Debunking Misconceptions About Private Investigators

Los Angeles Private Investigator

Oct 7

Debunking Misconceptions About Private Investigators

We’re all aware that real life and the movies just don’t follow the same rules. However, people still tend to base their ideas and expectations about private investigators around what they see on the screen, leading to a whole slew of misconceptions. Here we’ve debunked some of the most common beliefs about private investigators that are simply not true.


1.      They don’t have to follow the law

Despite what you may have seen in popular movies and TV shows, private investigators have to follow the letter of the law just like anyone else. Their methods may seem suspicious to an outsider, but a licensed and professional PI is always working within lawful parameters. With a few exceptions, all states require PIs to have a license, and the state’s licensing bodies regulate the behavior of the detectives and the licenses are issued according to the state’s standards. However, not all states have the same rules and getting a license in one doesn’t automatically transfer to another. If an investigator doesn’t follow the rules of their state and the code of conduct they are liable to lose their license.

Another common misconception is that PIs can impersonate law enforcement officers. This trope is often used in popular media but is just not true in real life. If a client asks an investigator to do something that is against the law they can and will refuse the case.

2.      They can take photos and videos from inside someone’s home


Even though surveillance is one of the most popular requests for private investigators, trespassing laws still apply to them. 

Surveillance on public property is legal, so your investigator is allowed to engage in observation and documentation of the subject’s movements, interactions and activities as well as conduct stake outs and discretely follow the subject.

However, just because someone is a private investigator doesn’t mean they’re allowed to trespass on private property or break privacy laws. While they can and often do take photos of their subjects from the street, taking a photo through a window is still considered trespassing.

However, coming onto private property to conduct an interview and taking pictures of someone in their front or back yard are considered legal.

3.      They can use GPS tracking

While tracking laws mostly depend on the state a private investigator can’t simply place a GPS tracking on the subject. The extent to which your PI can track a subject is mandated by that state’s law. For example, in California the only way for GPS tracking of a car to be legal is if the party requesting the tracking is on the title of that specific car and can give written permission for the tracking device to be placed.

4.      They can hack into phones, computers and personal accounts.


A common request for private investigators is to hack into phones and computers. The client may be suspicious of their partner, family member or business associate and they want access to their phone calls, social media messages and emails. However, even if the investigator knows how to do this, it’s still very illegal. They only way they would be able to accomplish this legally is to obtain permission from the owner, which would defeat the purpose of the investigation. In most infidelity cases, it is more common of the investigator to use a fake account and ‘friend’ the subject on social media in order to get an idea of their behavior online.

5.      They can get bank and medical records.

Unless they’re working directly with an attorney a private investigator doesn’t have access to bank records. This includes bank account details and statements as well as balances. Even though PIs have considerable research knowledge and skills and are able to access a variety of databases and all manner of public records, bank records don’t fall into that category. Medical records are also not available to a private investigator as they’re protected by HIPPA laws. Your detective may be able to find out whether the subject has a medical condition by talking to their associates who are willing to share that information. However, it may still be inadmissible in court.

6.      They’re in a competition with the police.

This is another one we can blame on movies and TV shows. You know the story, the police are portrayed as incompetent and uninterested in the case and it’s up to the extraordinarily smart and savvy private investigator to save the day. However, real life is quite different. Both the police and the PI are working towards uncovering the truth, not against each other, and more often than not, they’re working together. A private investigator may be brought in to help if the local police are dealing with an overwhelming case load. Oftentimes clients hire PIs to take a second look at cold cases to make sure that there isn’t anything that was overlooked in the original investigation. However, even in this case the investigator doesn’t have any police power and relies heavily on talking to people and the records from the original investigation.


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