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Encouraging the Spy Curious

curious spyglass

Why Mentoring Up-And-Coming Investigators Is Good for the Industry


A young man messaged me through LinkedIn a few weeks ago seeking advice about his career. He’d been a researcher at a national investigative firm for 10 years and had the notion that he’d scrambled his way as far up the corporate ladder as he was ever going to. “I would love to pick your brain about the business,” he said.

We chatted via email several times, then caught up on the telephone last week. It wasn’t a long conversation, but it was productive. We plan to grab a cocktail next week and discuss the state of the industry.

This exchange is not unique. I get a call like this at least once a month. If you run an investigative company, I’m sure you get them all the time.

The caliber and experience of the people who reach out is impressive: a woman transitioning out of the public defender’s office in Washington State; an older gent from Texas about to retire from a career in law enforcement; a Fulbright Scholar, fresh out of university, ready to tackle the world—all interested in becoming professional investigators.

I enjoy helping others figure out their strengths and weaknesses and am happy to offer whatever insight I can. I also steer folks toward Pursuit Magazine—a fantastic resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the business of investigations—and PIEducation.com, which offers courses on various topics that an investigative hopeful would find useful and interesting.

Currently, we’re working on a new product for people who want to become private eyes. It’ll be a few months in the making, but we’re excited about offering a series of courses, e-books, and guides for the aspiring gumshoe.

In the meantime, we’ll keep answering the phone and returning emails from the spy curious out there, people who have an interest in transitioning to this fascinating and rewarding business. I encourage you to do the same. Offer advice. Share experience. Cultivate and encourage young, smart, and talented people to join our ranks. Hire them. Train them. Learn from them. They’re not our competitors. They’re our colleagues.

And besides, a successful person never forgets his or her first mentor. It never hurts to have powerful allies rising in the ranks of your profession.  

The more savvy, educated, and energetic people we encourage, the more our industry gains credibility. And the more cachet you’ll have when you call yourself a professional investigator.—THH

this post appeared in Pursuit Magazine


The Truth About Deception

This month in Pursuit: lies and deception, and a confession.

In December, we’re looking into lies, malfeasance, fraud, and deceit. Leading off the month is an excellent and well-researched piece by new Pursuit contributor Kevin Goodman about the latest behavioral research on deception detection. Later in December, look for more deception-related stories, including a Q&A with Diana Henriques, the NYTimes financial writer whose new Bernie Madoff biography delves into the psychology of the biggest Ponzi schemer in history.

As we explore fraud and malfeasance in the virtual pages of Pursuit, we’re also doing a little soul searching. We try to be forthright and transparent, and in that spirit, we offer the following confession.

Last month, we celebrated our one-year anniversary as Pursuit Magazine’s new owners and editors. Frankly, we’re still learning how to manage an online publication.

We are professional investigators, writers, journalists, and businesspeople. We are not SEO masterminds. We are not savvy to the myriad ways the interwebs for computers are manipulated to generate traffic, for the sake of traffic. Clicks gained through outrageous headlines, keyword-rich content, and click farms are clicks. They drive up stats.

But we believe that clicks like that are inherently misleading and, thus, deceptive. Fraudulent, even. And if you’ve been following the news of Google’s recent Panda updates, you’ll no doubt conclude that the search engine king agrees with our assessment.

We get submissions, to the tune of three or four a day, from “content providers”…black-hat SEO practicioners with an unfirm grasp of English.

We get submissions, to the tune of three or four a day, from “content providers.” Some are clearly from overseas black-hat SEO practicioners with an unfirm grasp of English. Others come from “real people” who address us by name. If we ask for editorial changes, they usually comply.

We’ve been on the other side of the editorial fence. We’re willing to give new writers a chance to hone their chops.

But the majority of these submissions aren’t by new writers looking for a chance to hone their chops. They’re by link farmers, and their submissions are riddled with hyperlinks and awkward phrases, crafted specifically to include as many keywords as possible. Even when competently written, they are generic in tone and offer no real insight into the investigative industry. Some of the articles have been “spun”—run through a software tool that changes a few words and phrases, and tricks Google into indexing the content as “original.”

We’ve fallen for a few of them, put them in our pages.

We’ve fallen for the occasional infograph of suspect click-bank origin. I love a good infograph, the way information is conveyed visually and succinctly, but many of them are problematic. Ruben Roel, our talented and trusted webmaster, pointed out that the last infograph we posted was from a dubious source. We investigated, followed the links, and deleted the post.

