Online Private Investigators: What's Allowed and What's Not (2024)

Have you ever wondered if hiring an online private investigator is actually legal? With the rise of online services, more and more people are turning to online PIs to get information, conduct surveillance, and more. But is it legal to use these services? The short answer is yes, in most cases, it is perfectly legal. However, there are some important caveats and restrictions you need to be aware of.

 

What is an Online Private Investigator?

a female detective gazing at a computer screen

An online PI is a trained investigator who provides various investigative services remotely over the internet. This allows them to take on cases and clients from anywhere, without being limited by geographical restrictions. They use the power of the web to gather information, conduct database searches, perform surveillance using security cameras and smart home devices, track locations, perform background checks, and more. Many operate nationally or even internationally.

Some of the common services offered include:

 

Is it Legal to Hire an Online PI?

As mentioned, in most cases, yes – it is perfectly legal, just as hiring a traditional in-person PI is legal. However, there are some important regulations:

  • The services must be within the scope of what is legal for private investigators in your state. Some states prohibit certain activities.
  • They can only use legal methods to collect information. Illegally hacking into accounts or devices would be unlawful.
  • Surveillance and tracking on private property without consent is usually unlawful.
  • Impersonating others, fraudulently obtaining records, stealing private data etc. would all be illegal activities.
  • They must comply with data privacy laws regarding access, storage and use of collected information.

 

As long as the online PI operates within the law and adheres to best practices, their services should be legal. The exact laws vary between states though.

 

Why Hire an Online investigator?

a hand reaching out to touch what appear to be icons on an invisible screen.

Hiring an online PI offers several advantages over a traditional in-person investigator:

  • Convenience – Everything can be done remotely, without having to meet in person. Initial contact, contracting, information gathering, reporting and payments can all be done online.
  • Cost – Without geographical limitations, they have lower overhead costs. This makes their services more affordable in most cases.
  • Anonymity – You often don’t have to meet the PI in person. This allows you to protect your privacy and remain anonymous.
  • Flexibility – You aren’t limited by your geographical area. You can hire investigators anywhere in the country or world.
  • Access to data – They can access massive amounts of data and public records through databases not available to the public.
  • Digital capabilities – They are highly capable when it comes to digital intelligence gathering, cyber investigation, OSINT techniques and technical surveillance.

 

What Information Can they Legally Gather?

Online PIs can legally access and gather all kinds of public records and publicly available information about individuals or companies. This includes:

  • Names, ages, addresses and employment information
  • Criminal records, court records and litigation history
  • Property ownership and deed records
  • Marriage and divorce records
  • Corporate records, business registrations, trademarks
  • Social media activity
  • Anything published in newspapers, magazines or online
  • Any other public records or databases

 

They can also conduct legal surveillance using methods like:

  • Security or trail cameras positioned in legal locations
  • Tracking vehicles or assets via DMV records and GPS tracking
  • Remote monitoring of locations using smart home security devices
  • Dash cams, nanny cams, body cams and other legal recording devices
  • Searching social media and the internet for photos, posts, information

 

What they cannot legally do is:

  • Hack into private accounts, devices or services
  • Use devices to intercept oral or electronic communications
  • Make unauthorized entry into private spaces to gather info
  • Impersonate others or misrepresent themselves to obtain records
  • Make threats, harass, intimidate or endanger others
  • Break any other laws in order to obtain information

 

Restrictions on Surveillance and Tracking (Deeper Look)

a detective using his phone while driving a vehicle

One area clients often want help with is surveillance – whether it’s tracking a vehicle, monitoring someone remotely, or gathering footage of a subject. While it can be legal, they must follow certain state and federal restrictions:

  • Cameras and tracking devices cannot be placed on an individual’s private property without consent. This includes homes, outbuildings, driveways, fenced yards, private land etc.
  • No surveillance in areas with “reasonable expectation of privacy” – Bathrooms, changing rooms, private offices and bedrooms cannot be monitored without permission, as there is an expectation of privacy.
  • It is illegal in most states to use devices to record or listen in on private in-person conversations without consent from at least one party.
  • Placing GPS trackers on someone’s vehicle or possessions without permission is illegal. However tracking company vehicles or publicly visible locations is permissible.
  • Some states require notice be given if electronic surveillance or tracking devices are used, even in public places.
  • Some states are “two-party consent” states where all parties must consent to being recorded.

 

As long as they respect privacy rights and quickly cease any activity if consent is withdrawn, surveillance can be conducted legally in most cases.

 

How to Verify a PI is Reputable

While most operate legally, it is important to verify you are hiring a legitimate, reputable professional. Here are some tips:

  • Look for a website – Avoid investigators who only advertise on Craigslist or social media. A professional site indicates an established business.
  • Check for licenses – Reputable PIs will openly provide their business license number, and individual license number in states that require them. Verify licenses are active and in good standing.
  • Look for membership in professional associations – Many reputable ones belong to groups like the National Association of Legal Investigators or State PI associations.
  • Search for reviews – Look for online reviews on Google, Yelp and industry forums like PIBoard.co. Check reports submitted to the Better Business Bureau.
  • Conduct interviews – Have detailed consultation calls with several investigators before deciding. Get a sense of their professionalism, ethics and qualifications.
  • Ask for references – Request 2-3 references from former clients that you can contact. Speaking to past clients provides insight into their service.
  • Check insurance – Any PI conducting field work should carry adequate liability and errors & omissions insurance. Ask to see proof.

