Bay Area Real Estate Investigation Gets Real

photo89In a seller’s real estate market, the burden is even greater for the buyer to do due diligence and decision making lightning fast. Bar none, buying a house is the biggest financial decision you make in your life.

Choose wisely and not only do you enjoy the space and neighborhood where you and your family live but over time you will reap financial rewards from your investment. Choose poorly and every day you will invest energy in planning your exit and may suffer a big financial loss, headaches and other assorted despair. Continue reading

New Trustify “App” Takes Shortcuts on P.I. Domestic Cases

Fast, cheap and good never go together. After you read my diatribe, read about an app that has real private investigators shaking our heads. The concept is that people will pay $150 for two hours of spot surveillance on their possibly cheating partner, spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend or maybe on someone they don’t even know.

Problems? Almost too many to list. Continue reading

Old School, New School for The Private Investigator

photo74Two concurrent events. I found a draft copy of my investigative thesis for graduate journalism school nearly 25 years ago and then last week completed an online class in social media and background investigations. I’ve investigated for a quarter of a century so I’m taking stock of the changes and differences from then to now.

I’m about to do what I don’t like about the internet: give advice. Who needs a list of “Eight must see vacation spots in Bulgaria” or “Five sure-fire ways to cure your slice”? Most advice articles bring on a case of MEGO, My Eyes Glaze Over. Continue reading

Serial Podcast Needs a Private Investigator

blog-serialI listened to the Serial podcast in two ways, as a former journalist and as a private investigator. We tend to be excessively critical when we watch, read or listen to something we know something about or do for a living. I discuss the show as a private eye who handles criminal defense investigations and then offer input as a former reporter. Continue reading

The Locate Two-Step

I receive many calls from people wanting to find people. In the PI  business these are known as “locates” or locate assignments. The first question is almost always: how much will it cost?

I then ask a few questions of the client:

  • What is the reason for the search? Is it associated with a legal case? I am trying to assess whether there might be a restraining order involved. If a potential client has a restraining order against them or they are doing the search on behalf of a restrained person, I am not taking the case.

Continue reading

A Plan and Tips to Prevent Elder Abuse

photo42I’m just coming back from a great visit with my elderly parents. They have battled health problems but are both mentally sharp. They still live in their home, have each other and a mob of children and grandchildren to regularly check in on them.

But about a year or two ago my well-educated, savvy dad got conned by someone on the phone pretending to be his grandson in need of cash after a supposed auto accident in Europe. As far as cons go it was not a great but good enough to get my trusting dad to go down to Western Union and send about a $1000 to the crooks. At the time he did not tell my mother or anyone else about it and did not contact anyone who could have told him that grandson Jeff was not even in Europe. Continue reading

The Pursuit Magazine Interview

This interview with partner/manager Mike Spencer ran recently in Pursuit Magazine. It’s published to give readers and potential clients an idea of how Mr. Spencer’s past work affects his current work and his dedication to his job.

+ Q&A: Mike Spencer, Bay Area Private Investigator

Q&A: Mike Spencer, Bay Area Private Investigator


Did you think we were finished with Mike Spencer after Episode 5 of our podcast?

WE ARE NOT. There’s so much more.

The Inquisitor

There’s still a trace of Connecticut in how Mike Spencer forms words; but the Bay Area is in him. He met the place as a grad student, in journalism school at UC Berkeley. And even though he left for awhile, doing stints as a crime beat reporter in Virginia, California, and Florida, he left his heart in San Francisco and ultimately returned there.
When the economics of journalism stopped adding up, Spencer became a private investigator. The job fit him like a glove. And the the lessons he learned as a reporter molded his brain for private investigations work: He already knew how to coax information out of edgy witnesses. He knew how to get the story right, and get it fast. And he’d nurtured a healthy relationship with the Truth with a capital “T.”
Mike Spencer shared a few of those truths with Pursuit editor Kim Green one afternoon in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Mission District

KIM GREEN: Did journalism prepare you to do what you’re doing now? Is that a natural transition, from a reporter to PI?

