Why Cheap Online Background Checks Fail

We are flooded with ads for fast and convenient products. Problem is: fast and convenient rarely add up to “quality.” The fast and convenient option is a horrible way to try to do background checks. Don’t spend your money on cheap backgrounds checks. Instead, use a quality, experienced local private investigators who knows how records are compiled, stored and where to get these records.

A client recently contacted us after he had paid for an online criminal background check of a subject with a somewhat common name. It showed about 12 hits for this name in several different states. He paid about $50.00 for a mess of false hits. His background check just pulled up by first and last name, and not by middle name or date of birth. It took us about 2 hours to figure which ones were relevant.

Stop using online background checks

Why they fail:

  • Illusions of thoroughness. There is no such thing as a national criminal background check outside of perhaps an FBI database. Records usually have to be found on a county by county, state by state basis.
  • Online background checks don’t discriminate by proper identifiers such as middle names, dates of birth and address histories. You have paid money for an incomplete product that you have to sort.
  • You don’t know the geographic areas of their searches or the time frames. What if your subject has a criminal record in an area from 1991 but the database searched starts at 1995?

Our practices:

  • We start with obtaining an address history on the person and we concentrate our searches on where the person has lived. We will start out with online criminal searches but we only do this for the counties we know have good systems and databases in place.
  • If a subject has lived in Oakland or San Francisco or Walnut Creek, very likely the person could have records in Alameda, San Francisco or Contra Costa counties. We will look in adjacent counties as well.
  • We will contract with court runners in out-of-state jurisdictions to look for records we can’t access online.
  • We will often check civil and federal records looking for other relevant information.

 

 

Alameda County Courts Searches Now Online

Performing background checks in Alameda County just became slightly easier the past year with both criminal and civil searches being made available online. Of course though, for a true professional background check a private investigator should visit courthouses in person to search for records.

The system links branch courts from Berkeley-Oakland down through Hayward to Fremont and out to Pleasanton. The criminal records search goes back about to 2005. Again, if you are not sure on dates you are always best served going to the court in person. The system does not show actual documents but gives charges, conviction, sentencing and a docket chronology. And best? It’s free.

Civil Search:

The civil records section search allows you to actually find the case as well as the documents. It’s a pay system with each search about $1 and then .50 per page for copies. You can preview the document you want to download but it shows a half-page of the relevant document.

The improvements are welcome and aid both the public and the private investigator. Every county in the state has a slightly different records system. We are usually able to gather public court records throughout the state of California. We are private investigators for San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and all Bay Area counties.

Rethinking San Francisco Bay Area Surveillance

img_2614The traditional talk for private investigator/potential surveillance client goes like this: Client wants the job done as cheaply as possible and private eye quotes a price to try to land the client. The negotiation seems to be more about price than about achieving results. The first-time client has maybe called around to a few other investigators and seeks a bargain.

The bargain mindset, going with the lowest bidder, often leads to failure. The standard arrangement would be for the private eye to do the best he could to tail and follow a subject all by himself. A lone surveillance operative can be successful but notorious Bay Area traffic makes it exceedingly difficult. All it takes is a right turn on red or any vehicle getting between you and the subject and even the most gifted and tenacious private investigator could lose the person.

Perhaps the first step in the talk between P.I. and potential client needs to be about the type of person who will be followed and when. Are we dealing with a younger person more likely to have a wild Friday or Saturday night, a person who drives a lot or someone who is more of a suburban homebody who might be up to something? It’s a very different surveillance task following someone in an East Bay or Marin suburb vs. following someone hitting the San Francisco clubs. In the old model, the single P.I. would try to do his best on the retainer but may or may not get results.

I encourage clients to use at least two and as many as four licensed private investigators for mobile surveillance. The operatives can be split into any number of ways, having two cars each with a driver and P.I. ready to tail on foot or other form of transit.  Even the simplest move makes the lone P.I. pull out his hair. The lone P.I. does everything right and follows the subject into San Francisco or San Jose. The subject quickly gets a parking spot and is away on foot while the lone P.I. searches in vain for a parking place and loses the target because he can’t get out on foot quickly enough.

On a retainer of $2,000, billed at $125 per hour, a single operative would have 16 hours of surveillance time. An extra P.I. added would be about $200 per-hour or give the client 10 hours on the $2000 retainer. Add a third P.I. and the hourly fee is up to about $250 per hour or 8 hours of time on the initial $2,000 retainer.

The object of surveillance is to obtain video evidence and document the subject’s activities. You might not have that many chances to get results. Adding personnel to the mission greatly increases the odds of success. A client will actually get better value, i.e., increasing the odds of success, by paying for more mobile operatives. When police do surveillance they are using teams of personnel and constantly rotating vehicles and people.

There are more transportation options than ever and a private investigator has to be ready to get on BART or follow an Uber or a Lyft. One private eye on surveillance faces incredible odds to get results.

Are We A Match?

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I have always tried to explain how  I work in hopes that I clear up misconceptions about what I do as a private investigator.

In many ways a private investigator is like a building contractor or many professional trades-people. I have regular clients, specialties and skill sets. When I am busy with regular clients, mostly lawyers, I am going to be reluctant to take time away to pursue new business. Like a busy contractor, I don’t want to take too much time away from regular business that is guaranteed to pay and to also bring repeat business.

Most private investigators making a living have regular clients. I estimate about 70-percent of my income comes from lawyers, law offices and the legal community. The work flow for anyone who is self-employed or has their own business can vary quite a bit. My point in writing this is to explain how I try to pick my private clients.

I would always rather spend 15 or 20 minutes on the phone to see if we are a match than to set up an in-person meeting but I am willing to meet in person if paid for the consultation. I know that some situations are sensitive, complex, etc and would be best explained face-to-face.

OUR SKILL SETS, WHAT WE DO WELL DAILY:

  • Surveillance in domestic matters, insurance defense, workers’ compensation claims
  • Locating and interviewing people
  • Background checks in legal and other cases, locating public records
  • Investigating fraud and identity theft
  • Photography and video
  • Activity checks and determining residency
  • Difficult service of legal process

If there are areas outside my levels of expertise or if you need an investigation in another party of the country, I will try to refer you directly to another investigations professional.

HOW WE NEED TO MATCH:

  • Can I realistically produce results? There are no guarantees but my reputation grows based on my results. I am often painfully honest in assessing situations.
  • Matters of budget. I will quote you a retainer price.
  • Deadlines. When do you need the information? I will tell you how long it will likely take.
  • Temperament and personality. This doesn’t have to be exact but we should be able to communicate and work well together.

What I have always liked about my business is that it is especially results-driven and you are only as good as your last case. I do want to help most people but we both have to make sure we are a match.

My first blog….

Years of journalism and private eye work lead me to this debut blog. I will share insights of all sorts, silly, profane, raunchy, informative and, hopefully, honesty in exposing you to me and some of my work. This blog will be for old friends and strangers alike. I will take you from my days of getting paid by the inch, grinding articles about high school sports at The Wilton Bulletin, to my current state as CA PI 18828.

I try to find something fun about my work every day. The longer I stay in the business, the more it takes to find that sense of amusement. Half the fun of my work is never knowing what’s around the corner.

Private eye work has to be the strangest collection of folks. From ex-cops booted off the force for God knows what, to more academic types like me, to some whom I wonder how they ever get dressed let alone passed the state PI exam.

Buckle your seatbelts and put in those gum shields, it’s Spencer PI at the keyboard!

(Coming soon: The true account of how the Sarasota Herald-Tribune squashed my investigation of a local anchorman who was a major marijuana trafficker!)