The Pursuit editorial team will no longer post material from guest bloggers we do not know. We will entertain content from experts in the investigative business. We will continue to encourage professional investigators to write for us. We will welcome submissions from real writers and industry leaders who have good stories and wisdom to share.

We will not, however, post click-bait from people who ” … plan to write a unique article just for your site about a subject of your choosing which will not be published anywhere else.” We’re been burned, lesson learned.

At Pursuit, we don’t believe in short cuts. We’re in this for the long haul, and we don’t see deceptive SEO practices and spammy, low-quality link-bait as a long-term strategy. We will never post paid links, nor will we publish paid content or advertisement that is not clearly labeled as such.

Deception takes many forms. There are outright lies, and then there are the more subtle forms: feints  omissions, and misdirection — the tools of magicians, politicians, and fashion magazines. (Think Photoshop.) To our minds, selling something under the guise of offering information is a form of deception. It is a lie. And it undermines the trust we seek to build.

We believe that becoming an industry thought leader is a long, arduous process. It’s not about “generating content.” It’s about relationships — gaining the trust of our small community of investigators by providing useful, interesting articles about the investigations field.

Real fans can’t be stolen or bought; they must be earned. And the only way to earn them is to offer something of quality, day after day, for as long as it takes. That’s what we signed on for, and that’s what we plan to do. —THH


[FIND] Expertise - Education Media Publishing Expansion


We've been a bit remis in our attention to the [FIND] Blog of late. Storyboard EMP, LLC is the reason. Nashville Private Investigator, Thomas H. Humphreys, founder of [FIND] Investigations has partnered with, Jim McLeod, founder of InfoCode Corporation, to creat a new investigation's centric publishing house known as Storyboard EMP.

The EMP is open to interpretation. Some think of electromagnetic pulse. Others think Educational Media Partners, or Educational Media Publishers. We don't really care. The long story short is: Storyboard EMP is up and running and we're very excited about the next few months. 

Stay tuned for more.



[FIND] Expertise - Marketing (or not)

I've been thinking about marketing a lot lately. Marketing. Ah, that nasty word. It conjures up images of Yellow Page ads, SHAM WOW!!!, varying font sizes, and colors...bright, bright colors. Marketing: there's even something a little bit tawdry about the word. Meanwhile, there's branding—that overused hipster coinage. It conjures faded hipstamatic photos and "old school" paperback notebooks, all perfectly colorwheeled and packaged. Either way, whether a thing is luridly "marketed" or oh-so-subtly "branded," there's a certain feeling to the whole affair of being manipulated to acquire something you don't actually need.

But here's the deal, and this is not a small point, so pay attention: Branded to perfection or simple, to the point website, the trick is - DO THE WORK. Show up to the office and do the work day in, day out. Sometimes, people focus so much on the selling that they forget that the marketing isn't the thing. The work is the thing.

I am humbled by some of my fellow investigators, their dedication, their drive, their willingness to work 15-hour days for weeks on end. Their willingness to spend hours, days, weeks, months of their lives away from family and friends to do the work. 

If you're a baseball player - show up to batting practice early, swing the bat, work on your form. Do the work. If you're a basketballer - shoot free throws, dribble, work on the fundamentals. Do the work. If you're an investigator, improve your camera skills, talk to people, ask questions, get comfortable with interviewing. Work on the basic skills necessary for the job. Do the work. And then devote a little thoughtful energy to getting the word out about what you do so well.

Seth Godin wrote this morning about kindling, that small pile of wood used to start a fire. It burns hot and fast and is necessary to get the flames going strong. But the slow burning embers, the hard wood at the center, that part that keeps going, doing the work day in and day out—that's the part that counts.

Mr. Godin likens kindling to the brushfire mentality of some sham-wow marketers who fan a flame and get people's attention in (sometimes) less than subtle ways. I tend to agree: it's the hardwood fuel that is stored up and preserved that carries the day. It burns longer and dimmer, but it cooks the meal through, and warms you through the night.

The best investigators I know do not trouble themselves with bright colored ads in the Yellow Pages. They show up and do the work on a daily basis. They stick with a case and chase the leads. They build a reputation over a number of years by doing the work. No, it's not glamorous. No, it's not going to drive huge numbers to your website.