MIKE SPENCER: Yes. I started out as a newspaper reporter. In fact, when I was a child, that’s what I thought I was going to be. But after my newspaper career ended, it was a natural transition into working as a private investigator. In journalism, the worst thing in the world is to get something wrong. To have to write a correction. And that just sort of gets into your head: I cannot be wrong. That stays with me as a private investigator. I have to get my facts correct, because I don’t want to look like a fool later on.
The key difference of course being, as a newspaper reporter, you want your writing to appear to the world and for everyone to see it, but as a private investigator you want to keep your work confidential, just for your client.

KIM: I loved your blog post about being a crime reporter in Florida. What was that like?

MIKE: At Berkeley, I always heard from reporters that if you really want to be a police reporter, you need to go Florida. I did. I applied for job in Sarasota, Florida and got to work in Florida for a little over two and a half years as a police reporter. I got to cover Hurricane Andrew and a lot of bizarre crime—things right out of a Carl Hiaasen novel

KIM: Why does everybody say “Go to Florida”?

MIKE: It’s a melting pot. People go there to start anew. Florida represents this beautiful place in the sun. The state is so transient, so you wind up with people from all over. I don’t know what it is, but it does breed a lot of very strange stuff.

KIM: You must have some crazy stories.

MIKE: Yes. For example, I used to work the night cops’ beat. So my job was like 2:30 in the afternoon until 11:00 in the evening. One night I’m heading out the door, and at 10:30, one of those curly thermal faxes comes in from the sheriff’s office. It’s a fax about a body being discovered in a trashcan in a swimming pool.
That night, I went out to the scene. And underneath the corner’s crime blanket on a stretcher, the body was so decomposed, they had to keep it in the trashcan. The photo shows a trashcan under a tarp on a stretcher being carried out by sheriff’s deputies
As the story unfolded, the victim in this was a young woman, very attractive who may have dated a guy who was in prison at the time her body was discovered. What was speculated was that someone who had had an argument with the guy in prison killed this woman. There’s some sort of payback or revenge.
The story got even stranger. Sheriff’s deputies had been out to that same house just a few weeks earlier, but apparently the pool was so disgusting that they may not have seen the trashcan with the woman’s body in it. It was very disgusting, but also, a very Florida story. And I don’t think they ever made an arrest or really got to the bottom of it all, as in “What’s her body doing in the trashcan in the swimming pool?”

Mission St

Mission St.
KIM: That’s kind of unsatisfying.

MIKE: Right. I think people always want to know, “Well, how did the story turn out?” In the private investigations world, sometimes these things don’t turn out. The story just ends.

KIM: People crave the end of the story. It’s a human nature.

MIKE: Human nature. We want our narratives in nice, tidy little piles.

KIM: Not trashcans?

Mike: No.

KIM: As a crime reporter, you wrote about some of the most painful drama of real life that a lot of people don’t see but are curious about. Do you feel like you crave that sort of weird drama, in a way?

MIKE: At the time, I was happy as a peg, because this is what I’d prepared for since writing for newspapers when I was 15 years old. My story would be on the front page the next day, and I’d wake up and run out to the newspaper box to see my bio line. That’s an incredible rush. As it’s happening it’s just fantastic.
But when I was doing this, I was in my mid 20s. I think I was maybe lacking an empathy component. Because looking back on it, I just realize how awful this is for the families who have to be thrown into these stories. They’d become public figures, and they’re having the absolute worst events of their lives played out in the media.
Dolores Park

KIM: Can you talk about your transition from journalism to investigations?

