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What Private Investigators Can Teach You About Interviewing

Freelancers with experience as investigative reporters might consider working for a private investigator to supplement their writing income.

However, a note of caution: since the topography of both private investigation and investigative reporting is littered with slippery slopes, you must take responsibility for knowing and diligently following all federal and state laws as well as policies set by your employer. Most of these protect the privacy of your “target,” the individual, corporation, or other group that is the subject of your investigation.

With that understood, in this blog I’ll share some of the tools and techniques I learned while working as a Florida licensed private investigator intern from 2005 until my boss was killed in 2006. My primary assignment was skip tracing, which can be summarized as attempting to locate individuals who don’t want to be found.

Typically, our client was an attorney or an insurance company who needed to find the target individual to testify as a witness. Sometimes I was charged with finding the sole heir when a family member died and left a will naming the target as a benefactor. Other targets were being sought so our process servers could serve court summons connected with criminal or civil actions, trashed apartments, or unpaid bills.

Here are a few of the tools and techniques I learned on the job (and which might be helpful to journalists interviewing subjects):

This is the word PIs use to pretend to be someone else in order to gather information for his or her case. For example, if I was trying to locate someone who had moved without leaving a forwarding address, I might use the reverse telephone directory to identify my target’s neighbors and call each of them, claiming to have a photo album belonging to the target and asking if he or she knew their former neighbor’s new address so I could deliver or mail it.

The keys to a successful pretext are to have your story straight before you make your calls, keep the details consistent, and anticipate ahead of time the questions you might be asked and have answers for them. In this case, such questions might include “How do you know (name of target)?” “Is his/her new job working out?” or “Can you remind him/her to give me back my CDs?”

Even the most seasoned PIs won’t cross some lines. For instance, to call your target’s relative saying “I need to reach him/her because there’s been an accident” would be considered unethical. Typically, there are alternative pretexts that will elicit the required information.

While researching a news story, you may or may not be permitted to use pretext to gather information. Straight up, it’s lying to obtain information and you need to check out your employer’s journalistic code of ethics regarding investigative journalism to see if you are allowed to use pretext. The same applies to tape-recording your subject without obtaining permission in advance.

Dialing *67 on your landline produces a dial tone that allows you to dial your target’s phone number without revealing your name or number on caller ID. This is another way to gather information without revealing that you are calling from an investigative agency or from a news organization. In most locations, *67 is a free service from telephone landline providers. I’ve had spotty results attempting to use *67 on a cell phone.
Occasionally, *67 won’t work because the person you’re calling has set up a privacy block to reject calls that fail to identify the caller by name and number in caller ID.

Productive Interviewing

Let’s say you have located your target and he/she has agreed to meet with you in person. There are several key strategies i’ve used as a private investigator intern that can be adopted by investigative journalists.

First, although law enforcement personnel usually conduct interviews at their agency headquarters so they can control the environment and video-tape the target, I have had good results with an alternative strategy. Assuming there is no safety threat, I prefer to meet the individual where he or she is comfortable, typically in his/her home or business, because the more relaxed your target is, the more he/she will gradually open up.

Nearly every interview I’ve conducted for investigative purposes has prompted my target to reveal sensitive information at some point, then tell me “I’ve never told that to anyone before.” The fact is that they talk because they feel safe, and they feel safe because I have structured the interview to relax them as much as possible, using these techniques:

  1. Dress casually for the interview in neutral or pastel colors to create a soft, approachable image.
  2. Arrive carrying a bag with my tape recorder, microphone, tabletop mike stand, power cord and extension cord along with a notebook and pen. A male subject will typically ask if I need help setting up, and I’ll ask him to plug in the extension cord. Accepting assistance begins to create a team dynamic that will promote your target’s perception that you two are in this together, that your goal is to let the subject tell his/her story, to be understood even if there’s an accusation of wrongdoing.
  3. Always accept offers of water, soda, and snacks. This hospitality shows that the subject wants to cooperate and even win your approval, so to reject his/her offer is to erect an unnecessary barrier between you.
  4. Begin with a genuine compliment or a question to set my subject at ease. I might say “I noticed some lilies along the sidewalk…do you like to garden?” Rapport-building questions also reveal themselves by noticing personal details in the room where you’re holding the interview. I observe and ask about one or two personal items displayed on the wall or on shelves, because typically they represent my subject’s goals or achievements. Inquiring about family members is something I avoid unless my subject brings it up first.
  5. Begin with easy non-confrontational questions such as correct spelling of his/her name, business title, where he/she grew up, etc. I might not need the data for my case, but these questions help the subject relax.
  6. Observe body language, because it will provide clues to the subject’s emotional reaction to your questions, telling you if you’re being too aggressive or if you’ve hit a nerve. Leaning away from the table shows a wish to withdraw from answering your question, fidgeting with hair or clothing displays nervousness, and lying is often revealed when the subject takes a long time to answer, fails to look you in the eye, or begins touching his/her face, stretching, or coughing.
  7. LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN! I never stick to my script of questions, because most of my subject’s answers provide an opening for a follow-up question. Occasionally I restate what the subject has just said, using my own words to demonstrate that I have heard and understand what my target has just said.For example, if she says “I’ve never hit my kids, but they just drive me crazy sometimes,” I might reply “I feel the same way with my teenagers. They all know you can’t touch them or they can call the cops on you.” Her next response might reveal what she actually does do when disciplining her children, knowing that I have experienced the same frustration and would understand how she could have lost control with her own children.

Part two of this blog will list some of the unrestricted websites private investigators use to gather data for their cases and which you can use as you do research for your articles.

Image courtesy of Graeme Weatherston /