But it's fundamental. Do the work. In the end, that's really the only thing that matters. 

People will come.




[FIND] Lexicon - Ethics

In which Nashville private investigator, Thomas H. Humphreys, goes on a little rant.

Here's what got me fuming about ethics this weekend: Whilst on a long, Saturday-afternoon drive, I tuned into one of my favorite Public Radio shows, This American Life. Love it or hate it, you have to admit - they know how to tell a story.

The Incredible Case of the PI Moms is TAL's take on the convoluted story of Chris Butler, by now a wholesale notorious ex-private detective in California who became so obsessed with becoming famous that he created an intricate (and bumbling) crime empire to sustain the fantasy-PI life he'd created for media comsumption. It's a fantastic case study in ethics—or in this case, the utter lack thereof.

Let's start with the lexicon:

Ethics: n ('e thics) - 1 plural but singular or plural in construction: the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation

2 a : a set of moral principles. b: theory or system of moral values. c: the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group. d: a guiding philosophy.  e: a consciousness of moral importance 

3 plural : a set of moral issues or aspects (as rightness) 

Origin - Middle English ethik, from Middle French ethique, from Latin ethice, from Greek ēthikē, from ēthikos First Known Use: 14th century

For the backstory, check out the original Diablo Magazine feature, which you can read here and hereHere you can listen to the full This American Life treatment, which continues the tale of a man so entirely corrupt and self-aggrandizing that his abysmal decision-making, amateurish criminality, and hubristic ignorance defy belief.

This story raises a great many questions: Is it okay to stage a ride-along for the media? Is it okay to craft a story for a client, improve on the facts a little bit, stretch the truth? Is it okay to pretend to be law enforcement? Where is the line?

First: The media. Do not fuck with reporters. Competent journalists will dig for the truth, just like you do. They will vet all of your claims. If they do not, the press you're getting is likely not worth the paper (or web-space) on which it's written. If you stage a scene for a reporter, (s)he will find out.

Keep in mind that the media has access to the same data sources we PIs do. (IRB is a LexisNexis product. Clear comes to us via Reuters.) Reporters are resourceful, creative, and tenacious. (Sound familiar?) How, pray tell, do you think investigative reporters break such amazing stories? They interview witnesses, search public databases, visit the crime scene, follow the long and winding thread.

conclusions: It is not okay to stage a scene or a case for the media, even if it's a "reenactment." Look at it this way: How would you feel if a client fed you a BS story? Would you check the facts with extreme prejudice? After being treated like some gullible rube, would you, perhaps, develop a certain motivation to uncover the truth?

Nobody likes to be lied to or manipulated. 

Second: The client. Do not create fiction for your client. Do not exagerate facts. It is in no way okay to craft a story (even if it's a case that you screwed up) for your client. Tell the truth. If you missed a key event, just tell them you missed it. Don't "get your story straight." Don't try and backdate the video. It's a disservice to your client, to the public, and to the business when you lie. It's also a disservice to your character.

Third: The law. Don't break or bend it, no matter what you may have seen Jim Rockford do. We are not, in any way, exempted from laws. It is never okay to pretend to be law enforcement, unless you are law enforcement. For certain, avoid the temptation to break and enter into another person's house or office. Also, probably best to try and avoid tresspassing. (I had an unfortunate event a couple of years ago involving a property line dispute. My property-line survey was eventually proven correct, but I still got to enjoy the interior of a police station while that fact was determined.) And in many states, placing a GPS tracker or listening device in someone's car is not legal. That's why I never do it. In short, obey the law. I would even argue that as PIs we have a responsibility to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

I have, in the past, scoffed at the requirement to attend yearly ethics training. After hearing the Chris Butler story again, I think it's not such a bad idea. I doubt a one-hour ethics primer would have changed Mr. Butler's methods, but it never hurts to expose people to common sense. Corruption happens gradually, one small compromise at a time. First, you're staging scenes to impress a reporter. The sham grows and morphs until it supplants the real detective work you once did. Next thing you know, you're dealing confiscated methamphetamine with your corrupt cop buddies to fund your PI-company Potemkin village. 

The biggest lesson of all, for me, is that if Butler had just stuck to the ordinary gumshoe work of breaking cases and taking care of clients, he'd probably be doing just fine right now. Instead, he's doing time.



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