MIKE: It was a very rough transition. In the newspaper world, you do what your bosses tell you. I wasn’t happy with how some of the work was going. I moved back to the Bay Area without a job for about six months. I was just doing what’s called “stringing” and maybe trying to get a job. Put it this way: I was trying to find places that would take jeans or shoes to be donated for some cash. And I was driving a Dodge Dart that I had bought for $500.
I was ready for a steady job. Then one day I answered an ad in the Oakland Tribune for something called an AOE/COE investigator. At the time, I didn’t even know what that was. Basically, it’s “Arising out of Employment Condition of Employment,” or let’s say, workers’ compensation investigator.
For me, handling workers’ compensation investigations was not that professionally satisfying. You’re just helping an insurance company decide whether or not to honor a claim. Like, you have a teacher who’s developed plantar fasciitis, or the grocery clerk has gotten a carpal tunnel. After a while some of the things become pretty repetitive.

Bay Bridge moonKIM: How did you find your way into work you really cared about?

MIKE: It was a very gradual process. I met a couple of attorneys, and I was doing some criminal defense work. I really liked doing that, but I also was hired for some civil investigations by a guy by the name of Rick Simons—one of the first attorneys to get huge settlements against the Catholic Church.
So, at the same time, I was working as an independent contractor, was on John Nazarian’s payroll, and was on the payroll of this workers’ compensation company. I was getting the hours to qualify to pass the California private investigations examination.
I got to the point where I realized, we’re not lawyers. We’re not billing at $350 or $400 an hour. The only real money, I think, is in having your own license. And that’s what motivated me to get my own license and start my own company.

KIM: I’m guessing that you’re a guy who likes to work for yourself?

MIKE: Yes, I’m fairly independent. Restless, you might say. I think some of it has to do with ego, and also, how you’re brought up. You’re sort of told you’re responsible for your own happiness. You’re responsible for providing for yourself. I wouldn’t be averse to working under someone else but it would just have to be a good fit.

KIM: Do you think that you were made to do this job?

MIKE: I do a lot of witness interviewing. I think I understand how interviews work. You just can’t bulldoze people right away. As a newspaper reporter, I used to knock on a lot of doors. It’s the same thing, and I think I have a natural ability for knowing how information is shared. It’s not a one-way street. You have to create a dialogue with people and you have to earn their trust.

KIM: Are there any little tricks you learned in your reporting career for coaxing information out of people?

MIKE: It’s that very small phrase, “I need your help.” There’s something about people, if they’re good-hearted, they will listen to that and perhaps share information with you. I’ve heard it used in a very insincere way. I think most interview subjects can tell the difference.

KIM: For you, is this a great life’s work that is fulfilling and fun? 

MIKE: It is. It engages me—every part of me. It engages my mind. I like to write. I like to win. What I like about investigations is that it’s a bit like sport. There’s no middle ground. You win or you don’t. It’s sort of black and white that way. In a lot of work that people do, not so much.
That’s what I love about the work: It’s put up or shut up. It’s deliver the results, and you are only as good as your last result. No one cares how you did before. It’s What have you done for me lately?
I love being a private investigator because usually the results are pretty clearly defined. You either get results or you don’t. You know how good of a job you did. I’m incredibly lucky, and I really hope to do this for another 20 years. Or who knows, maybe more.

To get a taste of Mike Spencer’s formidable storytelling skills, check out our podcast:


Mike Spencer owns Spencer Elrod Services, Inc., a Bay-Area investigations firm, and writes an excellent blog that combines writerly chops with a longtime PI’s storytelling savvy. Read it here, and also follow him on Twitter at @SpencerPI.

Investigating Apartment Living


We all need a place to live. With just a few of my tips, you stand a strong chance of settling in a decent place and not a dump. Maybe you have sold your house, kicked your ex to the curb and need housing in a hurry or just need a change of scenery. As I have long said: Spy before you buy!

Remember, you get what you pay for. That extra $200 a month could mean the difference between smelling the flowers in the morning or listening to thrash metal from the upstairs neighbor at 2:00 a.m seven days a week. Heed the time of year you are looking. It seems a lot of people seek housing in the spring and early summer trying to get a place to live before the school year starts. If you can be a bit choosey when you move in, you can save money.

