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  • Dean Smith

Impersonating a PI: How to Irritate Licensed Investigators 101

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

Thanks to Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Angel, and Jessica Jones (to name a few), the general public has a romanticized image of private investigators. It’s a fantasy that’s been debunked by experienced investigators rather often in recent years but pushing back a well-known story in favor of the drab reality isn’t easy. Especially when Hollywood continues to churn out compelling stories.

The BBC's material is better than Hollywood's these days.

Curiously, this mysterious, delightful image of the private investigator vanishes when someone spots one at work. There’s a strange car in the parking lot or on their street, and it’s been sitting there for hours. When approached, the person explains they’re a private investigator, likely provides credentials and an explanation how the police are aware of their presence. No matter how many times they’re asked, they won’t reveal exactly what they’re doing or who they’re watching. Our local resident walks away, muttering about the “scumbag in the car with the camera.”

In the space of a sixty seconds, the ultra-romantic image of the private investigator went from “really cool” to “goddamn degenerate.” Everything changes when the PI is in your neighborhood. The moment someone realizes the investigator’s target could be their precious hide, their earth-shaking secrets rear up and stoke their fears.

It’s a common problem for private investigators – one we deal with almost every day. Our industry, by necessity, is somewhat shadowy, and discretion is crucial to our work and our clients. The ability to gather information without kicking up a fuss is one of the main reasons people hire us.

Given our reliance on discretion and the image problem PI’s face, there’s nothing more aggravating for licensed investigators than fraudulent idiots who bank on our reputation. Often times, these con artists don’t know what it means to be a PI. They don’t understand there’s a dark side to working as an investigator. That people become suspicious, not helpful and friendly when they learn you’re a PI.

In other words, the last thing we need is half-assed con artists running around claiming they’re licensed investigators.

According to police, this guy, for example, was caught on surveillance video placing a mysterious device on a condo building in Towamencin Township, Pennsylvania. Authorities later reported a resident had approached the man before the device was found. The man claimed he was a private investigator. Following the device’s discovery other neighbors came forward saying they had seen the same man inside a light-colored Dodge Grand Caravan in the area multiple times.

Neighbors described the device as a black box with wires. Though police have not yet confirmed it, residents believe it was a skimming device – one designed to capture information from cards using magnetized strips.

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We find stuff like that.

Local private investigative agencies stated they had no active investigations in the area, and considering how closely PI’s work with police, it’s a safe bet they weren’t lying.

Although this suspect remains at large, legitimate, licensed, investigators don’t take kindly to criminals using us as a cover – a point would-be con artists should consider carefully. After all, we’re an industry filled with specialists dedicated to finding people and uncovering information.

In San Francisco, California, the state’s private investigator trade group cracked down on unlicensed private eyes, who often advertise their services on Craigslist, through undercover sting operations.

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Jessica Jones might advertise here, but that doesn't make it ok.

Adrian Garfias, our unlicensed con-artist in this story, was a perfect example why the private investigator industry is regulated. Licenses aren’t handed out easily, and most states have rather stringent requirements. New Jersey, for example, requires proof of at least 5 years of experience as an investigator, typically with law enforcement or a related licensed industry.

They differ from state to state, but most states include a requirement regarding an applicant criminal history. Generally speaking, felonies bar an individual outright, but even if they didn’t why would anyone hire a PI with a criminal past that includes fraud, resisting arrest, and firearm negligence?

Garfias preyed on people likely not to ask many questions. Not surprising, considering how hard it is to explain why he’d been charged with a felony for impersonating a notary as part of a real estate fraud case. Never mind that time he’d been found guilty for resisting arrest and negligently discharging a firearm. According to the police report, he’d been shooting at a wooden table in the backyard of his suburban home with a 9 millimeter when officers showed up.

Thus, when the state investigator trade group spotted one of his Craigslist ads, they decided to do something about it. Two undercover investigators, posed as clients, and met with Garfias. Both were women claiming they needed someone to look into an unfaithful spouse, and they captured their meeting on video.

Garfias’s showed up to the meeting at San Jose’s Santana Row with his wife and two young boys, a six-year-old and a six-month-old, in tow.

We don't do that.

He claimed it would cost a minimum of a $1,000, “because it requires a lot of work and a lot of planning and more than two people to do the job.” He added how he had all the necessary qualifications to do surveillance on a cheating husband, and when the women asked if he had a license, Garfias claimed he did.

The trade group turned the video over to the police. Turns out that states take a dim view of people posing as licensed investigators.

Another private investigator took umbrage at a more clever con artist. Fernando Rodriguez was one of the more notorious scammers posing as a PI and was under investigations in six states when two of his victims went to licensed private investigator Robin Martinelli for help. They’d each given Rodriguez $2,500 and he hadn’t investigated anything. Martinelli had heard of Rodriguez before. At the time, the con artist possessed a strong web presence, and one of his victims stated, “Anytime you Google private investigator, his sites regularly pop to the top. He dominates the searches.”

Once Martinelli located Rodriguez, police were slow to respond, and she took an unusual step for a private investigator. She obtained warrants personally, worked with local sheriff deputies to arrest Rodriguez, took him to court and got him charged.

Martinelli did investigators everywhere proud.
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