. Now investigations are focused more on the spouse issues, the divorce cases. On my end, my calls from people who want to check on their spouse has easily increased 100 percent in the last several months. I get three or four contacts a week. Before I was getting these kinds of inquiries maybe once every other week.
People are starting to look more and more at what is going on because they are having problems dealing with things and it's getting harder for people to get along. They start getting edgier and edgier and that has increased this kind of business big time.
Another thing we have seen is a big increase in the repo (reposession) business. I easily get minium five to ten inquiries a week from people who want to find out more about starting their own repo business . That took me by surprise. I run Google Analytics on my site and frequently the number one page brought up is our repo information page. With people having problems making their payments, the repo business is growing.
What kind of products are people buying to conduct their own investigations? Some of the bigger tools the public looks for include GPS trackers. They often want them to put one on a spouse's car. Then they look at ways to monitor cell phones or computers, to look for signs of infidelity. That's the biggest thing. Wireless cameras are also always a big hit. The public uses these for watching babysitters, that sort of thing. People also love the sunglasses with a camera built-in. I think that's more of a novelty.
How does this public interest in investigation impact the PI industry? What are professional PIs doing now? Today we still look at the investigation issues around divorce, but now there is a steady increase in business in the area of technology-based investigation. We're still getting requests from spouses or their clients for GPS tracking, that sort of thing. But these requests are also now being made from a corporate level, too. More and more companies are coming to investigators and saying: "I need some kind of GPS on someone's vehicle." The PIs are then called in to put a GPS on company cars.
There is also a new emphasis on investigation involving social networking. We are seeing more corporate clients want to know what people are doing on Facebook or Myspace and hiring professionals to conduct this kind of investigation. They want to know: Why are these people linked up with these people on this network?
Or we might get called by insurance companies to do insurance fraud investigations. It used to be if someone slipped and fell, a PI could follow them around with a camera to confirm any suspicion of insurance fraud by filming them doing things they should not be able to do. But now people are now more savvy and they aren't going out in public. So investigators are now looking at MySpace or Facebook where people are uploading videos to social networks and doing things they shouldn't be able to do if they've made a claim.
In the past four months or so, I have doubled, sometimes tripled, my class enrollment for social networking investigation.