Most of you will start with online reviews. All good and well. Just be selective about giving more or less weight to certain reviews. Does the reviewer seem balanced and fair or are they a crackpot bent because they got shorted by $30 on their cleaning deposit? Consider the overall validity of the reviewer. Down to brass tacks:

  • The Friday Night Test. Anything freaky and untoward will happen on a Friday night. Wage slaves need to cut loose. Check out your new digs about 11:00 pm for a couple of Friday nights. If it’s under control on a Friday night this bodes well for a sane place to live.
  • Look for cigarette butts in parking areas, near dumpsters, everywhere. Many cities and apartment complex have “laws” against smoking but reality dictates they won’t do squat. This is not to suggest that smokers are bad people. Just the opposite, they can be great neighbors. But if one of your deal breakers is to avoid living next to the Marlboro Man and having to inhale smoke going to and from your front door, consider this an investigative priority.
  • Condition of vehicles and propensity for motorcycles. Look for broken down vehicles hemorrhaging anti-freeze and missing transmissions. Any vehicle in obvious need of repair reflects poorly on the complex. If you can’t afford to repair a car how are you paying rent? Nothing wrong with motorcycles but too many of them in a complex makes me think Sons of Anarchy and meth.
  • Does any member of management live on site? All those shiny happy people you talk to in the office likely live 30 or 40 minutes away and have no idea in hell what really goes on at the apartment building. Extra points if someone in management actually lives at the place.
  • Graffiti check. Seems obvious but really walk the grounds and make sure no tagging.
  • Visibility. If you are thinking about a pad make sure it is in plain view. Weird stuff happens in out of the way and dark places. Pick a place not obscured by trees, dumpsters, etc.
  • Online police records. Go to homepage for local police department and search for online crime incidents and Megan’s Law offenders. Most cities have easy to navigate searches. Look for vehicle thefts, assaults, auto burglaries, etc.
  • Longevity test. Talk to anyone you meet at the place. Ask them how long they have lived there. It’s reassuring when you meet seemingly normal people who have lived at the place for more than four or five years. It suggest the place is good enough for them to like it and stay.
  • Security. How accessible is it to the general public? It’s good if someone has to make a bit of an effort to find it and they can’t just easily walk in and walk out of the place.


Yelp Reviews Private Investigator

The consumer review site Yelp has now somehow “filtered” three additional 5-star reviews of my business, bringing the total to five. I used to be a Yelp advertiser and since I stopped paying them, they have essentially removed five legitimate reviews while letting two negative reviews remain.

For the record, I turned down the people for services who gave me the negative reviews. They either wanted illegal services or I did not feel comfortable locating a woman for a male subject who could not document the purpose of his search.

Yelp works okay for large-volume businesses such as restaurants, dry cleaners, yogurt shops and pet groomers but it is not a fair system for small service business. (I notice that paid advertisers are able to remove negative reviews.) I have worked very hard at my business for 20 years so I want an accurate reflection of my performance and commitment to clients.

I ask for a favor: If you have used our services and were satisfied please leave a review either under Spencer Elrod Services or the old page at Spencer Investigations. For the record these are the total 5-star reviews that Yelp now blocks. I want you to see for yourselves.

    • Rick J.
    • Livermore, CA
    • 0 friends
    • 1 review


    Mike did an outstanding and professional job for me.  His swift, thorough, and professional investigation enabled me to avoid more severe damage to my reputation.  I cannot begin to thank Mike enough for his dedication and integrity and willingness to dig in and quickly find the truth.  I would be happy to have a conversation with anyone who would like more detail.


