Growing nationally state by state is the drive of misinformed privacy advocates, legislators, regulators, and even governors to introduce restrictive - or outright bans - specific to private investigators in various records important to the work we do for our clients.
One such issue are driving records. Driven (no pun intended) by misinformation - and worse, assumption - several online media sources have published misleading stories of states making millions from the selling of personal data. We have expanded on this in this commentary. This is a rapidly growing trend - and it started with irresponsible and unprofessional behavior on social media platforms.
There are several online privacy and technology magazines which have been focusing on privacy, records, and private investigators. These concepts have somewhat merged to present a false alarm of the technology of records being easily obtained by private investigators and generating millions in revenue for states. This is not true. We will break this down. First, what started this damaging misinformation, and what has happened?
What started this misinformation?
In this case, and not solely - but from one of the articles - specifically stating they joined a closed PI group on social media. There they saw posts from private investigators asking how to obtain specific types of motor vehicle related records.
"Over 1,000 accounts have access to the [record provider] system, the contract adds. These accounts can be shared among multiple people at an organization, though. In a closed Facebook group for private investigators that [writer] gained access to, multiple posts include people asking for others to [obtain certain records] for them through their own access to [the record provider]." What was described - asking another PI to get information for them - is a violation of the record provider's Terms of Service. This activity of careless PIs is not the underlying problem - and is addressed by veteran PIs as soon as it is seen. The problem created was by the writer researching further, and assuming the information from the record provider came from a state department of motor vehicles. It does not - it comes from proprietary information used by law enforcement, repossession agents, and other legitimate uses for potential and current litigation. From this assumption, the writer made open records requests of over a dozen known states (from additional articles across various online publications). From these open records they found private investigators access these, and pay a fee. They then determined these state agencies make millions annually from these records fees.
What is wrong with these assumptions and misinformation?
As we pointed out - none of the information the articles posted about actually came from any state department of motor vehicles. However, PIs to legally make requests to these agencies for permissible purposes - which the articles do not point out to the readers (who are legislators and their constituents). Do these state agencies make millions of dollars? Certainly - and not from PIs or related (which is a very small percentage). The bigger customers are insurance companies, banks, collection agencies, and so on - PI's are way down the list. How and why can PIs - or these other companies - access these records? Its not as easy as making a request. There is a federal law - Driver's Protection Privacy Act - and every state has a similar law. The federal law requires a two-factor permissible test. For PIs this is usually: 1) licensed in the state in which they do business; and 2) for potential or actual litigation (there may be other reasons - fiduciary, probate, etc.). Every PI - every person or entity - making such a request has to meet the two-factor criteria.
These factors originate in other legislation - such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Consumer Privacy Act, Graham-Leach-Bliley Act, and a host of others - each having a state equivalent. What is released depends on the requestor (licensed PI) and their purpose (litigation) - and differs depending on each factor. Each state may be more restrictive than the federal legislation. For example, California does not provide address information (FYI - California was the first to pass a DPPA law, followed by Congress, and each state*). As little as 25 years ago it was as simple as making a request - any person (being in business 32 years, 25 years is not long ago). A PI in California did so for a client, who unknown to him stalked a celebrity and killed her at home. The California Association of Licensed Investigators (CALI), and the National Council of Investigation & Security Services (NCISS) had members (some the same for both associations) testify before committees, and were able to draft the multi-factor permissible purposes language for the mutual benefit of clients and consumer protection.
What is damaging about these assumptions?
California was one of the first states to announced plans to introduce legislation further restricting their state DPPA, which is already the strictest in the country. This follows California recently passing privacy legislation which mirrors the new EU consumer privacy protection laws. One of the most recent stories to be printed - and continuing the false narrative of millions being made from PIs on these records - targeted Vermont. Within days the governor announced he would be taking executive action to ban the access of these records by PIs. The state association,Vermont Association of Investigative & Security Services (VAISS) immediately contacted the governor's office to correct the misinformation and share the important work for the public PIs do using various resources of what is public information. Within five days the governor acted as promised, and the state legislature is drafting legislation to further restrict their DPPA permitted purposes - which includes prohibiting PIs. VAISS has also reached out to NCISS for advocacy assistance, and the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI) for support. Several states, and Congress, are doing the same - either through legislation or regulatory rule making.
What are the benefits to these records?
First, a reminder there are restrictions by law and regulation, federal and state / local, and whether direct (our primary resource) or via data provider. These restrictions require permissible purposes with multi-factor authentication, and are audited.
Next, let's look at what what restrictions various associations have put on their members, and is part of our agency ethics - adopted from a 2012 resolution from NCISS; and every state PI licensing law prohibits accepting any case in which there is a protection order and may lead to the identity and/or location of the protected person(s):
"As Professional Investigators and Expert Consultants we shall, prior to providing a client any personally identifying or location information of an individual, conduct appropriate due diligence to ensure that the person has a legitimate business or legal interest in obtaining that information. When such due diligence is not possible or appropriate, or if the person appears to not have a legal or business interest, the person shall be informed that their contact information shall be provided to the subject they are seeking and the personal identifying information of the subject they are seeking shall only be provided to the person if that party consents.)"
Here is a short list of the most common investigative use of records:
- Obtaining Criminal Histories
- Locating Ill Gotten Gains
- Finding Witnesses and Parties to Litigation
- Obtaining Delinquent Child Support
- Locating Missing Persons
- Assisting ID Theft Victims
- Locating Missing Heirs
- Finding "Deadbeat Parents"
- Preventing Fraud & Fighting Identity Theft
- Workplace Violence
- Sexual Harassment
- Locating Debtors
- Finding Pension Beneficiaries
- Protecting Consumers
At times our profession can be our worst enemy, not with any intention - simply from the best of intentions. Whether trying to help a client or a colleague, there is always the risk our intent and use will be exploited by others - as has been. Having been in the profession for over 30 years, we have seen the good and bad books, movies, television, and the media can do - also often without intention and often for entertainment. However, there are always unintended consequences for any manner of the most seemingly benign carelessness or exploitation - and both.
What can PIs and Clients do?
Be professional, and use only professionals and professional resources. There are no shortcuts to professionalism.
Also, be involved. Join and support your state and national associations to better ourselves and our profession. Not just for continuing education, also for state and federal legislative advocacy. Here is a link to more on associations, their resources, and their value - www.DeathCaseReview.com/associations.
As an Investigator, Security Agency, Process Server, or related professional… have you benefited from:
- Having access to driving records and motor vehicle information from your state DMV and private data providers?
- Having access to databases with permissible purposes under the GLBA?
- Having access to Social Security Numbers, Birthdates, Address History and other important information, including credit reports?
- Carry a firearm in the course of your professional duties?
- Having the ability to use a pretext for undercover operations, shopping services and other permissible purposes?
- Used the National Sex Offender Registry (Dru’s Law) for background investigations?
- Used GPS, drones and other modern technology in your investigations and security services?