amz COLLEEN COLLINS 300 x 451

(Excerpt from Secrets of a Real-Life Female Private Eye by Colleen Collins)

When we started our private investigations agency back in 2003-2004, we invested a chunk of money in equipment upfront.  We were starting on a shoestring budget (like many PIs), so we took great care to think about what equipment we absolutely, critically needed.  Our first question to ourselves was…

What Kind of Investigations Will We Be Conducting?

My business partner had been a trial attorney for nearly two decades, and had trained many PIs in his practice, so he detective with flashlightthought we’d primarily be conducting litigation support (which includes tasks such as locating witnesses and conducting interviews, serving legal papers, researching court records). Yes, some of that work starting rolling in, but in the beginning, the bulk of our work came from several divorce attorneys who wanted us to conduct surveillances. Then an insurance company contacted us and asked if we could also do surveillances. So being able to conduct effective surveillances and produce quality evidence played a big part in what equipment we needed to buy.

Our Initial Equipment Purchases

Although we had a longer list of what tools we needed, here are some of the key items:

A good-working car.  We had our favorite car-repair guys do a through once-over on the car–that last thing we needed was to be stuck somewhere with car problems.  We got new tires.  We wanted to tint the windows, but never got around to it.

Cell Phones. Only one of us had a cell phone in 2003, and both of us needed to be reachable in real time. These days, neither of us can imagine being without our smartphones.

Propriety Database. From day one, we were locating witnesses for attorneys, and we wanted access to a proprietary database that would help us gather information more quickly and efficiently than juggling a variety of public resources, so we signed up with a proprietary database. What’s a proprietary database?  Here’s a high-level explanation from our nonfiction book How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths:

Pay-per-use Proprietary Databases

We have several proprietary databases that are available only to PIs, law enforcement officers, consumer-credit professionals and others with a need to know. These databases are run by organizations that conduct background checks on all applicants, and they monitor the usage carefully (every time we use one of these databases, we are required to check all applicable legal reasons for running the check). Each search costs money.

These proprietary databases cull their information from many different public record searches.  We recently asked one of the customer reps if she knew exactly what public records her proprietary database pulled from, and she said, “There’s so many, it’d take me a day to tell you just some of them.” One proprietary database advertises they pull from billions of public records.

One of our most used proprietary databases is IRBsearch

surveillance female hanging out of car with cameraA good print camera. Because attorneys had a hard time trusting the evidentiary integrity of the digital camera, we spent money on a top-quality print camera as well, along with a long-distance lens.  We only used it for approximately one year and a half, though, as our attorney-clients started trusting the digital age more.

A good digital camera. We invested in one good digital camera in the beginning, as well as a long-distance lens.

A video camera.  We needed to document people in action, especially for the insurance company, so a video camera was essential. Just as some of our attorney-clients didn’t trust the digital age, neither did the insurance company. After every surveillance, we had to courier to them the original video tape. By the time we left working for this insurance company two years after we started our investigations business, they still didn’t trust digital data. We figured they’d be changing their stance on that in the near future.

But they didn’t. Three or four years later, their new PI contacted us. What video tape equipment did we recommend? We strongly suggested he consider using digital video equipment — not only was tape equipment going the way of the dinosaur, but when he eventually moved to digital it would be an extra cost to transfer tape to CDs or other media. Also, it was going to become more difficult to play tapes in courtroom situations as tape-playing devices grew older and more problematic, and digital images were clearer, easier to review, and so on. “Yeah, I know,” he said, “but the insurance company refuses to use anything other than tape.”

We’d bet good money they feel differently today!

As Our Business Expanded, We Purchased More Equipment

As our business picked up, and both of us started going out in the field, we needed several digital cameras and video cameras. As digital video cameras became less expensive, we purchased several of those, too.

When we were invited to conduct undercover investigations by several national retail companies, we began investing in covert gear. Below are a few of those items:

  • Video camera built into a purse.
  • Pinhole cameras. Literally how they sound — the lens fits through a hole, such as through a button in a GPS real timeshirt.
  • Small camera that fit onto a keychain. 
  • GPS device.
    Important Note: It is critical for a PI to understand and comply with state and federal laws regarding the use of such device to avoid charges of stalking and wiretapping.  eems so obvious, and yet there will be some renegade PI who uses a GPS illegally, gets caught, and is lucky if he/she only ends up paying thousands of dollars to an attorney to keep him/her out of prison.

All of the above covert devices solved cases, including several major ones.

And then there was the covert gear that bombed, for example:

  • A cigarette lighter with a built-in camera (we tried and tried to make it work, finally gave up)
  • A wristwatch with a built-in voice recorder (instructions were so complicated, and badly written, we finally returned the watch-device to its manufacturer).

Along Came the Smartphone

smartphoneIt’s ten years since we founded our investigations company. We’ve gravitated to different careers now (my then-partner-boyfriend is now my husband and a trial attorney again — I’m writing pretty much full-time, while periodically conducting an investigative task for my husband’s law firm and the occasional attorney-client).

When it comes to equipment these days, I grab my smartphone. It takes excellent photos and video, for starters, which I can immediately send to the lawyer. Other apps I use:

  • Flashlight app. Why carry a clunky flashlight when you can just turn on your flashlight app? I also have a flashlight-magnifier app that not only shines a bright light on the scene/object, which I can zoom in on if necessary, I can also capture the image and send it via email or other program to a client.
  • Document Scanner. I’ve gone through several of these as I discover better document scanner apps. A few years back, we had a hand-held doc scanner we’d take into courthouses and other places to scan docs. The thing was a hassle to carry, and often cumbersome to use, but we loved being able to scan our documents on-site and download a digital file to our computer. Now I use a scanner on my smartphone that captures the image, lets me crop/enlarge a portion of it, choose what format I want to save it in (pdf, jpeg, etc.), as well as the option to email (or send via another venue, such as text message) on the spot.
  • Homesnap: Take a picture of a home, get a download of information about the house, such as homeowner history, sales prices, home description, neighborhood stats and more.
  • Voice recorder. I’ve seen these in the movies now, too, where reporters shove their smartphones with a recorder app running (instead of a microphone) into someone’s face.

Having a smartphone means my equipment bags (yes, I used to carry at least one) are now reduced to a single smartphone. Sometimes I look at all that old equipment in our office and think of all the money we spent for things we no longer use. Seems a shame to give it away — surely there’s a use for it somewhere.

Maybe we should open a PI Museum?

Other Books by Colleen Collins

Click on a cover to go to that book’s Amazon page.



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