    • Hadyn D.
    • Concord, CA
    • 0 friends
    • 1 review


    I hired Mike for a small claims search and service.  He got the job done and  went above and beyond my expectations.  I would recommend his services to anyone.  I have been very satisfied with the results.
    Mike S.
    Comment from Mike S. of Spencer Investigations
    Business Owner

    3/1/2014 Hadyn, thank you for your business and your trust. It means a lot to me to be a person of my word… Read more

  • Sassy S.
    • Sassy S.
    • Alameda, CA
    • 1 friend
    • 24 reviews


    a great solution to that not-so-great question about spousal infidelity

    thoughtful, caring, and professional service

    highly recommend

    would use again, in a heartbeat

    Mike S.
    Comment from Mike S. of Spencer Investigations
    Business Owner

    3/31/2014 Thanks for the review. Unfortunately, the Yelp filter system penalizes small business such as mine… Read more

  • user_60_square
    • Dave S.
    • San Francisco, CA
    • 0 friends
    • 1 review


    I have contacted Spencer Investigations and used their services a couple of times over the past two years. I have always been satisfied with their results. The information provided was accurate and timely. No doubt, Spencer services  prevented a close family member from being victimized financially. I know I can always count on Mike when I need investigative services.
  • 60s-1
    • Juels Q.
    • Hercules, CA
    • 0 friends
    • 2 reviews


    I went to Mike for some help on a personal matter which I felt he did a great job. He was very professional and always kept me updated with any new information in regards to my case. He put in a lot of effort and was very accomodating with the hours that I requested for him to work on my case. I appreciate Mike and all his hard work and dedication. I would definitely recommend him to anyone who needs a Private Investigator and if I ever need him in the future, he will be the first to call. Thanks again Mike!

The Private Eye Goes To School

With new friends at Edna Brewer Middle School, Oakland

For the last couple of years I have gone back to school. I join other professionals at local middle and high schools for career day. I love these events for their energy and good feelings.

I encourage other professionals and my fellow private investigator colleagues to do the same. These events only take a couple hours but you get so much in return.

Maybe it’s because I’m maturing (I hate that word as it makes me think AARP and the fact that I’m playing on the back 9) but it’s good to share one’s gifts. I am incredibly lucky in that I love my work and get to help people while earning a good living. I recently had to step back from coaching youth rugby because of the time commitment, so any occasion to work with children is a welcome one.

Here is why these career days are good for any private eye or professional:

  • A cure for lone wolf-ism. Let’s face it, investigations is often a solitary gig, either tons of time at the computer, looking for witnesses in the field or sitting in the car on surveillance. Get out  and mingle. Doing your act in front of school kids is a hoot. I have them do scene diagrams, or work on reading body language and interviewing skills. What you do doesn’t matter that much as long as you engage them.  They will ask how much money you make and will think your bizarre but clean stories interesting. Roll with it. If you deal with witnesses a lot like I do it’s good practice to interact with different age groups.
  • Showcase your professionalism. I like to show people in the community that I am a business professional. I dress nicely as a sign of respect for the school, the kids and others. Private investigators often have an image problem as bullies or slobs or creeps. I like to talk about the part I play in the justice system, whether it’s criminal defense or in a civil case. There is a lot of misinformation about what I do for my work so it’s an opportunity to set the record straight or straighter.
  • Might be good for business. I can’t say I have landed cases out of some classroom talks but it couldn’t hurt. Some of the other professionals are attorneys and small business owners. If they ever need a private investigator they might think of me first. Plus, the people at the school will know who I am.
  • Bonding with the community.  I’ve enjoyed going to the local schools, especially in Oakland, because I have heard so many negative and often misleading things. The kids at Edna Brewer Middle School are polite, fun, bright, etc. The school has energetic teachers and caring leadership. Meeting them makes me feel good about my community.

I have noticed that the better private investigators I have met over the years tend to share their gifts through their writing, presentations, communication skills and professional association involvement.  They don’t hoard information or sources and are always hungry to learn and help.Career day is a great opportunity on so many levels.