 

Do your due diligence to confirm you are partnering with a legal, trustworthy and qualified professional. It will help avoid potential issues down the road.

 

Using Caution with Background Checks

a detective reviewing paperwork

One service many clients request is a deep background check on someone. This can include finding past addresses, criminal records, court judgments, etc. However, you should use caution – there are legal limits on access to some records.

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, only authorized consumer reporting agencies can access credit header information from sources like banks and lenders. Much of this data also requires permission from the subject to access legally.

A reputable online investigator may be able to legally provide some of the following, with caution:

  • Criminal records and court filings – These are public in most states. But sealed or expunged records may not be accessible.
  • Marriage/divorce records – These are public documents, but access varies by state.
  • Assets and property ownership – Can search public title and deed records, but cannot obtain credit information without permission.
  • Vehicles registered to an individual – Can search DMV records. But credit checks on auto loans would require consent.
  • Licensing and education – Can verify professional licenses. Academic records usually require consent to access.
  • Bankruptcies and liens – Publicly recorded. But credit card or loan records would need permission.
  • Social media and internet history – Can legally search anything publicly visible online.

 

They can legally access much of the same public record information as anyone else. Consumer protections limit access to some financial and credit data though. And of course, any unlawful access of private data would be illegal.

 

Protecting Your Privacy as a Client

A major advantage of hiring an online PI is increased privacy. Reputable investigators should take steps to protect your confidentiality:

  • Anonymous communication – Initial discussions can take place anonymously over encrypted chats or masked phone numbers.
  • Secure payments – Payment portals and collection of sensitive documents should use secure TLS encryption.
  • Code names – You can be assigned a code name. Your real identity is masked in internal documents.
  • Secure data – Your case files should be encrypted and stored securely in accordance with data privacy laws.
  • Non-disclosure agreements – Investigators should agree in writing not to disclose details of your case or identity.
  • Limited knowledge – Investigators may not need to know your identity or specific purpose for the investigation.
  • No recording – Calls and video chats should not be recorded without your permission.

 

It helps to ask questions up front about their security policies and privacy practices before hiring them.

 

Four Examples of Legal Online Uses

a picture of a person using a computer with his hands in focus

 

To better understand how and when people legally use online investigators, here are 4 real-world examples:

1. Corporate Due Diligence

An investment firm is considering acquiring a manufacturing company. They hire an online PI to conduct in-depth corporate due diligence. He performs background checks on key executives, researches litigation and regulatory histories, analyzes financials, checks for conflicts of interest, and more. They uncover no major issues, enabling the client to move forward confidently with the acquisition.

2. Infidelity Investigation

A woman suspects her husband is cheating. She hires an online PI who specializes in digital forensics. The investigator gains access to the husband’s phone and computer with the wife’s consent and recovers deleted messages and social media evidence documenting an affair. This provides proof she needs for her divorce case.

3. Asset Search

A man wins a large court judgment against a former business partner who now appears to be hiding assets. He hires an online PI to track down the debtor’s property holdings, bank accounts, investments and other assets. He is able to locate two properties he owns so these can be seized – allowing the client to recover some of the money owed to him.

4. Missing Persons Case

A family cannot locate their missing teenage daughter. They hire an online PI to investigate. He quickly finds the runaway girl’s active social media accounts, then traces her cell phone to determine her approximate location. The parents and police are able to safely locate and recover the missing teen using the details provided.

 

Using Them Responsibly

a wooden stamp with the word solved

As we’ve covered, hiring an online PI can be extremely useful in many situations. However, a few final words of caution:

  • Avoid “doxxing” people or invading their privacy without good cause. Don’t let curiosity or personal motivations lead you to justified invasions of privacy.
  • Be weary of any PI using illegal methods or making outrageous claims about what they can access. Stick to professionals who demonstrate ethics.
  • Make sure to consult an attorney if you intend to use anything uncovered for legal purposes. Evidence might be declared inadmissible otherwise.
  • Don’t waste money investigating matters that have no reasonable basis and are unlikely to uncover anything substantive.
  • Avoid causing harm or financial losses by making allegations without adequate supporting proof.

 

The internet and investigation worlds are rife with misinformation and unethical behavior. But when used responsibly, an online PI can legally provide very useful services and hard-to-get information. By sticking to professional investigators who value ethics and operate fully within the law, you can safely gather the facts and insights you need.

FAQ's

What activities are illegal for a PI to do?
Illegally wiretapping conversations, hacking accounts, trespassing, impersonating others, stealing data, or threatening/endangering people would all be illegal.
Yes, a PI can legally gather any public information or conduct surveillance in public areas without consent. But they cannot invade reasonable expectations of privacy.
Likely not without their permission, thanks to wiretapping laws. Many states prohibit recording calls without at least one party consenting.
Yes, as long as the trash has been discarded. Once discarded in public bins, trash and its contents are considered public property.
No, unless given the login details. Hacking into accounts would be unlawful. But public posts can be freely viewed.
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