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The Big Nix

Forty-three states regulate private investigators in one way or another. Colorado isn't one of them, and state officials aren't inclined to do anything about it -- despite efforts by local private eyes to push for some kind of licensing requirements.

"It's crazy," says Rick Johnson, a Denver P.I. and president of the Professional Private Investigators Association of Colorado. "We license someone to cut your hair, but not someone who can get your personal information and sell it."

The Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) recently issued a "sunrise review" on the PPIAC's proposed licensing, giving the whole idea a thumbs-down. The report concludes that the dangers posed by unethical private eyes aren't enough of a threat to consumers to warrant the expense of a state licensing board and that many of the problems in the industry wouldn't be solved by licensing anyway.

"Ridiculous," Johnson counters. "Right now, someone can be convicted of a crime and go right back to being a private investigator in Colorado."

The PPIAC has been pushing for some kind of state regulation ever since the previous licensing scheme was shut down by a court case in 1977. But every proposal has bumped up against lawmakers skeptical of tinkering with a free market and opposition from private snoops who don't want the government snooping on them. According to the DORA report, the professional association represents only a quarter of the estimated 500 private investigators in the state.

The thirty-year battle has heated up in recent years as Colorado has become a haven for data brokers harvesting personal information through "pretexting" -- misrepresenting themselves on the phone or online in order to get bank and phone records -- and more P.I.s have faced criminal charges ("The Case of the Missing License," August 10). But DORA maintains that the public can be protected from shady operators through civil and criminal cases, complaints to the Better Business Bureau or even some kind of city-by-city licensing. Currently, Durango is the only municipality in the state that regulates local investigators.

Johnson and others fear that lack of licensing will actually hurt their trade, since proposed federal legislation could restrict their access to certain national databases if they're not licensed in their home state. They insist that a licensing system would pay for itself through fees and weed out scam artists who can't pass a background check.

DORA executive director Tambor Williams, who supported licensing five years ago when she was a legislator, didn't respond to a request for comment. Johnson hints that his group might take its proposal to the legislature despite DORA's recommendation. "We may have lost the battle," he says, "but this war is not over."

-- Alan Prendergast

 
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