The Entire Legal Spectrum of Private Investigations (2024)

So you’re thinking about hiring a private investigator. Maybe you want to dig up dirt on an ex, find out if your spouse is cheating, or get to the bottom of a workplace dispute. Whatever your reasons, it’s important to understand the legal limitations they operate under before you hire one. This will help ensure you and the PI stay on the right side of the law.

A female investigator takes a photograph behind a parked car.


What Can a PI Legally Do?

A private investigator has certain legal powers that ordinary citizens don’t. However, their abilities are not unlimited. Here are some of the things a licensed PI can legally do:

Conduct surveillance: They can follow and monitor a subject in public places, like streets, shops, restaurants etc. They can photograph and video the person. However, they cannot trespass onto private property or violate one’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

Search public records: A PI can access and search public records like property records, court documents, voter registration etc. This can help uncover a subject’s address, criminal history, assets etc.

Interview third parties: They can talk to a subject’s friends, family, colleagues, neighbors etc. and ask them questions, provided they consent to the interview. They cannot harass or threaten people.

Check social media: If a social media account is public, they can view the content and gather information about a subject. Private accounts would require consent for access.

Perform background checks: PIs can run background checks through various databases to uncover information about a subject’s past activities.

Engage in pretexting: This involves making up a fictional scenario to extract information. For example, calling a hotel where the subject stayed to verify their stay while pretending to be someone else. There are legal limitations around pretexting though.

Put a tracking device on a vehicle: As long as they have the registered owner’s consent, a PI can install a GPS tracking device on a car or truck to monitor its movements. There are also limitations around using trackers.


a detective using his phone while driving a vehicle

While they have a wide range of investigative tools at their disposal, some actions clearly cross ethical and legal lines:

Hacking – A PI cannot illegally hack into someone’s email, bank account, voicemail and other online accounts. This includes hacking done with the client’s authorization.

Harassment – Repeatedly following someone, making frequent unsolicited calls or contacting their friends and family could constitute harassment, which is illegal.

Threats and intimidation – Physically threatening a subject or engaging in blackmail to get information is unlawful.

Trespassing – Entering someone’s private property without permission is trespassing and unlawful. This includes sneaking onto their property or planting surveillance devices.

Phone taps – Installing a wiretap on someone’s phone without a court order is generally illegal. Recording calls without consent may also be prohibited.

Pretexting financial institutions – While pretexting is allowed in some forms, there are laws prohibiting getting private financial information under false pretenses.

Violating reasonable expectation of privacy – A PI cannot intrude on situations where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy, like in a bathroom or tanning booth. Even photographing or filming such acts can be illegal.

Impersonating people or officials – PIs cannot impersonate some individuals, like pretending to be an IRS agent or police officer to get information. Impersonating a doctor, lawyer, or public official is illegal.

Running credit reports without consent – While they can run background checks, pulling a credit report requires prior written consent from the subject.

Violating confidentiality agreements – If a PI gets confidential documents from an insider, it may be a breach of contract and violation of trade secret laws.

Spreading misinformation – They cannot legally spread lies or misinformation about a subject to coerce information from third parties. Defamation laws apply.

Incentivizing sources – Offering bribes or large incentives to leverage privileged information often violates codes of ethics and confuses consent.


Key Questions to Ask a Prospective PI

To ensure the PI you hire sticks to lawful and ethical investigation methods, ask these key questions before signing an agreement:

  • Are you a licensed investigator in this state?
  • What specific methods do you plan to use for this assignment?
  • How will you ensure my privacy and confidentiality are protected?
  • Do you employ any hacking or phone tapping in your investigations?
  • Will there be any physical surveillance involved and if so, how will you avoid trespassing?
  • How do you build trust and get consent from third parties you need information from?
  • Would any planned deceptions or pretexting cross legal lines?
  • How do you document and collect evidence in a lawful manner that is admissible in court?
  • What measures do you take to ensure lawful practices throughout the assignment?
  • Do you have professional liability insurance in case of errors, omissions or negligence?


A reputable PI will be happy to answer these questions and reassure you about their lawful practices. Any hesitation could indicate they are willing to cross legal boundaries.


Examples of Questionable Tactics

a photograph of a crowded street in ai with what look like facial recognition symbols

Some real life examples where PIs pushed or exceeded the limits of the law include:

A PI hired to investigate an employee disability claim was fined for illegally accessing medical records. While they can check public records, confidential medical and financial documents require consent.

A man hired a PI to investigate his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. He illegally installed a GPS tracker on the boyfriend’s car to monitor his movements without his knowledge or consent.

A PI mounted hidden cameras in a subject’s home without their knowledge, and recorded private acts.

An insurance company hired a PI to investigate a claimant. He tricked doctors into handing over confidential medical files without the claimant’s consent by pretending to be a medical case worker.

A PI pretended to be a police officer and tricked a hotel into providing private information about a subject’s stay. Impersonating law enforcement crossed legal lines.

