Web Sends Lovers Flocking to Private Eyes to Find Out Truth/ By JOE PALAZZOLO Wall Street Journal

Private detectives increasingly are helping lovers solve an age-old question: Is my partner marriage-material?

Investigators across the nation say business has boomed in recent years from clients who want their sweethearts investigated for potentially deal-breaking habits and secrets.

“It’s worth it to them to spend a little in advance to figure out whether they’re hooked up with a loser or a longtime candidate,” said Jerry Bussard, who owns Cincinnati-based AAA Detective Agency Inc., of his clients.

The trend is partly driven, investigators say, by the legions of examples of online daters embellishing their profiles, and of scammers using dating sites to lure people into false romances with the intent of stealing from them. But investigators also say the uptick reflects a world in which a person can divine the outline of another’s life by a simpleGoogle search. The Internet, they say, is like a gateway drug to professional snooping.

“What they are getting is just enough information to make them curious,” said Mr. Bussard.

Wayne E. Halick said his firm, Illinois-based Millennium Investigations Inc., fielded a trickle of calls for premarital background checks until a few years ago. Now, he receives about 100 requests annually, often from people of means who “have a lot of assets to protect and a lot to lose if something goes wrong,” he said. He attributed the growth to social media, where relationship horror stories can take root and spread rapidly.

“In a manner of speaking, it’s the new prenuptial,” Jeffrey Schell of Kassel Investigations in Boise, Idaho, said of premarital investigations. Except the “party being investigated doesn’t have to sign off or agree to be under surveillance.”

Annual revenue from investigation services, including employee background checks and other information collection, doubled to $5.2 billion in 2012 from $2.6 billion in 2002, according to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. Sales per employee at private-investigation firms more than doubled to $121,000 in that period, according to the data, which were released last year.

In many cases, investigators find little more than old traffic tickets, if they find anything at all. But they have also unearthed undisclosed debt, criminal convictions, hidden addictions and infidelity, to name a few, according to members of the U.S. Association of Professional Investigators and other private detectives.

One recent client of Mr. Bussard, a widow in her late 40s, hired him to check out an old boyfriend with whom she had reconnected. The ex-boyfriend had told her his wife had also died.

The couple spent a romantic weekend together on Lake Erie, where they decided they would marry. But first, the man told Mr. Bussard’s client, he needed to wrap up his affairs in San Francisco, where he was living.

Mr. Bussard contracted another investigator in the Bay Area to follow him. The investigator captured video of him doing yard work with his wife, who was “still very much alive,” said Mr. Bussard.

Some clients have their romantic partners vetted for criminal convictions and civil judgments, searches that can be done mostly, if not entirely, from a computer and range from $200 to $500, according to several private investigators. The base price for a background investigation that includes both database searches and some physical surveillance is about $1,000.


Darrin Giglio, of North American Investigations in Mineola, N.Y., did a background check for a woman wary of being hurt in a new relationship. PHOTO: AGATON STROM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Darrin Giglio, the chief investigator at North American Investigations in Mineola, N.Y., recalled a client, a woman in her 50s, who had been married once before and was wary of getting hurt in a new relationship—a common motivation for background checks, Mr. Giglio said.

Her boyfriend, Mr. Giglio learned from a criminal-records search, had served a prison sentence for murder, a fact the boyfriend never disclosed.

Often, private investigators are hired by a concerned relative of someone who is involved with a partner he or she met online, said Susan Randall, owner of VTPrivateye LLC, a private-investigations firm based in Vermont.

In October, a client of Ms. Randall, a 36-year-old accountant in Vermont, sought a background check of the man her older sister was dating. The two were high-school friends who hadn’t spoken in 25 years, but had recently struck up a relationship onFacebook .

The accountant said in an interview her own past had inspired the investigation. She had been in a relationship with a man who concealed from her that he had children and a mound of debt. She didn’t check out his background. “I could have saved myself a whole lot of grief,” she said.

The background check of her sister didn’t turn up anything worrisome, and her sister and the man are living happily together in Vermont, the accountant said.

The trend raises moral questions for some couples. If relationships are based on trust, what does a background check say about the person paying for it—and the relationship itself?

“I never recommend anything to my clients, I give them options,” wrote Cassandra Martin Brandy, a Pittsburgh-based private investigator, in a recent blog post. “Some tactics can give off the impression that you are preparing for the worst.”

Jeffery Leving, a divorce lawyer in Chicago, said premarital investigations might be good for some relationships but fatal to others. Ideally, the significant other never learns he or she was investigated, but it happens, said Mr. Leving, who frequently works with Mr. Halick.

Mr. Leving said one of his clients, a woman who lived in an exclusive Chicago suburb, called the police about a car parked in front of her home. It turned out the man in the car was a private investigator hired by her boyfriend.

“When a woman finds out that there’s a guy parked in front of her house taking snapshots all night, that really destroys trust,” Mr. Leving said.

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