The shadowy world of private investigators/By Erin Negley, Reading Eagle, Pa. McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Jun 11, 2014

-Mark Small will spend hours in his car waiting for just the right moment to get 20 seconds of evidence for his clients.

That's the reality of a private investigator, not the quick and sometimes confrontational investigations seen on television.

"People I think see too much TV, and they have the perception that investigative work is easy and the results are instantaneous," said Small, who owns Diligent Investigative Services in Centre Township. "It's a lot of long hours in the car doing surveillance."

Private investigators might get a bad reputation from television shows, but in reality, they're hired by attorneys to do things like interview witnesses and research backgrounds of opposing counsel's clients. They're hired by businesses to investigate theft or insurance companies to look into fraudulent claims. And then there's the individual client trying to track down a relative or find out whether a spouse is cheating.

"We want to catch the husband or the wife cheating, but there's so much more," said Jeff Stein, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Licensed Investigators.

Local investigators see more opportunities for business as the number of lawsuits increases along with the cost of workers compensation claims at the same time law enforcement resources are further strained.

Nearly 40 private investigators are licensed through Berks County, where they have their main business office. Often, the companies include security and related services. Statewide, businesses range from sole proprietorships to large companies with hundreds of employees, Stein said.

Traditionally, many private investigators came from a law enforcement or military background. That's common because Pennsylvania requires three years of full-time investigative experience to qualify for a license. The law enforcement background is starting to change as more people choose to start in the private sector at insurance companies, banks or retailers, Stein said.

Good private investigators are honest, observant, open-minded and objective, local investigators said. They're also trained to know the law and can specialize in areas from investigations of arsons and vehicle crashes to executive protection, elder abuse and forensic accounting.

Often, when people think about private investigators, they turn to TV shows, fictional and reality shows like "Cheaters."

But taking a client to witness cheating and then encourage a confrontation is the worst way to handle a domestic situation, Stein said. Instead, an investigator will give the client a report with evidence.

Those individual cases usually are only a small portion of investigators' work.

"A lot of my work comes from attorneys," said Nicholas Nowicki, owner of Nicholas GroupTopton.

Defense attorneys will hire him to interview those connected to crimes and conduct background checks.

Small, of Diligent, specializes in federal court cases. He interviews witnesses and tracks down surveillance footage.

Attorneys hire Mark Pellicciotti, president of M&G Security, Wyomissing, to investigate custody orders.

"The woman wants me to follow (her child's) dad around to make sure they're following the order," Pellicciotti said. "Did dad have the child in a car seat?"

He also does legwork for attorneys, filing paperwork and doing research.

"The attorneys are very busy people," Pellicciotti said. "It's a lot easier to send me in."

Businesses turn to private investigators to check compliance with noncompete contracts or do extensive background checks for new employees.

Stein has been called to investigate workplace theft cases after police make a report. There may be a suspect, but without evidence, it takes police time to make an arrest. The business can hire an investigator to conduct interviews and then turn the information over to police.

Individuals will hire an investigator to look into sexual abuse claims or to find a long-lost relative. Parents ask for background checks on their child's future spouse. Investigators can help investors vet businesses, too. Stein discovered one company had $300,000 in judgements and liens, a red flag for the investor.

Local investigators said they see lots of opportunity with more lawsuits and workers compensation claims to investigate. There's also good potential for more background checks for corporate clients to uncover resume fraud.

"There are so many different pitfalls," Small said. "If someone hires the wrong candidate, they may run into a situation where they lose business and they're spending time to fix those mistakes."

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