These demonstrate tactics that clearly violated laws around privacy, trespassing, unauthorized access of records, impersonation and surveillance. Responsible PIs avoid such tactics.


Protecting Yourself Legally

To ensure you remain on the right side of the law, keep these tips in mind:

Be clear about objectives – Clearly communicate what information you are seeking and your specific concerns. Avoid broad authorizations that could be interpreted unethically.

Get agreement in writing – Have a written contract outlining exactly what methods the PI will and will not use to investigate the case. Include disclaimers prohibiting illegal practices.

Keep purpose lawful – Never hire a PI for an unlawful purpose like targeting, stalking, harassing or stealing from someone. This can get you and him charged with conspiracy.

Protect privacy – Give clear instructions not to intrude on subjects’ reasonable privacy expectations or access confidential information without proper consent.

Mind jurisdiction – Know laws governing PIs may vary between states. Make sure he follows the laws of the state where the investigation takes place.

Report concerns – If you suspect during the case that he is employing unlawful tactics, report them to local law enforcement. Failing to do so if you have reasonable suspicions could make you liable too.

Don’t overstep boundaries – Avoid pressing him to engage in questionable practices, even if you find the investigation stalled. Be patient and work within legal means.

Have an exit plan – If at any point you become uncomfortable his methods, have a plan to terminate the contract and engagement.

Request regular updates – Ask for frequent progress reports to stay informed on the types of information being collected and sources used.


Common Situations Where a PI May Be Hired

a person sneakily photographing a couple from his car

Some common situations include:

Infidelity Investigations

  • If a spouse suspects their partner is having an affair, a PI can conduct surveillance to uncover any cheating activities. They may monitor the suspected cheater’s movements, look for secret communications, and identify people or places they frequently visit discreetly.


Child Custody Disputes

  • When child custody is contested in a divorce, an estranged parent may want to show the other parent is unfit by documenting issues like drug use, unstable housing, questionable relationships and other behaviors that may endanger the child.


Workers Compensation Claims

  • Insurance companies often hire to investigate the validity of an employee’s workers comp claim, especially if it is a soft tissue injury that is difficult to verify medically. Surveillance can detect exaggerations in disability.


Locating Missing Persons

  • Police may have limited resources to devote to missing person cases. They provide extra manpower to track down leads, interview associates, monitor social media and locate the missing individual.


Background Checks on Potential Employees

  • Employers commonly use PIs to conduct thorough background checks on job candidates, searching for any past misrepresentations, criminal history or behaviors that may impact job performance.



Intellectual Property Theft

  • Investigate breaches of trade secrets and cyber crimes like data theft. They can trace hacking attacks, identify people involved and analyze how material was accessed and misused.


Insurance Claim Investigations

  • Insurance providers use them to investigate questionable claims to confirm facts and detect potential fraud. This protects them against false or exaggerated claims.


Process Serving

  • They are often hired to track down people like deadbeat tenants or former business partners and legally serve them court documents like eviction notices, summons, subpoenas etc.


Security Consulting

  • PIs conduct security audits for businesses, inspecting their facilities for vulnerabilities and weaknesses. They recommend security upgrades to protect against internal and external threats.


Due Diligence Research

  • Investors may hire a PI to research companies or individuals they are considering entering into business relationships with, fully vetting their backgrounds first.


These examples provide a snapshot of the diverse situations where a private investigator’s skills can provide vital information and evidence to assist with legal, financial and personal matters.


A man appears to be holding the floating word investigations in his hand

Understand that investigations take patience and there are no quick fixes. Rushing a PI may tempt unlawful shortcuts.

Ask questions to understand exactly how they will obtain information and evidence before approving their methods.

Give him time to build a legal case. They usually have many strategies to uncover facts within legal means.

Be prepared to accept information that may contradict your assumptions or initial suspicions about the case. Avoid pressuring to manufacture nonexistent evidence.

Appreciate that legal investigations aim to uncover factual information that holds up under scrutiny, not just find incriminating data.

Keep an open line of communication and align on parameters as the case progresses. Adjust plans if some tactics seem ineffective or intrusive.

Lastly, avoid letting emotions override judgment if the results are not as expected.

With reasonable expectations, patience and frequent communication, you can work effectively while staying safely within legal and ethical bounds.


What are the limitations on a PI accessing medical records?
PIs cannot access private medical records without the subject’s written consent, as this violates health privacy laws. They can only obtain publicly available records.
In most states, it is illegal for a PI to record calls without at least one party’s consent. There are a few one-party consent states where only the PI’s approval is needed.
Yes, as long as they follow applicable laws in each state crossed. Certain surveillance practices may be prohibited though depending on the jurisdiction.
Tracking devices on personal property require consent. On vehicles, they can only track movements in public areas, not private property. Strict time limits may also apply.
No, hacking any private online account would be illegal, even with client authorization. Only information on public profiles can be accessed.
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